Taking the ‘awkward’ out of sex ed with Justine Kiely-Scott

When I was growing up, anything related to private body parts and sex were never spoken about, at home or at school. If we asked what sex was, we were told anything from, ‘It’s something between adults – you’ll learn about this when you’re older’ (fobbed off), ‘It happens when two people share a special hug’ (super baffling), ‘Babies are delivered by storks’ (okay – ridiculous), ‘We prayed really hard for a baby and we got you’ (didn’t add up), or, ‘It happens when two people kiss’ (really?). The list of these bizarre explanations was endless.  

Now, I understand how unhelpful these explanations were and why the mystery surrounding these topics made us more intrigued. Because we weren’t encouraged to talk and ask questions, many things we heard were left unchallenged. Instead, we were forced to find answers from the school playground, just make up the answers ourselves, or go to the modern-day equivalent of Google: The Oxford Concise Dictionary.

When I was in Year 6, with the encouragement of a couple of friends, I did something very ‘shameful’. We waited until the teacher left the room, snuck up to the bookshelf beside her desk and looked-up ‘sexual intercourse’ in the dictionary. We felt scared; who knew what would happen if we got caught, and what’s more, what would happen when it was discovered we had seen the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’? We slammed the dictionary shut as the teacher re-entered the room and slunk back to our desks – giggling but unsettled by the shocked and judgemental faces of our classmates who could turn us in at any moment.

I get that talking to our children about sex and bodies can be awkward at best, and difficult or triggering at worst. We often don’t talk because we have our own discomfort or baggage and we want to avoid any conversations that might be difficult. That’s human nature, right? Having my own children has meant learning a whole new language and I’ve had to listen carefully and read widely to find words and phrases that I feel comfortable using. It didn’t come naturally, but I knew I had to find a way to ensure my kids grew up thinking these topics were normal, not taboo or embarrassing.  Many parents tell me they don’t have a memory template of how discussions can play out without awkwardness, so it’s no wonder we’re left struggling with what to say and how to say it.

These days, our children won’t go to the safety of the Oxford Concise Dictionary for information about sex, they’ll go to the internet (and find way more than they bargained for). That’s why parents’ influence and willingness to talk and listen are more important than ever. The more we talk, the less likely our children will be exposed to information and images that they can’t un-see and if they do see anything, they can talk to a trusted adult to help process and make sense of things. Children and teens don’t have an inbuilt blueprint that tells them what to ask and when, so it’s up to schools and parents to initiate conversations.

Parents are the first and most important educators

Sexuality and relationships education in schools provides young people with accurate information so they can make decisions about their bodies, relationships and staying safe, but it’s not just the school’s job to educate. Parents and caregivers have a part to play too. Parents are the first educators in their child’s life. They adjust language to suit the maturity and particular characteristics of their child and ask the right questions to get them talking. They teach, either overtly or by example, what their family’s beliefs and values are.

A partnership between home and school

Teaching sex ed in the classroom is great fun, but it’s when I talk to or work with parents and their children together that I feel I’m making the biggest difference. I love it when parents say they’re relieved, energised and more confident about conversations at the end of a session – something they were nervous about an hour before.

School communities include families from wide-ranging cultures, religions and backgrounds, and teachers are sensitive and mindful of this diversity. At school, students learn the facts and ways of thinking and problem solving – but it’s from home that young people will get their values and beliefs. That’s why educational institutions need to find a way to upskill parents and build their confidence to talk to their children. Parent information evenings and whole family sessions are great for modelling how to talk about bodies, puberty and sex in a matter-of-fact way. Once parents know what’s covered, how topics are approached, the language used, and what rules are put in place to create safe and respectful classrooms, they’ll feel more willing to dive into these important conversations at home. Precisely because of their lack of education growing up, many parents welcome opportunities to learn about ways to talk.

Giving parents the tools they need

By creating open and honest dialogues with their children, parents send the message that it’s okay to come to them with any questions or worries. Having chats at home also helps to reinforce what they’re learning at school. Both young people and parents need support on how to take the embarrassment out of this topic, one conversation at a time. Parents need to talk to other parents; find websites and books with helpful tips and suggestions; and test what words, phrases and ideas sit best with their core values, beliefs and comfort levels.

If my Year 6 self had been allowed to ask questions and been told that it was normal to be curious, then I wouldn’t even remember looking up the dictionary all those years ago.  

