God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife. . . Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, and to teach them to. . . observe the commandments of God. (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1995)
While sitting on a bench at church when I was about ten years old, there was a large family seated in front of me. In my mind, I counted all their children. In disgust, I thought, “Yuck! Their parents have had sex seven times!” I obviously did not know much about sex at that point. However, I had already learned from my conservative religious culture that there was something possibly wrong about having sex. After all, sex was only ever discussed using awkward warnings, hushed tones, and metaphors about chewed gum or wilted flowers. Certainly, there must be something shameful about sex. Nobody seemed comfortable talking about it.
Are uncomfortable, awkward sex conversations the goal for parents and teens? Awkward sex talks may be the norm, but research has uncovered a better way. In this article, we will look at why talking to kids about sex is so important, and some of the best ways to have these conversations.
Why Talking About Sex with Kids Matters
Research tells us that most parents feel uncomfortable talking about sex with their children, but religious parents often have the hardest time with these discussions.10 These parents do not want their children to have sex before marriage, which may mean they only talk to their children about not having sex.2 Parents may worry that giving their children more information about sex will be like giving them a green light to go have sex,3 because if they know about it, they will do it, right? Wrong!
The great news for parents, whether religious or not, is that talking to kids about sex does not lead kids to have sex sooner.6 That idea is a false tradition. What the research really shows is that when parents talk about sex with their children, their children wait to have sex.5 These children make choices more in line with family values.1 And if they choose to become sexually active, they practice safer sex.4
Parents may also think that by not talking to their children about sex, their children will stay innocent and uninformed about sex. This is not true, either. Most teenagers report wanting to learn about sex from their parents, but they seek out other sources of sexual information when parents do not teach them about it.13 Although this could help parents dodge the discomfort of a chat they want to avoid, it could also mean their children are learning about sexuality without family values being part of the conversation.8 When parents choose to teach their children about sexuality, their children learn correct information from a trusted source- their parents! This knowledge allows children to exercise agency in making healthy, values-based sexual choices. Clearly, parents can have a huge influence on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their children when they talk to their kids about sex.3
Not all parent-child sex communication is created equally, however. Imagine two different families talking about the same sexual topic, such as reproduction. In one family, a parent may talk calmly and accurately about how babies are created. They may also discuss the appropriate timing for their child to become sexually active. In another family, a parent may lecture their child about sex. They may use fear tactics as an attempt to scare their child into never making a baby until the child is married, or else! Do these different discussions make a difference? Yes! The kind of parent-child sex conversation that leads kids to make the healthiest choices is when parents talk openly, comfortably, and often with their children about sex.3 On the other hand, parents who lecture their children about not having sex are more likely to have children who become sexually active at younger ages.12 Ironically, this is the very issue the lecturing-parent was trying to avoid.
How to Talk About Sex with Kids, Shame Free
Many adults can think back to how they learned about sex, and realize that it could have gone better. It may have included lecturing, or no talking at all. It may have happened as one big “talk.” Metaphors may have been used to emphasize the idea that someone should not be “ruined” before marriage. It may have felt awkward. Can you imagine, instead, what it would have been like to have open, comfortable, ongoing conversation? Where you could safely ask questions and receive honest answers, without feeling shame? This is the goal, and it brings the healthiest benefits to children.
Researchers describe the following as characteristics of open parent-child sex communication:11
- Parents try to understand how their child feels about sexuality.
- Parents give honest answers to their children’s sexual questions.
- Parents listen, not just talk, to their children.
- Children find it easy to talk about sex with their parents.
- Both parents and children initiate sex conversations, not just one or the other.
