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How to ... talk to your child about sex

Avoid the ‘big awkward talk’ approach and tell the truth in an age-appropriate way

It’s common to feel awkward and nervous, but it’s important to be honest and clear. Photograph: iStock

When should I talk to my child about sex?
Early and often, that's when you should talk to your child about sex and sexuality. "It's not about having the one big awkward talk," says Jenny Carty, clinical manager at the Clanwilliam Institute. "We should all be trying to weave sex and sexuality into our kids' lives, in an age-appropriate way, from the very beginning." When they ask, "Where  do babies come from?" – that's your in.

So, where do babies come from?
A good idea is to use your child's own birth story and your own particular family situation, says Carty. "That could be, Daddy and I got together and we really loved each other and wanted to have a baby. There was an egg and a sperm and the sperm goes into the egg." You don't have to get too much into the details with younger children, she says. Expand as they get older.

But I'll be morto …
It's common to feel awkward and nervous, but it's important to be honest and clear. If you are caught on the hop, it's okay to play for time by saying, "Can I get back to you on that, can we talk about that after lunch?" But be sure to follow up.

“The trick is not to shy away from it in a way that makes them feel they’ve done something wrong by asking,” says Carty. Asking a clarifying question such as “Where did you hear about that?” or “What did you hear?” can also help you to give them the information they need in that moment.

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Talking vaguely about God, magic and looking under cabbage leaves won’t help with clarity.

Same but different
Of course there are lots of different family types. Your child will probably know this from school. The old, "When a man and a woman love each other very much …" story doesn't cut it.

“It’s the idea that we are one type of family, but there are lots of ways to have a family and there are lots of ways for kids to grow up,” says Carty. “People have penises and people have vaginas and this is how the mechanics of it work, and this is how babies are born, but there are lots of different kinds of families.”

You just said 'vagina'
Use the proper names for genitals as much as possible, advises Carty. These words don't tend to be easy for us. "In Irish culture, there has always been a little bit of shame or something around them, but that's your own issue. Treat the words 'vagina' or 'penis' like you might say 'arm' or 'knee'. Kids don't care. It doesn't have any connotation or loaded meaning for them."

Children should know about their boundaries from a young age. “It’s important for them to know what is and is not acceptable when it comes to touching and being touched by other people.”

But what if they tell another child?
You have to do what's right for your family, says Carty. "If as parents we don't take control of educating our own children, somebody else will. They will certainly learn things from their peers and what they hear could be quite scary. Yes, someone might complain that your son told their son, but at least if you told it right, it's better to hear the truth than something awful."