How to have ‘the talk’

This is one of the most frequent questions we get from parents and caregivers. With many adults never having received much in the way of sexuality and relationships education when they were young, they’re unsure how to have these talks with their kids now. So, here’s some of our tips on getting that conversation started around consent, puberty, periods, sex, friendships, pornography, or whatever it may be. 

Of course, the idea of ‘The Talk’ is misleading; none of these topics should ever just be covered in the one conversation. Hopefully you will have been checking in and having chats about a range of issues throughout their whole lives. If we can engineer a series of little talks, where we build knowledge, cover new ground, reinforce previous messages, then that is ideal. Rather than the formal sit down summit meeting, casual chats that are frequent, and ongoing, allow for everyone to feel more comfortable, and even more importantly, they’re more likely to be a two-way communication rather than a one-way lecture.

First of all, take the pressure off yourself. You aren’t always going to get it right, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And that’s why having lots of little incidental chats can be better than feeling like you’ve got to approach a conversation as if it’s THE conversation, and the only one you’ll ever have on the topic. 

Using your normal voice is important, not a formal, explaining voice. Keep your voice even-toned and casual. This helps to put our children at ease because they take their lead from us and are super-attuned to tension, even when we think we’re hiding it. And try and be neutral in what you’re saying (we don’t want to make them feel embarrassed or ashamed, but we don’t want to be ‘Yay! Periods!’ either). 

A great approach to any topic of conversation is, instead of beginning with your opinion (once they get to a certain age they may not listen anyway), start with: ‘So what do you plan to do?’ or ‘What do you think about this?’ Get them to share their ideas first. This will help establish a dialogue and make your child feel involved. And no matter their answers to these questions, be wary of responding with expressions like ‘you don’t understand’, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ and ‘you’re too young’. They’ll become defensive even if they know you’re right.

If you’re still feeling a bit stuck, here are a few examples of how to break the ice:

Puberty

‘So I realise that you’re getting to a point where soon some of your classmates will be hitting puberty. Have you heard of puberty before? Do you know what happens and what it means? It’s something that’s completely normal and happens to everyone. Some parts of puberty only boys get, and some only girls, but a lot of things happen to both boys and girls. Would it be OK if we had a chat about it now?’ 

Periods

‘Remember those chats we had about puberty? I know we touched on periods, but I’d like to talk to you a bit more about what periods are because it’s a big topic and can be a little confusing. What do you know about periods? Have any of your friends got theirs yet? You don’t have to tell me who. Periods can seem big and scary but actually they’re completely normal, and everyone who has a uterus gets them for a long part of their lives. Can we talk about this now?’

If your child is a boy you might want to add: ‘I know that you might be thinking that you don’t need to know about this, but actually it’s important for you to understand how puberty and reproduction works for both boys and girls.’

Sex and babies

‘I was watching a television show the other day and it said that babies come from stalks. What do you think about that? Do you know where babies actually come from? It’s pretty interesting how it works. Have you heard anything before about sex? You might have heard that it’s when a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina. And that’s true, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot of wrong information out there, and it’s important that you know the facts. Do you think we could have a chat about it now?’ 

Pornography (under 11)

‘There are things on the internet that aren’t for children. Sometimes there are videos of people with no clothes on. They might be hurting each other and making strange sounds. If you ever see anything like this, look away immediately and tell a trusted adult straight away. You won’t ever get into trouble.’

Pornography (11-14 years)

‘I want to talk to you about something that might be a bit awkward but I think it’s important. Is that okay? Have you heard about pornography? What do you know about it? I am concerned about the messages it gives about what is real and what is not. Could we have a chat about this?’ 

Respect


‘I’ve been thinking a lot lately about respect. It’s the reason why we’re staying at home right now, out of respect for others. I know it can seem like a bit of a weird thing to talk about, but I think it’s important to think about what it means to respect the people around you, what respect looks like and also what disrespect can look like. Can you think of any times you’ve seen someone show respect clearly? What do you think are some examples of disrespectful behaviour? Why do you think it’s important to show respect for other people?’ 

Friendships

‘Do you think you’ll miss your friends these school holidays? Are there any friends that you would have missed a year or two ago but you won’t miss so much now? You know, that’s OK – friendships change and that’s normal. It’s also OK if you’re looking forward to just being alone these holidays. It’s a wonderful thing to have friends, but it can also be tricky or difficult at times. I’d like to have a little chat about friendships with you now, is that alright?’ 

