HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Talkin' 'bout the birds and the bees

Everything you wanted to know about sex ed but were afraid to ask.

By Brad Munson

There are parenting milestones we all look forward to: the first step, the first school dance, the first wedding (which, you hope, is also the last wedding). And then there are the moments most parents dread, like when your son or daughter comes to you, eyes wide and filled with questions, and asks, “Mommy? Daddy? Where do babies come from?”

The good news: It will never happen. As any veteran of the War with the Birds and the Bees will tell you, children never come to parents like that, ready to listen and open to wise counsel. What will happen is your children bursting in when you’re tired or distracted or totally unprepared and crowing, “Mommy! Derek said that Emma said that one’a these days a baby’s gonna come outa her pee-hole!”

Thus it begins.

I weathered the first rounds with my own kids some years ago. Since then I’ve had training as a teacher and counselor in Our Whole Lives, a sex ed program created by the Unitarian Universalist Church that has guided thousands of children through some difficult years. Having led that program for almost a decade now, I’ve spent many hours with hundreds of middle and high school kids discussing the undiscussable. I’ve even taught other parents and teachers how to use its insights. So I can say with some confidence:

Give up your fear of the big talk. It’s a myth. Instead, be ready to seize a random opportunity to start a more involved and beneficial conversation about sex — one that, in the long run, will work out far better for everyone. Many of the parents who have lived to see their children grow into well-adjusted adults offer the same fragments of sage advice:

Get your facts straight. As your children enter the "curious" years, do a little homework of your own. Brush up on the basics of biology, of course, but also learn the latest about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and gather the facts on the latest birth control devices and methods. Be sure you can answer pretty much any question about sex you can imagine, because you’ll probably hear them all sooner or later.

Understand that kids think they already know everything about sex … and that they’re wrong, of course. Notice the example above didn’t end with “Is that true, dear mother/father? Please tell me.” Quite the contrary: Between the severely redacted sex ed classes most schools offer, the endless supply of half-truths found in everything from MTV to CSI: Miami, and good old-fashioned street-level misinformation from peers and siblings, your kids think they know all about sex and its consequences. They are not coming to you for education; they’ve got that covered. At best they’re coming to you for confirmation, and the most repeated phrase you’re likely to use is “Well, honey, that’s not quite true.” Which leads to:

Practice not being surprised, shocked, or offended. It’s guaranteed: You will be stunned by some of the crazy stuff your children actually believe, and it will be your job to sift through these horrible assertions to unearth a teachable moment. If you seem awkward or judgmental in your reaction — no matter how bizarre the assertion or terminology — they will either clam up entirely or reduce your credibility score to near zero. So …

Make it a conversation that lasts for years, not a lecture that lasts for hours. Most kids won’t sit still for a lengthy talk, and even if they tolerate it, they’ll retain nothing. Usually they want just a little information: Can you get syphilis from a doorknob? Do mosquitoes spread AIDS? Does drinking one glass of wine before you even know you’re pregnant mean your baby will have six fingers and a third eye? And if you answer the question they ask — and only the question they ask — then listen to answer the next question, all the while resisting the temptation to launch into a prepared speech, they will almost certainly come back to you for another talk, and soon. And most important: They’ll believe what you tell them and (secretly) respect your honesty.

Ultimately, what you want is not that one golden memory of the moment when you taught your little ones the facts of life. What you really want — what’s best for you and your children — is to open up an ongoing conversation that will last a lifetime. It won’t start the way you expect, and it will never really end, but it can become an important and cherished aspect of your relationship with your kids.

Brad Munson is a freelancer writer, father, and sex educator based in Pasadena, Calif.

