“Mommy… why does that boy dress like a girl?” asked my then 4-year-old son one day while we traveled on a public bus. I was stunned, not because I was unprepared to answer his question, but because I didn’t think he would be cognizant of transgendered people at such a young age. I calmly explained that some people want to dress in certain ways to express how they feel inside. He then asked, “So some boys want to be girls?,” to which I simply responded, “Yes.”
I didn’t think it necessary at the time to get into an elaborate discussion about gender identity, sexual orientation and the like, but I knew I needed to answer his questions to the point of resolution within his 4-year-old brain.
And so, when is the best time to have “The Talk?”
While acknowledging that it is necessary, most parents will admit that discussing sexual topics with their children isn’t the easiest thing to do. Many adults, over age 30 especially, never had focused, positive, nurturing conversations about sex with their own parents growing up. The most “sex talk” some of us received was simply, “Don’t come home pregnant!” or “Don’t get anyone pregnant!,” with the occasional threats on our lives if we dared to do so.
There weren’t as many conversations about contraception or protection from sexually transmitted infections/diseases (STI/Ds) either, and that’s likely attributed to the lack of knowledge back then. HIV/AIDS wasn’t the number one killer of Black women in my age bracket back then either. Now more than ever before, teaching our children about sex and sexuality is essential to their growth into adulthood. While every child and parent is different, here are some suggestions on when to approach certain topics based on age and how you might best address them.
The best thing parents can do at this age is teach children proper names for their genitals and show them how what they have might be different from their opposite gender. Parents can also have a basic conversation about good and bad touches. While we pray that our children are never sexually molested or assaulted, it’s important to help them identify what touches are acceptable and which are not. We should also begin creating a safe and positive environment where our children can feel comfortable asking any questions.
Grade School (Ages 5-11)
Dr. Laura Brennan, world-renowned sex therapist and professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University, says that waiting until ages 13, 14 or 15 is too late to begin conversations about sex. “By then,” she says, “some children have already had some rather advanced sexual experiences.” Since most children begin to ask about where babies come from around ages 6 to 9, having a simple conversation about how sperm and eggs connect to form embryos inside of a woman's uterus works well.
Dr. Brennan recommends approaching this conversation by framing it with whatever value system families uphold. I’d add that an explanation about how families vary (i.e., lesbian and gay parents) is helpful. Children are more likely to be exposed to diverse families now, and it’s best they get the information from their parents.
Terrence Taylor, adolescent health educator and program manager of the S.T.A.R. Program in New York City says that fifth grade is a good time to begin discussing bodily changes and new experiences, such as nocturnal emissions (wet dreams for boys) and menstruation (for girls who have not yet had an onset of menses). The S.T.A.R. Program uses theater to teach students from elementary through high school about sex, dating, STDs, contraception and other sexual health topics.
From ages 8-11, children can understand more intricate concepts—especially having been in school longer and being exposed to various media. It’s important for parents to work with educators and provide guidance to counter any wrong information children may receive from peers.
Middle/Early High School (Ages 12-16)
Taylor says that at these ages, parents should focus on positive reinforcement and self-efficacy when speaking to their kids about sex. These conversations include talks about sexual abuse, emotional connections and awkwardness around body image, development and interactions based on attraction.
“Focusing on communication and teaching your kids how to communicate when it comes to sex and sexual issues is so important at this age. Don’t feel that because you’re not the same sex as your child, that you can’t discuss these topics,” he advises. The program introduces talks about condoms and contraception in the seventh grade. “You’d be surprised how much misinformation children have by this age,” he says.
Teens can better grasp more advanced concepts related to the actual performance of sex and outcomes, be they benefits or consequences. The key is to refrain from making assumptions about what your child knows or has been exposed to, and to leave the condescension out of the conversation.
The more parents talk about sex, the lower the risk of negative consequences their children will face. Fostering an open and supportive environment will help parents remain connected to what their children are doing when they’re not around. You want to make sure you’re equipping your children with the tools they need to make the best choices for themselves when the time comes.
(For more information, download Dr. Brennan’s The Sex Ed Handbook here.)
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.