Once parents know they want to talk openly about sex with their children, what sexual topics should they discuss? Parents who believe their children should not have sex before marriage should talk about it with their children. They could explain the reasons why abstinence is important to them, and set expectations for behavior.1 There are other important sexual health topics besides abstinence, however. Some ideas include:
- Male and female anatomy
- Safe sex
- The positive aspects of sex
- Sexual arousal
As parents begin to put these sex conversations into practice, it may be helpful to remember that learning to do new things takes time. Practicing sex communication will help parents become more confident. Research shows that when parents feel confident about teaching their kids about sex, they are more likely to have these conversations.8 Parents could practice these conversations by role-playing with another adult, and focus on keeping the conversation comfortable, and honest. They could practice saying sexual words in front of a mirror. Yelling the words out loud (while alone somewhere) can also help parents feel normal about saying words out loud they may not normally say. Parents can also remember that these sexual discussions should build over time, little by little, increasing in detail as the child gets older.9 For more help in knowing what to say, and how to say it, check out the book “A Better Way to Teach Kids About Sex” by Professors Laura M. Padilla-Walker, Dean E. Busby, Chelom E. Leavitt, and Jason S. Carroll.
Religious parents do not need to be afraid of talking about sex with their children when they talk openly, comfortably, and often. These parents will likely find that they become more confident in their communication abilities. They will be more able to influence their child’s sexual attitudes and behaviors in ways that align with the parent’s values. Removing fear and shame-based tactics from parent-child sex communication will help the conversations remain lecture-free. The benefits of open parent-child sex communication are immense,3 and all children deserve to learn about their inherent sexuality from those they trust most: their parents.
Written by Meg O. Jankovich, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. April 8, 2021.
- Abbott, D. A., & Dalla, R. L. (2008). “It’s a choice, simple as that”: Youth reasoning for sexual abstinence or activity. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(6), 629–649.
- Butts, S. A., Kayukwa, A., Langlie, J., Rodriguez, V. J., Alcaide, M. L., Chitalu, N., … Jones, D. L. (2018). HIV knowledge and risk among Zambian adolescent and younger adolescent girls: Challenges and solutions. Sex Education, 18(1), 1–13.
- Flores, D., & Barroso, J. (2017). 21st century parent–child sex communication in the United States: A process review. Journal of Sex Research, 54(4–5), 532–548.
- Harris, A. L., Sutherland, M. A., & Hutchinson, M. K. (2013). Parental influences of sexual risk among urban African American adolescent males. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 45(2), 141–150
- Heywood, W., Patrick, K., Smith, A. M. A., & Pitts, M. K. (2015). Associations between early first sexual intercourse and later sexual and reproductive outcomes: A systematic review of population-based data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(3), 531–569
- Hyde, A., Drennan, J., Butler, M., Howlett, E., Carney, M., & Lohan, M. (2013). Parents’ constructions of communication with their children about safer sex. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22(23–24), 3438–3446.
- Malacane, M., & Beckmeyer, J. J. (2016). A review of parent-based barriers to parent–adolescent communication about sex and sexuality: Implications for sex and family educators. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 11(1), 27–40.
- Miller, K. S., Fasula, A. M., Dittus, P., Wiegand, R. E., Wyckoff, S. C., & McNair, L. (2009). Barriers and facilitators to maternal communication with preadolescents about age-relevant sexual topics. AIDS and Behavior, 13(2), 365–374.
- Padilla-Walker, L. M. (2018). Longitudinal change in parent-adolescent communication about sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63(6), 753-758.
- Regnerus, M. D. (2005). Talking about sex: Religion and patterns of parent-child communication about sex and contraception. The Sociological Quarterly, 46(1), 79–105.
- Rogers, A. A., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Hurst, J. L. (2020). Development and testing of the Parent-Child Sex Communication Inventory: A multidimensional assessment tool for parent and adolescent informants. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-14.
- Rogers, A. A., Ha, T., Stormshak, E. A., & Dishion, T. J. (2015). Quality of parent–adolescent conversations about sex and adolescent sexual behavior: An observational study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57(2), 174–178.
- Somers, C. L., & Surmann, A. T. (2004). Adolescents’ preferences for source of sex education. Child Study Journal, 34(1), 47–59.