Dating and consent

This is something we cover in depth in our last blog post, including age-appropriate conversation starters. It’s a big one to cover, so we recommend going back and reading it here

If you think you’ve ‘stuffed up’ a talk

Sometimes during these conversations our kids can say something that catches us off guard and we don’t respond well, or we might even ourselves give them wrong information. That’s OK, we’re not going to get it right every time, and you can always come back to a conversation even months later. 

‘Remember when we were talking about X? Well, I’ve been thinking, and I realise now that I handled it all wrong or could have handled it better, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have freaked out like I did because I made it all about me rather than just listening to you. So I want to apologise for that, and I want to let you know that I’m going to try to stay calm in the future. I want you to feel you can come to me.’

‘Remember when we were talking about X? Well I realised that what I said about Y was wrong. I’m sorry about that. I guess it just shows how easily misinformation can spread. I’ve done some more research since then that I’d like to share with you, can we chat now?’ 

How to talk about consent from ages 5 to 18

When we started teaching the concept of consent in schools about 13 years ago, the idea of asking for permission was laughed at by students who thought it would ‘ruin the moment’ and just be ‘too awkward’ to bring up. But since then we’ve witnessed a distinct shift.

Students now are open to thinking about consent, and there seems to be a greater awareness of what it is and why it’s so important. This is a fantastic change, but even with this greater knowledge, there still can be some confusion around what consent is and when children should start learning about it.

Five to 10

When they’re this young, the conversation should revolve around body safety rather than any mention of sexual activity. This means making sure they know the proper names of body parts, and ensuringthey understand the difference between public and private, for example how dining rooms are public but bathrooms are private. These two things will help them to recognise when someone is crossing a boundary into a private area or situation and give them the tools to talk about it. But a conversation also about whether they are happy to hug or kiss relatives, for example, when greeting in social situations can be really important here. Some kids love hugging and are very physically affectionate, while others aren’t, and then some are in between (it depends very much on the person and the child’s feeling of comfort). Forcing children to hug or kiss another person when they don’t want to sends them the message that their No doesn’t count. It’s better to potentially upset a relative (who will surely understand if it’s explained to them) rather than teach children that they don’t have autonomy over their own bodies. Substitutes can be used, eg a high five, a wave, a smile, a hello. It’s important that adults listen to children when they say they don’t want to give someone a hug, and that the child is supported each and every time.

A big part of this is letting them know that that their body is their own, and no one has a right to touch them if they don’t want it, and particularly not to look at or touch their private parts without good reason. And finally, make sure they understand that no child should keep (or be asked to keep) any secrets about anything to do with their private body parts. This will help them recognise that it’s important to talk, even if someone has asked them not to.

11 to 13

This can be a tricky age. Some kids will still find even talking to the opposite sex yucky and embarrassing, while some will experience their first kiss, and others might be realising they have same-sex attractions. While you don’t need to have the sex chat yet, it’s a good time to start laying some groundwork that will help to keep them safe now and set them up with good practices later in life. 

First, you can ask them if they’ve heard of the term ‘consent’ and know what it means. Explain that it means to give permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something, but that it’s usually used in the context of between two people. If someone wants to, say, give you a shoulder massage, you have to consent to it, and if say, you want to give your crush a kiss on the cheek, they have to consent to it as well. That means actively saying ‘YES’ – not a shrug or the absence of a no. This short video compares consent around sex to drinking tea, and could be useful to steal an idea for conversation (just use the metaphor, you don’t need to mention sex). 

Once again, it’s important to stress to them that their body is their own. This can involve explaining that even if a friend or relative asks for a hug, or someone at school/a friend’s place/school camp asks to kiss them, or to do something in a ‘dare’ – they should consider whether they want to, and only go ahead if they decide they do. Tell them it’s okay to say no, even if other kids are doing it, and that even if they’re half way through it’s okay to stop the activity at any time. People are allowed to change their minds.

On the flip side, it’s also important to explain that if there’s something they would like to do with someone else, they should always ask. Whether it’s a dance at a school disco or a kiss with a crush, asking first is a must-do – and both parties have to agree to it, without any pressure. Even if they seem like a kid who’s not engaged with any of these sorts of things, it’s imperative to get ahead of their development so that they’re prepared when the time comes. 

Example conversations to get you started:

‘I know you have school camp/such and such’s party coming up. Sometimes, at these sorts of things, kids can play games that might involve dares and pushing boundaries. Remember, no one should make you feel like you have do to something – only you can decide.’ 

