How Parents Are Falling Short With the ‘Sex Talk’

Parents are talking to their kids about sex, but they're still not being specific enough

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Have you ever noticed how clearly most people ― parents and children alike ― remember their first conversations about sexuality? One of my favorites involves a toddler pondering his anatomy as he wakes up for pre-school and sheds his pajamas. “Mom,” he asks, “does your penis always stand up in the morning?”

These moments may leave us speechless, but they can also help us start an important dialogue with our kids. As parents, we play a huge role in shaping our kids’ knowledge and attitudes about sex. The is no one “sex talk”—there are many, many conversations over every phase of childhood. Ours aren’t the only ones they need to hear; ideally, it’s a team effort that also involves educators in schools and continues all the way through adolescence. But there is no substitute for a parent’s steady engagement.

(MORE: Teen Sex Update: Fewer Teens Doing It, More Boys Using Condoms)

Overall, parents are doing a pretty good job. In observance of October’s “Let’s Talk” month, Planned Parenthood and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,111 adults with kids aged 10 to 18. The good news: some 82% of us are talking to our teens about sex. We’re consistently sharing our values about when sex is appropriate, and we’re working hard to help our kids distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Where we’re falling short is that we’re not concretely explaining how to prevent problems like unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Though the vast majority of the survey respondents had talked to their kids, more than a quarter conceded they hadn’t shared tips about how to say no to sex. And while 94% thought they could influence their teens’ decisions about whether to use condoms and other forms of birth control when the time came, only 60% had actually talked to their kids about different methods of birth control.

This is understandable ― talking about how to use a condom isn’t as easy as talking about soccer — but you don’t have to go it alone. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of sex education, has developed a rich new array of tools and resources to help parents engage with their kids. Start the conversation early, and sustain it. Casual, ongoing conversations are easier than momentous lectures, and they leave our kids more room to share.

Everyday life provides constant opportunities to talk about sexuality. Children are naturally curious about their bodies and the differences between boys and girls. Start by teaching them the names of their body parts or asking if they know why girls and boys look different. If a family friend gets pregnant or a favorite TV character enters puberty, have a conversation about the whole process.

Even as kids enter their teens and start to assert independence, most still want guidance and all of them need it. So spend time together, joke with them and show your approval, but don’t assume you can stop monitoring their whereabouts or setting boundaries. And as they reach an age when they’re likely to experiment with sex, don’t assume they know how to avoid the risks associated with it. When the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed 1,000 teenagers last year, 49% conceded they knew “little or nothing” about how to use condoms. Worse yet, one in three agreed that “it doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not” because “when it is your time to get pregnant, it will happen.” No wonder our teen pregnancy rate — nearly two times higher than that of the U.K. — still dwarfs those of other developed countries.

Together we can solve this problem. We must demand that our policymakers support ― and our schools deliver ― high-quality, comprehensive sex education. And as parents, we must commit to a continuing conversation. Sharing our values is a good start, but our kids need specific information, too. So please, let’s talk ― and let’s talk about everything that they actually need to know.

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