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When Should Parents Start Discussing Sex with Their Kids? 

Cindy Pierce
  • Cindy Pierce

Cindy Pierce insists she'll discuss anything with her kids, and she's on a mission to help other parents do the same. The New Hampshire-based sex educator, comedic storyteller and mom of three teenagers navigates topics like sexuality, porn and peer pressure with humor and leaves judgment aside.

Pierce's 2015 book, Sexploitation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World, encourages parents to have open conversations with their children about sex, rather than leave it to their peers or the internet. If kids enter their teenage years with accurate information, Pierce asserts, they're more likely to have healthy attitudes about sex and relationships as adults. Here she offers tips on embracing honesty and making peace with the awkwardness.

KIDS VT: At what age should parents begin conversations about sex?

CINDY PIERCE: I thought my pediatrician was picking on me because I had a one-woman show about sex, but it turns out he says this to all his patients: "You should start talking to your kids between kindergarten and second grade." Certainly by age 7, kids should know how babies come into the world, and that should include babies who have two moms, two dads or were adopted.

KVT: How'd it go when you first broached the subject with your kids?

CP: Of course it was awkward. I backpedaled and made mistakes. With all three of them, it never got any easier. Each one was different with the way they responded and the questions they asked. Everyone says, "Oh, I want to protect my kids' innocence," or "They haven't asked questions so of course they're not interested." But as my pediatrician put it: Either you're the one to tell them about sex, or they will learn about it on the internet. I'm really glad I did it because by the time they were exposed to sexual images on the internet, they knew what they were seeing, and we had a healthy base to have those discussions.

KVT: How should parents decide how much to reveal during these conversations?

CP: Once you're in it, answer only the questions they ask, and then, if they're not asking questions, tell them only what is developmentally appropriate. By first grade, I'm having a conversation with my child about sex. By third grade, I'm talking to them about porn. When I'm in the car with my 7-year-old and the Rihanna song "S&M" comes on and she sings, "Whips and chains excite me," I say, "OK. Let's talk about what that means." Instead of scolding them and freaking out when your child comes across porn, say, "Let's have a conversation. It's totally OK to be curious about naked bodies and sex, but the problem is some of the things that are online are not healthy ideas about sex and are disrespectful to women. Or they're degrading and objectifying to men." Whatever they saw, take it on.

KVT: What should parents do if they get the question at a moment when they're not prepared to answer it?

CP: That's totally fine. Just say, "I've got to think about that." Parents often think they have to be the all-knowing dispensers of knowledge. I've said to my kids, "I need some time to think about that one." We all want our children to grow up and be comfortable in their bodies and with their sexuality. But everyone wants them to learn that from somewhere else. Parents are their kids' primary sex educators. That begins by using the correct anatomical terminology. And keep your pulse down when they say something unexpected — because they will. I always say, talking about sex will always be awkward, even if you're comfortable and have done it before. You've got to be comfortable making mistakes. You'll survive it.

KVT: Any helpful resources you can recommend?

CP: Author Robie Harris has a book called It's Not the Stork!. Another one [by Harris] is called It's Perfectly Normal. Deborah Rothman has a book called Talk To Me First. She's my role model. Both of these women have so much practical advice to offer.

KVT: Do you recommend internet filters to block pornography?

CP: For really young kids, it's worth it. But once your kid is 8 or 9, they're going to start working around it. Once you feel comfortable about blocking it, you're just creating sneakier kids and setting yourself up for the lie that they're never going to see this stuff. The alternative is, assume your kids are going to see these images somewhere. We're not going to stop the porn industry. Thirty percent of what crosses the internet every month is porn. That's more than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.

KVT: Any practical advice for curtailing their exposure to such images?

CP: In our house, laptops and phones do not go upstairs to their bedrooms. They do all their homework in one room and all the computers face outward. It's noisier, they fight more and it's distracting for me, but that's how families have to work it out.

KVT: How about what our kids see at their friends' homes?

CP: You can't control what other parents do. Different families have different rules. But you have to keep having these conversations. It's not a box you check once and you're done. And because it keeps happening, it gets easier. [For me], it doesn't feel awkward now. It does for [my kids] sometimes. They're like, "I've got a friend coming over. Do you think maybe you won't mention the word 'vagina?'"

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Authors

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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