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Kids and sex – what is the right age to start talking about it?

talking about sex Let this article come with a warning: It might make you feel uncomfortable.

Admittedly in some ways I feel a little unqualified to talk about this. I don’t have kids (thankfully for me and them right now!)  But I do have clients who were once children.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for a while, but actually, what finally prompted it was a little email I got about a week ago …

It was an email from a blogger with whom I had inquired about advertising. She politely informed me that on inspection of what I do – help people improve their relationships and their sex lives – she couldn’t have my advertising on her blog “as my youngest child reads it”.

How old is her child?  He is 11.  

Now, as I said, I don’t have children. But I sure hope that by 11 I’m able to talk about the birds and the bees with my child.

Did you know that the average age a child first views porn on the internet is 11?

I know if I had kids, I’d sure as hell want them to hear about sex from someone professionally trained to educate people in it rather than from a porn site. And I’d want them to be able to talk to me about it too.

The thing is – kids are having sex at a younger and younger age.  Although it is difficult to tell at what age exactly, studies by La Trobe University show that 27.4% of Year 10 Students (15-16 years) have had sex. In NSW that figure is at 32%.¹

Put this alongside the average age a girl has her first period – 12.43 years in developed nations.²  Menarche signifies the body’s readiness for reproduction – her hormones will agree.

We are sexual beings from before we are born.  

Even in utero, ultrasounds have shown males having erections.

It is common for babies from a very young age stimulate themselves sexually – in other words: masturbate.

Any parent knows how children of a young age will stimulate themselves sexually for enjoyment. Ever seen a baby learning to crawl rubbing themselves back and forward on the floor? As a parent, have you ever had to tell your toddler or young child that “we don’t touch ourselves there”?

It’s common for young children to also engage in behaviour that can be viewed as sexual exploration with other children and siblings – the most common age is 4-7.

And in fact, 56% of professionals have admitted to engaging in sexual play with others before the age of 12.³

Scary?  It shouldn’t be.

So at what age do we let kids know that it’s OKto talk about sex?

And if up until a certain age, it’s something we refuse to talk about openly with or in front of them, how can we expect them to suddenly feel comfortable with it when we do decide it’s an ‘appropriate time’?

Studies have shown that abstinence only education programs don’t work. We can’t stop our kids and teenagers being sexual. Studies have also shown that in countries like the Netherlands where sex is talked about more openly, there are lower rates of teenage pregnancy.

The bottom line:  We have to talk to our kids about sex.  

And we have to do it when they’re at a young age.  

Because if we don’t – they learn from other places or they don’t learn at all.

And if they don’t learn to talk about it openly and honestly, they spend the rest of their lives with a deep belief that sex is something to be ashamed of.  

And here’s where things get a little heavier.

Psychotherapy research has shown that part of engrained guilt and shame around sex can happen from when we are babies. Babies are used to being rewarded or mirrored by their parents. So if we are doing something (like touching are genitals and enjoying it) and our parents don’t reward us, we will feel like this part of us isn’t OK, isn’t accepted. This is generally what stops us forming anti-social behaviours. The problem in the case of sexual pleasure is that it feels so good, we want to keep doing it – we are just getting messages from around us that it’s not OK.  In psychotherapy, this leads to what we call ‘disowned’ or ‘locked away’ parts of ourselves.

What this means is that if at any age, we don’t let kids know that sex and their sexual pleasure is OK – they lock that part of themselves away and learn that sex isn’t a good thing.  

And that, sadly, for many of us is where we end up with our sexual pleasure. We lock it away, thinking deep down that they part of ourselves is not OK.

What this leads to is unfulfilling sex lives later on.  In our heads we know it’s OK to have sex, but a deep part of us has been lead to believe that it’s not.

So, in the immortal words of Salt n Pepa – Let’s Talk About Sex Baby!  
Even with our children.  

1. Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University – Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008.
2. Segal and Stohs (2007) in Crooks & Baur – Our Sexuality, 2014
3. Ryan et al 1988 in Crooks & Baur – Our Sexuality, 2014

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3 comments so far -

  1. I have three boys, 8, 4 and 8mths. I have spoken to them about sex for as long as they have been alive! I answer their questions at an age appropriate level, I dont make up ridiculous stories or lies. They know how babies are made, periods etc. Why lie? Why would we want our children to find out these important things from peers, tv or the internet?! I remember being absolutely horrified when I found out at about age 7, I dont want my boys to be horrified! I want them to know that they can ask me anything, ANYTHING, and know that they will get an honest answer. After all, its all a natural part of life!

  2. Yes you do have to open up communication with your children about sex but it’s important that information be appropriate to stage of development (psychological, not just physical) and that facts be accompanied by the values and attitudes you want your child to have. Find opportunities to point out the values and attitudes coming from the media about sex – kids need to learn from parents how to ‘read’ advertisers’ motives when they dress kids up like adults and imply all teens are ready for sex. Reassure kids that they are NOT expected to be sexually active in their teen years – sexual desire is natural and sex can be wonderful in the right relationship, but its for later when they have the intellectual and psychological maturity to make safer decisions. Their physical and emotional health is at stake. So yes, start the conversations early, explain enough to satisfy and add more next time, share your values and expectations, set boundaries, supervise, welcome adolescent debate (it gives your child the chance to think things through for themselves), let them know you are a willing and respectful listener, encourage achievement and goal setting, make home a safe and loving place so they don’t look for affection and belonging through sex.

    • Thanks Ally – I love this comment.

      It definitely is important to make our content ‘age appropriate’ and we do need to give kids more than the physical info. We should be teaching our kids how to really say ‘no’ when it comes to sex and also that they’re allowed to enjoy it when the time is right for them.
      I love what you’ve said about teaching them to feel good in themselves so they don’t look for it elsewhere – so important.

      The sexualisation of our children through advertising is something that I think should be a concern to all of us.

      Thanks for the great comments!

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