The S-E-X talk

Alt Ed Austin is proud to welcome adolescent development expert Karen Rayne as a guest contributor. Karen teaches sexuality education to middle school and high school students as well as parents locally through Unhushed. She also teaches at the college level and lectures nationally. You may reach her at karen (at) or 512-662-1862.

When something goes un-talked-about, it’s easy for young people to pick up misconceptions. I teach sex education and get a heavy dose of misconception stories. Sometimes they’re funny (“Girls have two butts!”), and sometimes they’re not (“I started my first period, never having heard anything about a period, alone in a Schlitterbahn bathroom with only my friend’s father waiting outside for me. A kindly stranger explained to me that I wasn’t dying.”).

Parents often aren’t sure of how or when to start teaching their children about sex, and they come to me with this question: When should we have The Talk?

But when we “should” start teaching about sex isn’t the right question—because we DO start teaching our children about sexuality from infancy. We teach them whether or not it’s okay to touch their genitals. We teach them what a gentle touch feels like and what it feels like to be loved and held. These are critical parts of learning about safe human interactions, about touch, and about feeling good in our bodies.

As they get older, we teach our toddlers how to be gentle with other people’s bodies, and we teach them how to make sure that their peers treat their bodies gently. We teach them the names of their body parts and the names of everyone else’s body parts, too. We also teach toddlers to understand their own desires and to know that sometimes they can’t immediately have what they want. These are often natural parts of parenting and they are always critical parts of sexuality education.

We teach our children how to be a good friend, how to share, and how to reconcile disagreements graciously and with love. We teach them how to be patient, to know that there are choices to be made, and that sometimes putting off a good thing is the best choice. We teach our children how to understand and engage in verbal and nonverbal communication with their friends and family. We teach them how to judge situations and to pay attention to safety. We teach them what is beautiful, not through our words but through our responses to our own bodies and selves and our responses to other people’s bodies and selves. We teach them how (and how not) to interact with the media based on how we do it. Children learn through imitation, and there is no one else they love to imitate more than their parents. You continually teach your child about sexuality and relationships in the ways that you live your own life.

All of these are necessary skills and knowledge that lead to good choices about sex, sexual relationships, and love. All of this is sexuality education.

Some misconceptions about sex are based in misrepresentations of these early approaches to sexuality. But often misconceptions are more about what is left out of sexuality education than what is included—like not giving complete information about body parts. This empty space without information is where best guesses and peers’ influence can rush in and do more harm than good.

There is a need for some level of explicit conversation in these childhood years. Most children are talking about sex with their friends by the time they turn eight. If you want to be the first one to talk with your child about sex (and you should want this), you should talk with them before they are eight. When you start the conversation about sex, rather than allowing it to be started by peers, you teach your child that conversations about sex are allowed and encouraged in the home. This will do wonders for your conversations about sexuality with your child in the long run!

And then comes early adolescence, or middle school. This is the age when young people start looking with increasing clarity and interest toward the reality (sometimes the far-off reality) of romantic and sexual relationships. However, young people are generally not deeply engaged in these activities yet. This rather delicate balance of interest but little actual involvement creates a perfect environment for young people to learn about sexuality more fully through a comprehensive sexuality class and growing conversations in the home. They are able to take in the specifics of sexuality and good practices in regard to decision making without judging (or feeling judged) based on a prior sexual history.

During high school is when most youth have their first romantic relationships and about half have their first sexual experiences. This is another time when extended conversations about sexuality are important. Across the adolescent years, youth contextualize information differently as they have increasing personal knowledge of and exposure to sexual relationships, through either their own experiences or those of their peers. While sexuality should be a conversation that starts at birth and never really stops, it is the adolescent years when the heaviest-hitting and most explicit parent/child conversations should take place.

The two biggest factors determining whether family-based conversations about sex will be easy or hard are: (1) you and (2) your child. You only have control over the first of those factors. Getting yourself into a clear headspace about your own sexuality (both current and past) will get you off to the best start possible. If you aren’t ready to engage openly and meaningfully, how can you expect your child to?

So when should you have The Talk? You should have it tonight and tomorrow and again in a few weeks. You should have it about big things and little things. And you should remember that regardless of whether you’re talking, your child is listening and learning.

If you’re looking for books, here are a few of my favorites:

  • S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna
  • Body Drama by Nancy Amanda Redd
  • What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know by Debra W. Haffner
  • How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • How To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

If you’re looking for classes, here are a few Austin resources:

  • Unhushed. Offers classes for middle and high school students and parents of preteens and teenagers. karen (at), 512-662-1862
  • Dr. Laura Hancock. Offers classes for parents of infants, toddlers, and young children. drlaurahancock (at), 646.801.6842

Karen Rayne, PhD