My husband had just returned home with our youngest son after a weekend away for the sex talk. Christian, eleven at the time, sheepishly told me, “Mom, I feel like I’m too young to know all these things about sex.”
I reassured him, “I know how you feel, but Dad and I want to tell you about sex before you learn about it from your friends or what you see in movies.”
Christian went off to play but returned a few hours later with an observation. “Mom, I’ve been thinking. The way the world is going, when I have my own kids, I’m going to have to have this talk with them when they are like four years old.”
That was about ten years ago, and my son’s words have proven true. Now more than ever, you need to be talking to your kids about sex. In my generation, our parents said nothing. Ten years ago, we took tweens away for a weekend, hoping that would be adequate. Today, we need an ongoing dialogue with our children starting when they are 3 or 4.
The culture at large is eager to talk to your children about sex. Even within preschool programming, your children are absorbing messages about what it is to be male or female and the purpose of love and sexuality.
Sexual topics today are also worldview topics. What you believe about sex will be rooted in what you believe about God and what it means to flourish as human beings. This is why it is so critical for you to intentionally engage with your children in conversations about sex. You want to teach them first, establishing the beautiful framework with which God has created the gift of sexuality and alerting them to the ways it can be distorted.
Over the past decade of ministry, I’ve realized that what we really need is not sex education but sexual discipleship. Sexual education teaches what to think about sex. Sexual discipleship teaches how to think about sex – it is the ongoing journey of applying God’s truth to sexual questions and experiences.
That’s easy to say but may seem very difficult to do. If you feel like you are charting new territory within your own family, you probably are. Your parents’ greatest concern may have been that you would not have sex as a teenager. They never dreamed of having conversations with you about pornography, sexting, gender ideology, or same-sex desire.
As intimidating as navigating these waters might feel, you can do it! Your kids not only need you to talk to them about sex, they want you to.
Here is the good news. Your kids don’t know it is awkward to talk about sex unless you make it awkward. Regardless of your experience growing up, you get to set the tone that talking about sex can be normal, encouraging, and empowering.
If you are not intentional about talking with your children about sex, you may never get around to it. You will never feel like they are old enough and you are prepared enough.
Your child needs to learn that our bodies, including our genitals, were God’s idea. He created them with the capacity to experience great pleasure, but this also means they have the potential to be the source of vulnerability and pain. God created sex and gender to show us the importance of intimacy, of being known. Sexual desire is our body's way of telling us that we were not made to do life alone. Your mission is to communicate these truths throughout childhood with age-specific language.
Preschoolers are all about discovery–including their bodies. Without shame, they touch every part of themselves, returning to areas that are pleasurable and comforting. This is normal exploration and not what you might consider “sexual” touch. In general, ignoring or gentle redirection is the best approach when this occurs.
When you teach your child at this stage, begin with the goodness of how God created our bodies, including the specific parts He gave to boys and girls. It may seem wrong to use words like “penis” and “vagina” with a four year old, but most experts agree that using the appropriate terms is better than using silly names like “woo woo” or “willy.” You can initiate teaching about marriage and where babies come from by using picture books that provide age-appropriate language for preschoolers (see list of resources below).
While developmental psychologists once termed this the latency stage (meaning kids are not likely to be thinking about sex), modern culture unfortunately introduces sexual themes to school-age children. Your children may become curious as they make observations or become exposed to sexual themes through friends or the media.
You want to be intentional about being the place your child brings all their questions. You do this by continuing to initiate conversations about love, marriage, sexuality and gender. You also need to alert your child about the ways that the good gift of sex can be twisted. This is the age to begin talking to your son or daughter (always with age-appropriate language) about pornography and inappropriate touch.
My friend Francie Winslow, a mother of six young children, found a creative and fun way to remind her little ones about the goodness of God’s design for our bodies through songs and raps she has written.
If your parents talked to you about sex at all, they probably did so as you entered adolescence. At this stage of development, kids need to be prepared to understand their changing bodies and how to deal with sexual desires and experiences. This should be a season of specific and many conversations teaching your child about the biological, emotional, and spiritual elements of sexuality while also inviting questions and dialogue.
