Kids and Sex: Getting Comfortable with “The Talk”

By Kelly Bartlett, author of Encouraging Words for Kids, certified positive discipline educator and Attachment Parenting International leader (API of Portland,Oregon USA), 

It’s never too early to begin talking with your kids about sex. In fact, the earlier you start, the more comfortable you will feel when it’s time to talk about difficult issues. Here are some age-appropriate topics parents should bring up with their children now to pave the way for less stressful conversations about sexual health in the adolescent years.Kelly Bartlett

Ages 0-2: Positive Perception

There’s no better time to start practicing the language of body talk than when kids are infants. At this age, there’s no pressure to say the “right” thing, and your baby won’t laugh, get nervous or ask any questions. It’s important to get comfortable verbalizing words or bodily functions that may cause some discomfort for you.

According to Dr. Laura Berman, a sex educator, therapist and author of Talking to Your Kids About Sex, something crucial for parents to do while their kids are infants is to adopt a positive view of bodily functions. Shift from looking at a poopy diaper as, “Oh, isn’t that stinky!” to a perspective of, “Wow, you’ve been eating well!” Dr. Berman says many parents have likely learned from their own upbringing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about bowel movements. “When really,” she says, “it’s just a part of life!” Functions involving the genitals are healthy and normal, not something negative or problematic.

Ages 2-3: Touching and Being Touched

Children will inevitably discover their genitals, and when this happens, it’s time to start the conversations about touching. Normalize self-touch by not reacting strongly to your toddler playing with his genitals. Instead, just let him know that there are appropriate times and places to do so. If it happens at an inappropriate time, Dr. Berman advises parents, “Explain that while it feels good to touch your private parts, they are your private parts, and this touching should only occur in private.”

This age is also a good time to teach children that their private parts are their own; no one else should touch them other than parents or caregivers who are helping to clean them, or a doctor who checks to see if they are healthy. This includes people they know and love. Amy Lang, MA, sex educator and author of Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love and Relationships, says, “More than 90 percent of the time, child molestation occurs by someone that child knows. Strangers very rarely molest children.” She also says to let kids know that while other people should never touch your kids’ private parts, your kids shouldn’t be touching anyone else’s either.

If you haven’t started teaching your toddlers the proper names for their private parts, now is the time to do that, too. Using nicknames sends a message that there is something shameful or illegitimate about their private parts, as opposed to something they should embrace. “When you use anatomically correct names for their private areas right from the beginning, you’ve already started the conversation,” says Lang.

Ages 3-5: First Questions

When children are old enough to ask questions about how babies are made, “Parents should buck up and tell them,” says Lang. Though, she says, it’s fine to keep the explanation simple and brief. Something like, “Babies come from inside mommy’s belly,” is enough to start. When kids ask follow-up questions like, “How does the baby get in there?” continue to keep the answers simple and direct. “Mommies have eggs, and daddies have sperm. When a sperm and an egg come together, it starts growing into a baby.” Let the child’s questions lead the conversation.

Reading books together is a great way to answer some hard questions. Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz is a perfect book for parents to read with their preschoolers. With its simple text and colorful illustrations, it is an engaging way to open the door to talking about bodies.

If there’s any confusion about what names to teach your kids about their private parts, here they are. For boys, it’s penis, testicles, and scrotum. For girls, what they see when they look down is their vulva, specifically the labia. The vagina is completely internal; it’s only the opening that is visible. Bath time provides an easy opportunity to practice using proper names for private parts. “Did you wash your penis?” or, “Your vulva looks a little red, does it feel OK?” Practice, practice, practice—using them in conversation will soon become second nature.

Age 5-8: Sex and Values

When kids reach kindergarten, and by age 7 at the latest, they need to know about intercourse. That might seem early, but according to Lang, it isn’t too much for them to handle. “Adults come to the conversation with a different perspective than kids,” she says. “We know all the good and the bad stuff about sex. They don’t. Little kids take in this information like they do everything else. We’re the ones who bring discomfort, shame or embarrassment to the sex talk party.”

The sooner the better is Lang’s rule of thumb. “Bring it up before the ‘ooh-gross!’ factor kicks in. When they are young, they are just very open and not grossed out. That being said, it’s never too late.” What’s important is that discussions about intercourse are family-oriented. Other people shouldn’t talk to them about sex.

Let your kids know what you believe to be true about sex, relationships and your spirituality. Kids need to know where you stand and what your family values are when it comes to sex. Lang tells parents, “The key to great conversations with your kids is combining the facts with your values.”

Other topics to bring up at this age are the “logistics” of what’s coming next in their development, such as different hygiene habits that accompany body changes and puberty. Talk about how to keep their bodies healthy when it comes to sexual development.

