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“I assume you’ve heard the word sex before?” I asked my 11-year-old daughter as she finished her homework. A sheepish look crossed her face.

She said she had.

My husband and I had recently shifted her from full-time home schooling to a hybrid school. Although we could monitor the images and dialogue she was exposed to, we couldn’t control what she might hear at school.

“Where have you heard it?” I asked.

Again, she seemed reluctant. “Oh, just places.”

“Well,” I pressed, “let’s talk about what you’ve heard.” 

Establish Your Voice

Talking with our kids about sex can be uncomfortable. And while we may want to simply avoid this topic, the reality is that our kids are going to learn about it. As parents we have the responsibility to make sure they hear the truth amid the information that will come at them from various sources—many of which aren’t God-honoring.

Pam Farrel, co-author of 10 Questions Kids Ask About Sex, suggests that our timing should often depend on what our kids are hearing outside our family so we can establish our influence and authority as the person they’ll go to when they have questions. “As much as possible,” she says, “we need to be proactive so our kids hear about moral values and what is correct and biblical from us first.”

But how do we start the conversation? How specific do we get? And what age is best for this type of chat?

Don’t think in terms of one discussion, but ongoing, age-appropriate conversations that lead up to “the talk” and then continue with post-talk discussions. As you lay a foundation, Geremy Keeton, the director of Focus on the Family’s Counseling department, and author of The Talk, a bulleted list of age-and-stage goals for parents on this topic, recommends that you don’t delay too long. Geremy states, “Our sexualized culture, sadly, demands that we talk sooner rather than later—yet, still in an age-appropriate way. The main focus is to track with your child.” Allow your children’s physical and emotional development to help guide you as to when to go deeper into the subject. But as a general overview, here are some guidelines:

Ages 4 to 5

Before kids start school, Pam says, “[They] need to know enough about how babies are made and how our bodies work so they understand the important transitions around them such as weddings, pregnancies and babies being born.” This is a great time to start out with the idea that babies need both a mommy and a daddy and that God creates life in a special way.

My husband and I chose the idea of planting seeds. We explained to our young daughters that just as the vegetable plants in our backyard garden start as a seed, so did they. Though stressing that they were different from fruits and vegetables, we explained that a daddy can plant a seed in a mommy. We kept it simple, knowing it was a concept we could continue to build on as they matured. Young children also should have a basic understanding of body parts, why modesty is important and how to protect themselves from predators.

Ages 6 to 9

Toward the upper end of this age range is also the time to begin discussing puberty. By the time my daughter reached 8, I began chatting with her about periods, puberty and body changes. Pam says, “Your child will need to be prepared before the changes start in their own bodies or in the bodies of their classmates.”

Since my daughter was naturally curious and asked questions when I bought feminine products, I was able to answer each question simply, explaining why menstruation happens. As kids move into the elementary-school ages, it’s important for parents to explain ways in which boys and girls are physically different. Parents can share about where babies come from, how conception occurs and how they were born (beyond the general seed-planting idea). 

Ages 10 to 11

Help tweens understand the overview about God’s design for sexuality. Launch Into the Teen Years, a parenting kit developed by Focus on the Family, gives parents the tools they need to talk about tween identity issues, changes they’ll face at puberty and where God is amid all these new changes. Depending on the maturity of your child, this is the time to move from the early foundational talks to the talk. Pam advises parents to keep this conversation centered on the basics of what sexual intercourse is. “Try to keep the main thing the main thing,” she says.

Perhaps plan a parent-tween getaway that communicates to your child how discussing sex with him or her is a priority for you. While the location should be private, it doesn’t need to be behind your child’s closed door. For moms and daughters, this could be a trip to the spa or a day trip to the beach. Dads and sons may want to go camping or travel to watch a favorite sports team play.

This talk is best planned when your children are between the ages of 9 and 12, depending on your child’s maturity, interest, exposure to topics and birth order. For example, younger siblings who may have already heard a lot from their brothers or sisters may need to be told at a younger age than a first or only child. Parents should also adjust the timing of the talk to best fit their children’s inquisitive or naïve personalities. 

Keep the Conversation Going

A parent’s responsibility doesn’t end with one big reveal. Instead, be a safe place for kids to ask follow-up questions and tackle challenging topics such as same-sex attraction, pornography and transgenderism.

As kids get into the middle school years, they may become more uncomfortable about discussing these topics with an adult. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less curious. It’s important for parents to be a consistent voice of truth. When we have a clear strategy of what to talk about and when to talk about it, the conversation allows us to confidently explain God’s beautiful design of and purpose for sex.

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