There is a lot to cover during this stage of parenting, so don't try to fit everything you want to tell your son or daughter into one conversation or even a weekend. While it may be wonderful to have a special time away, don’t make that the only time you talk about sex. If you have a child in the tween and early teen years, consider having a weekly or monthly date. One father discipled his son with “Bible and bagels” every Friday morning. A mom had ongoing conversations with her daughter with a monthly after-school outing. The resources below can be helpful in structuring these conversations.
Ages 15 and up
By the time your child is in the mid to late teens, you might feel like your job talking about sex is done. Unfortunately, most conversations between parents and teens about sex involve negotiating boundaries or consequences. This is one of the reasons why it is critical to stay engaged in positive conversations with your teen about sex. Your teen is still learning, absorbing messages from the world, and needing to learn from your wisdom and guidance. Kids this age want to discuss their ideas, not just listen to yours. Instead of teaching, think of coaching and guiding in your conversations. When you set boundaries and limits, explain why. Help your teen develop the critical thinking skills to someday soon make independent decisions. At this stage it can also be appropriate to share with your teen what you have learned through your sexual journey–your regrets and what God has been teaching you.
Life presents you with regular opportunities to talk about sex. As you navigate daily life, your kids may ask innocent questions about how babies get in mom’s tummy, why we have boundaries with bathing and nakedness, and why mom and dad kiss. A trip to the zoo or a local farm may prompt some natural “birds and bees” conversations. As kids get older, the teachable moments are still around. A Christian leader has an affair. A cousin identifies as non-binary. Your news feed is screaming about high-profile sexual abuse allegations. Circumstances like these force us to grapple with questions about sexual wholeness, brokenness, and empathy. These are the kinds of conversations that can foster true discipleship–not just memorizing a list of rules, but the journey of walking with Jesus in every area of life.
Teachable moments can be most effective when you begin with questions, not just answers. Questions give you the opportunity to gauge what your child or teen actually knows and foster a thoughtful approach. For example, you might respond to a young child’s question about where babies come from with, “How do you think you got in my tummy?” With an older child or teenager, do a lot of listening before you start speaking. You want to encourage your child to share his or her thoughts, communicating that you're a safe person for questions.
I have one son who likes to talk and process out loud. Sometimes I will spend an hour or more listening before I ever begin sharing my thoughts. For him, my listening makes the words I speak more personal and powerful.
Guiding your kids toward sexual wholeness is not a pass-fail test, for you or for them. It’s a messy journey for many kids and their parents. Most likely, your children will be exposed to pornography. Your son or daughter may struggle with gender confusion or same-sex desire. Your child might engage in sexting or experiment sexually with a peer.
Even imagining these possibilities may feel intimidating. You understandably want to do everything you can to protect your children. However, you also have to prepare them to walk through the minefield of sexuality in our day and culture. That means the potential for struggle.
Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my children about sex have been in the face of challenges and failures. The heart of Christianity is not a list of sexual do’s and don'ts but a message of God’s love for us. As a parent, you are the closest example of that love for your children. When we experience hardship and when we sin, God is with us, providing comfort and direction. We need to be able to do this for our children, especially as they experience struggle and sometimes stumble.
While you can’t be prepared for every possible situation you may face on this journey, you can determine how you want to respond. Remember that the relationship matters. Regardless of what your child may have done, seen, or experienced, your child needs to know that nothing will ever impact your love for him or her. There must be a time for teaching and boundaries, but lead with love and reassurance.
We serve a God who has promised never to leave us alone. He forgives our sins and redeems our heartache. While you will never perfectly model God’s love as a parent, you can be a witness to how He has met you in your own struggles and failures.
While your parents may have dreaded or avoided talking to you about sex, you get to change the narrative with your own children. Think of it this way: Talking to your kids about sex is not just talking to them about sex. Through the many conversations you may have with your children, you get to teach them about love, longing, intimacy, truth, and grace. We live in a changing world fraught with new challenges that also present new opportunities to discover and impress God’s goodness on the hearts of this next generation.
Bible-based tools to help you talk to your kids about sexuality: