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How to Talk to Kids About Sex

It makes most of us squeamish. But the sooner you start talking to your kids about sex and sexuality, the easier the conversation will become. And an ongoing conversation is crucial: Kids who talk openly with their parents about sexual matters are less likely to get into sexual trouble.

Alas, many parents wait too long. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010 found that 40 percent of teens surveyed were sexually active before they had had discussions about STDs, birth control and condom use with their parents.

We spoke with Fred Kaeser, the former director of health for the New York City Public Schools and author of What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex (and When): A Straight-Talking Guide for Parents, about how and when to talk to your children about sexual matters.

When should you begin talking to your kids about sex?

Certainly by age 3. You can start by labeling parts of the body, penis, vagina, etc., and explaining that some parts of your body are public and some are private. Keep your voice reassuring and your body language open. Your goal as a parent should be to become the single most important source of information and guidance around sexual matters. To do that, you have to start early. If you wait until 6th or 7th grade, it's way too late. They are already starting to tune you out.

Labeling body parts is not too hard. What comes next?

Once your kids know what the parts are, you can start explaining their functions. When your kids are 5 or 6, begin to lay the foundation of how babies are made. What is sperm and what's an egg. Explain that a sperm cell from a man joins an egg cell from a woman to make a baby. Your 5- or 6-year-old will probably be satisfied with this description. This is also a good time to address gender roles. Kids will begin saying, "Oh, only girls wear pink," and "Sports are for boys." How are you going to react? Here's one way: "Well, that's just silly. I know plenty of boys that wear pink and plenty of girls who are terrific athletes." Address gender stereotyping when it crops up.

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What if my kids don't want to talk about sex?

You don't have to make it a "conversation." Look for learning opportunities. Let's say you are watching TV with your child and two people on the screen start kissing: This is a good time to talk about love and trust in relationships. You could ask, "Do you think those two people love each other?" Explain that relationships are based on love, respect and trust.

If you haven't had some discussion about sexual issues in two weeks, you're overdue. Get in the habit of having some talk about sexual matters twice a month. Once your child is in elementary school, he will be educated every day in terms of how to be sexual. We live in a hyper-sexualized world. Kids pick up messages from billboards, TV, the radio and their friends on the playground. You need to stay one step ahead.

When do I have to talk about the tough stuff: sex, condoms and the like?

Earlier than you think. Don't freak your kids out, but you should begin to broach the idea of sexual attraction as early as 4th or 5th grade, when you notice your children or their friends flirting on the playground. By the time they are in middle school, it's time to talk about sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

Think that's too early? Most 3rd graders have heard something about condoms. At age 8, kids have cognitive capacity to understand sex is not just procreational; it's also recreational. One of the most common questions I get from 5th graders is, "How do you have sex, and how does it feel?" Luckily most schools have sex education classes in 5th or 6th grade, so educators will begin to lay the groundwork for you.

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Since when do teens want to discuss sex with their parents?

Your teen may act squeamish. That's why you should play off real-life scenarios. You see a couple fighting on the street, or you hear a song with explicit lyrics: Use that moment to discuss intimacy, sex or whatever seems appropriate and on target. Remember, teens act like they don't want to talk about sex, but they want their parents to be open and accessible about sexuality. Look at the statistics: Six in 10 teens say they wish they could talk more openly about relationships with their parents, and 80 percent say that it would be much easier for teens to delay sexual activity if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about sexual topics with their parents, according to surveys by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. A teenager's job is to telegraph, "I don't need to hear this." But research tells us that the opposite is true.

Should one parent be the designated sex educator?

Ideally, no. Girls should feel comfortable talking to their dads, and boys to their moms. It's important to communicate openness, rather than avoidance. Moms and dads should feel comfortable about talking about everything. Just make sure everything gets covered: sexual feelings, the trio of love, trust and respect, contraception and gender issues.

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