Parents should not be thinking about when they’re going to have “The Talk” with their children, but instead how they can start opening a dialogue about sex right now. No matter your child’s age, there are topics that can be broached. And the earlier you start, the easier the discussions go. Start now to turn one weighty talk into a dialogue for life. As Lang tells parents, “No one has ever died from having conversations about sex and you won’t either!”

For Further Reading

To help broach some of these topics with kids, reading books together helps. These resources are all great for starting conversations about sex and body issues:


It’s MY Body by Lory Freeman

Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman

The Right Touch: A Read-Aloud Story to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse by Sandy Kleven

Anatomy and Reproduction:

Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz

It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris

It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie H. Harris

Elementary-Age Body Books:

The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU by Kelli Dunham (for boys)

The Care and Keeping of You by Valorie Schaefer (American Girl) (for girls)

For Parents:

Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love and Relationships by Amy Lang, MA

Talking to Your Kids About Sex by Dr. Laura Berman

10 thoughts on “Kids and Sex: Getting Comfortable with “The Talk””

  1. Great article. One thing though that I read elsewhere and I thought was really important, was to also use all the correct terms for explaining where babies come from. So for instance use uterus and ovum instead of belly and egg so they don’t think they will swallow babies with their morning eggs.

  2. A good article but I am not sold on the thought that they should know about intercourse by age 7. Tell them what they want to know, but if they don’t ask for the “how”? I would like to know the reason for thinking they should know that young.

  3. Julinda, I believe your question is answered in the article.

    1. “Bring it up before the ‘ooh-gross!’ factor kicks in. When they are young, they are just very open and not grossed out.”

    2. They should hear about it from you first, not from little Tommy on the playground. “What’s important is that discussions about intercourse are family-oriented. Other people shouldn’t talk to them about sex.” But other people will, so you should shape their perception of those conversations.

    3. This should be an evolving life long conversation not a one time Big Talk. “Start now to turn one weighty talk into a dialogue for life.”

    My seven year old shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh.” Now nine, he’d react very differently if this was new information.

    If you feel uncomfortable, you may be trying to go into too much detail. Get one of books to walk you through the conversation.

  4. @julinda

    I agree. I was expecting there to be support for the “outlandish,” statement that ” by age 7 at the latest, they need to know about intercourse.” I fully support being open (in a simple manner,” with children when they ask questions, as well as always reinforcing family values and beliefs, however, 7 does seem early to me for learning about sex. I would be interested in hearing another side?

  5. Dear Julinda,

    You are right. If you are present with your children (there could be other people they ask) and they don’t ask anyone, no rush. However, many children ask earlier than age seven, not later.

    I teach to respond when the child asks, and my experience of thousands of parents who call for my guidance or attend my workshops is that questions occur based on exposure. If you are pregnant and have a three-year-old, she will ask the next question and it is best to simply answer and explain intercourse with a benign and joyful attitude. For the child it is the same as saying, “at night we close our eyes.” The child has no frame of reference to distinguish intercourse as a problem. In some tribes children watch sex as part of life. If we don’t create an atmosphere of secrecy around it, they think nothing of it. My youngest caught us once; he closed the door and went back to play. Later I asked him, “Did you see us mate?” (He already knew about intercourse so there was nothing to it) and he said “Yes” with not an ounce of problematic emotion.

    Other “exposures” can be friends and relative talking, watching a birth, having a neighbor who is pregnant or has a baby, an animal who gives birth etc. I gave birth at home and my older children were always present at each birth and we talked and saw illustrations about intercourse before the birth (ages three and four.) My sons are young adults now and sexually healthy and with admirable moral values.

    If you find yourself hesitating, read this article again to gain some ease and maybe do some work on yourself in terms of attitudes to bodies and sexuality. We are all still the result of the Victorian era and have to heal so we can protect our children’s healthy sexuality.

    Naomi Aldort
    Author, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves

  6. One more resource for you list:

    “Talk to Me First” by Deborah Roffman. I recently heard Ms. Roffman speak on the topic. She is direct and matter-of-fact about this important topics and similarly urges parents to establish an open dialogue with their children as early as possible. She also offers detailed and age-specific advice about what to what, how and when to communicate about various topics.

  7. Kids and sex,
    I would like to respond to the article ‘kids and sex’ van Kelly Bartlett. I would like to add something to this. Something crucial for the child is to respect the integrity of his body and keeping control over his own life. That is true for each age. Ask the child if it’s okay that you hug him or washes him. Other caregivers also have to ask the child for permission.

  8. just read the article and then sat down with my 10 year old daughter. as a single dad, i am the primary caregiver. she was at the ew-gross stage already and in previous times, i did not know how to proceed. so i showed her a little bit of the article. she’s a very smart (g/t) girl. and we talked about sex. kept it pretty quick and really low key. and now it’s oh, that’s how that happens. and she was off to play a computer game. yay. your article gave me the little push in the right direction that i needed. thanks! now for my 8 year old son in a bit…

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