Talking About Sex with Your Children: Who Is Uncomfortable?

A friend recounted a story about her then eight-year-old daughter who from the back seat of the car blurted out, “Mommy, what’s an orgasm?”

My friend paused in disbelief, but gave some thought to the situation and replied with a question, “What do you think an orgasm means?” Her daughter responded that her teacher drew a picture of it on the blackboard and it looked like a creature from under the sea. Ahh , my friend thought and then queried, “Oh, you mean an organism?” “Yes, mommy,” she replied. “What is an organism?”

I laughed along with her at the story and thought about how we explore, communicate, and teach children about anything, especially when it comes to discussions about sex.

I recounted the story and put the question, for the purpose of this blog, to my colleagues and friends. “What would you say if your eight-year-old child asked you what an orgasm was?” The responses varied.

One research colleague stated that she would begin to explain, from an elementary science school perspective, the physiological responses of the body and the release of hormones and stimulation in response to touch.

One friend said she would ask, “What does orgasm mean to you?” And go from there.

A long-time friend in the financial industry said that he would change the subject and if pressed further would say, “Let’s wait until we get home so we can talk about it together,” with the hope that his child would forget.

Another said he would ask, “How did you hear about that word?” And, “Who told you about it?”

Another clinical colleague said she would enthusiastically state that it is the way to feel wonderful pleasure and something special which is shared between two people who love each other.

Encourage daddy time. The greatest untapped resource available for improving the lives of our children is time with Dad - early and often. Kids with engaged fathers do better in school, problem-solve more successfully, and generally cope better with whatever life throws at them.

One high school teacher friend said that it would be time to get a book on discussing sex with your child.

Another friend and colleague said that she would say that it is wonderful tingly feeling inside your body that happens and grows stronger throughout life. One friend said that she would go further and say that the tingly feeling is in your penis and vagina that gets better and better as you get older.

There was no shortage of reflective and thoughtful reactions, and all seemed plausible. Most experts agree that communication about sex ought to start when a child is very young and continue through early adulthood and beyond, into the communication of their own adult relationships.*

The Language of Sex

Just like learning to identify emotions and associate them to words, sex is also a language. Using words to identify body parts and sensations can start at a very young age as children learn to speak and associate words. Pointing to a fork and stating, “This is a fork” to your one-year-old is similar to stating the word penis or vagina as your child is fondling their genitals as you are changing a diaper. Think about how easy it is to talk to a young child about table manners or sharing or teaching them grammar and vocabulary. If there is comfort about the subject matter, then talking is easy. Sex is just another subject matter.

The same principles that guide healthy psychological upbringing guide healthy sexual upbringing. Setting appropriate boundaries regarding privacy, like knocking on your child’s door and waiting for “come in,” is akin to setting appropriate boundaries with respect to body and touch. For instance, when is it appropriate to cuddle in bed with your child and when is it an invasion of your child’s privacy? When is allowing your child to sleep in your bed due to a scary dream appropriate versus a means to foster inappropriate dependency or avoid intimacy with the adult partner? Why masturbation is normal and healthy, yet needs to occur alone and in a private place.

Some parents have tighter rules than others across many arenas, including sex. Determining boundaries about what is best to say, when to say it and how to behave in front of your child takes understanding of what makes sense for the chronological age and psychological maturity of the child. The comfort level and sensibility of the parent matters as well and will affect approach and outcome.

However, parents can and often do rationalize the decisions they make. For instance, some parents take a liberal view when it comes to nudity. The most common occurrence is when parents assert that there is nothing wrong, harmful, or shameful about walking around naked in front of their child. Yes, nudity is normal, but complicated when it occurs by an adult in the company of their child. Sometimes nudity is unavoidable when it is accidental or the family is in close quarters like a shared hotel room. My analytic stance tends toward encouraging parents to make every reasonable effort to cover up even when a child is very young. Children’s fantasies about sex and falling in love with mommy and/or daddy are real. Some things are best left to fantasy and imagination. When in doubt, conservatism in behavior is often wiser.

"You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around - and why his parents will always wave back." - William D. Tammeus

So why do many parents hesitate to discuss sex with their children?

Generally, children do not hesitate to ask questions. My friend’s daughter had no hesitancy in asking about what an “orgasm” was. My friend was comfortable in her response, although acknowledged that she was relieved that the definition of organism, not orgasm, was what her child sought.

Sexuality and sex education start at birth. How a child is held as an infant translates to the adult need for affection, comfort, and soothing. A parent’s comfort with masturbation will normalize how the parent talks to their child which affects how their child grows to feel about sexual touch and self-pleasure. How a parent feels about their own body and sex will impact the nonverbal messages they convey as well as how they approach the topic with their child.

Parents' ability to talk comfortably about sex is usually dependent upon how they learned about sex and their relational and cultural/religious morals and values about it. My friends and colleagues, when asked about how they might respond to an eight-year-old child about an orgasm, seemed to vary based largely on their own attitudes and comfort level. What was most apparent and paramount was that not one person’s answer was shaming or critical of the child. Doing no harm goes further than the need to get the right answer.

Parents often project their own discomfort, fears, shame, on to their child. So, if the parent is uncomfortable they assume that their child is also. Sometimes because the parent is uncomfortable the child becomes uncomfortable in response to the parent’s uneasiness. If there is no communication about sex in the household it is reasonable for the child to grow up feeling that something must be wrong or bad about the subject. Guilt ensues quickly as the thinking is often, “How can something that feels so good not be talked about.” Therefore, sex and/or masturbation must be REALLY bad.

Simple recommendations when approaching talk about sex with your child:

  • Respond to the maturity level of your child.
  • Avoid criticism, shock, or shaming your child, no matter what question or comment comes at you.
  • Your answers don’t need to be perfect, just honest.
  • Remember what it was like to be a child, especially when you were going through your own sexual awareness and awakening. Don’t lose the empathy.
  • Find ways to get comfortable. Read. Talk with friends who are comfortable about sex and ask how they handle sexual topics with their child.
  • Try not to take the subject matter so seriously; remember sex is just a conversation like many others.

Most parents find their way with talking about sex and eventually children grow up and figure sex out; some have more complications than others.

Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.

Keep in mind that there are always resources available to help those who seek help. If books and the internet are not enough, seek professional help with a child or sex therapist or sex educator. If you discover that you know what to say to your child, but feel uncomfortable in saying it, then consider that you may first need some help in working through some of your own sexual issues.