When she was a kid, Hanh Provenzano used to think that if a boy and a girl slept in the same bed, the girl would get pregnant – no exceptions. She was convinced that if a boy touched her breasts, they would grow and grow and never stop. She believed that if she ate citrus fruit, her period would get heavier.
“I don’t agree with how I was raised, but it spooked me from getting in trouble,” says Provenzano, now a 43-year-old pharmacist and mother of two in Turnersville, New Jersey, who attributes such misinformation to her strict Vietnamese upbringing. She doesn’t want her boys – now 14 and 12 – to grow up the same way. “I would never make it seem like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t talk about it’ or, ‘they’re too young to learn about it,” she says.
Sex and puberty, that is.
Plenty of parents are finding that the sex talk today is a lot different than what they received as children, says Sharon Lamb, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, who specializes in sexual development.
“It’s more likely that kids will hear from other kids or see things in a movie or in other kinds of media and it will raise questions,” she says. “And so a sex talk isn’t a sit-down sex talk anymore – it’s more of a response to the questions at the time.”
But handling those questions isn’t always easy or comfortable. “Even open, liberal parents are sort of anxious about how to do that,” says Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist based near the District of Columbia with expertise in adolescent and teenage development.
So first, relax. And keep in mind: There isn’t a single, no-fail script for the sex talk. “Parents think they need to do it in a very perfect way, and I really feel like that defeats the purpose,” Weber says. Getting tongue-tied or acting awkward is OK because it shows your kids that adults struggle with these questions, too. “It’s important not to put that pressure on yourself as a parent” to speak about it eloquently, Weber says.
Instead, view these discussions as chances to strengthen your relationship with your kid. “It’s just an opportunity to show them they can talk [to you] about anything … and that kind of builds the framework for the years ahead,” Weber says. Still at a loss for words? These seven one-liners can help:
1. “I’m glad you asked.”
Even if your kid asks you at a bad time, uses a dirty word or poses a question you don’t know how to answer, be grateful he or she came to you. “I’m really glad you’re talking to me about this,” Weber suggest saying, “and if I don’t know the answer right away, we’ll figure it out together.”
If you do know the answer, spit it out. After all, kids don’t usually ask about things they don’t want to know, Weber says. “If they ask a question about sex or their bodies, as much as you can, try to give them the facts about it,” she says. “That’s usually a sign that they’re ready to hear it.”
2. “What exactly do you want to know?”
Some kids are interested in the science of sex, in which case you can tell them about things like sperm and eggs, Weber says. Other kids are curious about what actually happens beneath the bed sheets, in which case you can address anatomy and, depending on their age, intercourse. And some kids simply want to be “in the know” at school, Lamb says, so you can discuss the truth about what they’ve heard.
Usually, keeping a narrow focus will suffice, says Weber, who suggests sprinkling sex-related topics into other conversations rather than devoting entire discussions to sex. “Usually, they’ll just start talking about something else, so I’d just roll with that,” she says. “You’re not trying to overwhelm them with this.”
3. “It’s called a vagina.”
When Provenzano’s youngest son asked if girls have the same genitals as boys, the older son chimed in. “No, silly, girls have va-Chinas,” Provenzano remembers him saying. She promptly taught them the correct pronunciation. “Call it like it is,” she recommends, “they’ll just get over it.”
Using accurate and anatomically-correct terms for body parts and sex is a good idea, since code words can confuse kids and make the real words or acts seem shameful, experts say. “[Early childhood] is just such an open sponge time to be very open about parts,” Weber says.
4. “Every family is different.”
Of course, it might be possible to be too open with words that aren’t thrown about casually in the adult world. Provenzano found that out after her sons learned the words “vagina” and “nipple.” “Once you teach them something, that’s what they say all week,” she laughs.
To save face, it can be helpful to give kids some guidelines about where and when it’s appropriate to talk about body parts and sex. For example, you might say, “Every family has different rules about talking about sex,” or “Sex is personal and it means different things to different people,” Lamb suggests.
5. “When two people trust each other …”
Lamb prefers the word “trust” to “love” when talking about sex. “I’m trying to create a way of talking about it that isn’t about danger and risk, but about healthy sexuality that’s mutual,” she says. Talking about “good feelings” can also set the right tone, she says. “The more lighthearted and positive you are about it, the more likely the child is going to come to you if there’s some issues coming up [in the future,]” she says.
6. “Other kids your age …”
Direct answers are important, but indirectness has its place too. For example, instead of saying “yourbody is changing,” try saying something like, “a lot of kids your age are starting to notice their bodies changing,” since the former can feel threatening, Weber says.
You can also use kids’ peers to open up other discussions. For instance, if your child says a friend has a boyfriend or girlfriend, you can ask what he or she thinks that means. “Create a sounding board … where they can talk about what they see around them,” Weber suggests.
7. “If you want to know more …”
Lamb isn’t a big fan of using books to initiate a sex talk since they can overload kids before you’ve had a chance to gauge their knowledge and interest. She’d rather parents offer kids books after “the talk” in order to supply a vetted resource (read: not the Internet) kids can turn to if they want to look up questions on their own.
Weber, too, sees the book method as more of a crutch for parents than a helpful tool for kids. The more you talk about sex-related topics openly, the less likely they’ll be to turn elsewhere for information. “Again, you’re trying to establish a relationship for them to be able to have more conversations with you over time,” she says, “because the conversation just gets more and more complex.”