Comments from readers

"Very insightful!! I was waiting for the big long talk and now realize I have to give her bits of info as she becomes more curious! "
"Does anyone have some suggestions for some books on this topic? I have an eleven year old boy and am looking for something balanced to supplement what he learns in school and from his dad and I. I am looking for something middle of the road as opposed to on the more conservative end. Thanks!"
"thank god im not another because i do not want to answer any questions about sex. i didn't even want to have the sex talk with my mom much less have it with my kid. again lets thank god that i am not a mother."
"Great article! Will use the advice in the future."
"Good article, and so true."
"SEX is a natural instinctive act. It is driven by hormones not by education. We people are no different than rabbits. We have sex primarily for the same reason PROCREATION. As humans we have added the recreation and that is what creates the problem. Recreational sex still creates babies unless we capable intelligent humans prevent it. All humans need to learn about birth control and STD prevention. Teens have been having sex since the onset of human life. They will continue to have sex until they are too old. BIRTHCONTROL is LEGAL and INTELLIGENT. It prevents pregnancy and protects against STD’s. It is the sex that is called illegal. It can be illegal for ever and not prevent even one single pregnancy or STD. It definitely will not even increase abstinence. ONLY education and counseling can do that. The only thing being illegal does is prevent intelligent choices. The sex will always still happen . Teen Pregnancy will always be rampant UNLESS the Birth Control is PUSHED. It is not just the education it is the condoms and pills that must be available to them. Education is this area MUST be mandatory. For those of you who have moral issues. I have these same issues but reality has to win. The law is intended to prosecute those having sex without their partners consent. Rape and date rape will always happen as well as forgotten Birthcontrol. Condoms will break and kids will have sex without Birth Control and they have to know what to do. There are morning after pills and counseling available. Adults if this were you. What would you do??? Right….You would have sex .You would use birthcontrol You would prevent STD’s. WHY?? BECAUSE you have learned about it. Please make it MANDATORY that These kids are taught about Birthcontrol and STD prevention. Teens are at the highest HORMONE level of their life they need these tools NOW! I am the original author (BEV W).of this. Please if you agree with me copy and paste this everywhere you can. Please start fan groups. People need to understand the reality of this situation. "
"I think it's good to be frank with kids, and answer their questions accurately and on their level, without answering questions they haven't asked yet. We told our kids when they were very young that a baby is made from a tiny egg from the mommy and a tiny seed from the daddy. Then with each subsequent question, we answered just that question, in plain English, on their level."
"Help! I have an 8 year old boy that I discovered had been googleing porn on the '8 year old girls naked'. I dont know what he saw, if anything, but this has concerned me. I didnt think at 8 years old I would have to worry about this yet. Do boys his age talk about girls and sex already? We live in a suburban area with the best schools in our state. Great family oriented neighborhoods etc. As I know our quality of life does not keep out negative influences I am just surprised very concerned. Please repond with some advice! Thanks"
"For being asked unexpectedly, you did well! I have a nine year old and I can tell some things that have worked for me. Give age appropriate information. You can always go back and give more details later in the day, or as they age. If your not sure how to answer the question they ask, tell them you will think about it and get back to them in a little while. Figure out what you want to say, then make sure you do get back with them to explain the answer. It shows that you listened and took their inquiry seriously, and gives you time to do research. Finally, age appropriate books have made it easier for us to talk about certain issues. We don't read the entire book at once, usually we just get it out to address a specific topic. Illustrations help the explanation, and sometimes reading the facts is simpler than me figuring out exactly the right wording. We do keep the books separated from her regular collection, just so that visiting friends don't come across them. Be open to d! iscussions that just pop up. Sometimes a show on TV will prompt a talk that wouldn't have come up otherwise. As the article mentioned, this is a conversation for a lifetime! Good luck, you can do it!"
"Wonderful, humorous advice."
"I think this is pretty good advice for older kids but what do you say when your three year old asks how she was made or how babies get in their mama's tummy? This recently happened to me and I wasn't prepared for it. I knew my daughter wasn't ready for the truth and I wasn't ready to tell it to her, I also felt weird with my response that I blurted out, which was something along the lines of 'Mommy and Daddy loved each other so much that when we gave each other a very big hug we made you.' What's a better way to approach these questions when asked by preschoolers?"