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Talk to kids early and often about sex and sexuality

Originally published March 31, 2023 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:


Having “the talk” with your kids is hard. That’s why so many parents are avoiding it these days at home. However, many of these same parents seem to be perfectly comfortable shouting opinions at school board meetings, putting hate-filled posts on social media or holding signs outside government buildings.


Many are up in arms today about the discourse over gender and sexuality in schools. There is a range of opinion on the issue that goes from one extreme to the next, but no matter the beliefs and values that dictate the content of the discussion, research proves the conversation needs to be had.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that when sex and sexual behavior are discussed, a host of benefits ensue. Whether parents like it or not, their kids are being educated in school about gender identity, sex and sexuality … and most likely not from a teacher.


Kids talk about their lives with their friends, and, as they get older, the conversation is often directed at relationships and physical intimacy. They’re also getting information earlier than ever via pornography and online content with the average age of getting a smartphone 10. and age 12 the most common for first viewing pornography.

The cat’s out of the bag.


It doesn’t matter which school, which kids, which value sets you hold, kids are giving themselves an education on sex whether adults like it or not. With that being said, what should parents and schools do to address the matter?

How do we communicate to a broad range of ages, values and opinions about something so fundamental to child health and development such as sex and health education?


First, parents are the primary line of advocacy, affirmation and education in a child’s life. If they feel strongly about an issue, it should be expressed in the home and opinions should be shared openly. The child development research stating how children should be introduced to sensitive topics is clear no matter the opinion, and it is boiled down into two little words: “early” and “often.”

That means, long before any potentially controversial sex ed class is attended in school, parents should have already covered the ground.


Adults are often afraid to bring up topics like sex and sexuality or even death and divorce with kids with the thinking that “they’re not ready.” This mindset is ignoring the integrity of the child and denying their ability to think about weighty concepts. Children are more than capable of thinking of difficult issues in a developmentally and age-appropriate way, and not talking honestly to them can lead to shame and confusion.

The only point in question is how to talk to kids about sex and other potentially sensitive topics. How do we approach kids with these issues that can be intimidating?


There are five points that the CDC recommends reiterating in a sex and health education conversation. This is a framework that can be used no matter the wide span of values, religious belief preferences, or opinions on gender identity or sexuality.


1. Identify family, friends and media influences that impact health. No one lives in a bubble, and kids should be assisted in identifying the countless messages they are sent about sexuality and health. In the age of TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, they are bombarded with information in the form of images and messaging.


2. Access valid and reliable health information. Facts don’t lie and kids should know what sex is and what behaviors lead to pregnancy, what sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV) are, and how they are spread not only through sexual intercourse but oral sex and other sexual behaviors. Condoms, birth control and abstinence should all be in the discussion, especially as youth sexual protective behaviors have decreased as recent surveys show.


3. Communicate with family, friends and trusted adults about health issues. Educate kids on how important community is and how communication with others can help create a lifestyle of whole health. Kids should know that they are not alone in taking care of themselves and they don’t have to do it in isolation.


4. Make informed and thoughtful decisions about your health. Kids should know that health is a choice, it doesn’t just happen to us. Choices have to be made, and educating kids on the consequences and outcomes for decisions is necessary.


5. Take responsibility for themselves and others to improve their health. As kids mature and get older, their ability to make impactful decisions increases exponentially, and caring adults should encourage freedom and responsibility as they age. Their decisions are important and extend beyond their own health and well-being either for the positive or the negative.


The benefits of caring adults having age-appropriate conversations on sex and sexuality are manyfold. The payoff might not be for years to come, but there is a reward. A delay in initiation of sexual intercourse, having fewer sex partners, having fewer experiences of unprotected sex and improving academic performance are a few of the long-term benefits of sex education from a trusted adult.


Adolescents are dealing with rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. The latest research states 20% of teen girls report they’ve experienced sexual violence, and LGBTQ populations are among the highest risk of sexual health concerns. With a whopping 50% of children having social media accounts by age 12, talking to kids about sex, sexuality and other sensitive issues is imperative.


Our schools are grossly underfunded, suffering from staffing limitations, teachers leaving the profession and facing many growing operational challenges of security, low attendance rates, mental health disruptions and violence. It cannot rest on the schools’ shoulders to be the sole source of stability and education. Rather, parents must take the leading role in initiating these conversations with their kids early and often, informing, sharing their values, being honest and open, with listening and building trust as the bedrock.


No matter the color, class or creed, kids can have the opportunity to thrive when they know that no matter what choices they make about sex and sexuality, their parents and trusted adults will still love and support them.

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