‘I remember it was around this age kids started getting crushes or kissing. Has this happened to any of your friends? Remember, it’s completely normal, and if you decide you like someone and might want to kiss them or go out on a date – you always have to ask first. And if anyone likes you, they should ask you too. You can always stop a date or a kiss any any point you feel like too; it’s okay for a ‘yes’ to turn into a ‘no’ at any point.’ 

14 to 18

Ok, this is where the conversation gets big. We don’t have room to cover everything in-depth here, so if you’d like to learn more on the topic, we recommend this articlethis podcast episode, and this short video (also, this quick vid that likens asking for consent around sex to drinking tea is cute and easy to understand). For most teens this conversation will happen before they ever engage in any sexual activity – and it should. They should enter their first sexual experiences prepared and safe, for both themselves and their parter. And it’s a chat you’ll need to have more than once if you want to set them up with good practices for their adult life. 

Hopefully you’ve started a conversation already around what ‘consent’ means. Whether you have or haven’t, it’s best to go over it again, because this time you’ll need to go into what it means in a context of sexual activity. Explain that it means to give permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something, but that it’s usually used in the context of between two people. Any kind of sexual activity, or even non-sexual touching, needs to have the consent of both parties. And that means an active, verbal ‘YES’. A shrug, the absence of a ‘no’, a ‘yes’ that comes out only from being under pressure or coercion – none of these are consent. If someone is heavily under the use of drugs or alcohol, they cannot give consent. There should be a clear understanding between the parties about what you’re consenting to.

Tell them too that it’s always okay to say no; a ‘yes’ can turn into a ‘no’ at any point. Just because you’ve said yes to one thing, that doesn’t mean yes to another (for example, a yes to kissing doesn’t mean a yes to touching, or a yes to mutual masturbation doesn’t also mean a yes to penetrative sex). Just because you’ve done something with a certain person before, doesn’t mean you consent to doing it again – even if you currently are or used to date. 

Consent means communicating in words, not just actions. Some teenagers might argue back that it can ‘kill the mood’ to ask, to which you can reply that there are sexy ways you can ask someone if they want to do something, and that they’re going to enjoy the activity a lot more if they’re feeling totally comfortable. And it’s about getting that enthusiastic ‘yes’; if there’s any hesitation from the other person then don’t go ahead. Same with if they suddenly become withdrawn during an act. Check in, ask if they want to stop, and if they say yes (or seem unsure or something is off) – then stop everything. 

Talk to your teen about how it’s crucial they spell out every step of the way in a kind, gentle, and loving manner to make sure their crush is on the same page about what’s happening, and also that they feel safe to express their desires and boundaries. Explain that this way, everyone involved will have better, healthier and more respectful and enjoyable sexual experiences. 

Example conversations to get you started: 

‘I know we’ve talked about what consent means before, but now you’re getting older I think we should have the conversation again. You’re getting to an age where you might start thinking about having sexual experiences with other people, which is exciting! But it also can be confusing, and sometimes unpleasant if you’re not prepared. Can we have a chat now about what consent looks like between two people? Consent is key to helping you stay happy and safe.’ 

‘Have any of your friends at school started dating yet? Do you think it’s something you might be interested in soon? Whether it is, or it isn’t, I think we need to have another conversation about consent. It’s the most important part of sex, and I want to make sure you completely understand what it means. Can we talk now?’ 

Help! My child asked me where babies come from

My five year old asked me yesterday where babies come from. We haven’t talked about sex before, and I’m worried about what to say or how.

It’s normal for parents and caregivers to be anxious about having conversations about sex, reproduction, puberty and the like with their children. This is especially true of young kids, as we don’t want to say too much too soon. But kids are definitely ready to know about pregnancy and reproduction by age five especially if they are asking questions. Plus, children generally only take on the information they’re ready for and filter out the rest, so if you slip up and say something you don’t think you should have – don’t worry.

Don’t be too hard on yourself
First and foremost, take the pressure yourself! You’re not going to get it right all the time, and that’s okay. You also don’t need to be an expert or know every single detail. This is why these sorts of conversations should never just be one big talk. Try to keep a calm and neutral tone; it sends a message that talking about this isn’t a big deal. By making time to chat about sex, reproduction and so on a semi-regular basis (of course, you have to follow what suits your parenting style and what you feel right about here), we send the message to our children that talking about these topics isn’t taboo, and that they can come to us with their questions.


Getting started
So, how do you get the conversation rolling? Our advice is to start by asking them what they already know. Ask them what they’ve heard. Confirm anything that’s right and correct anything they’ve got wrong. They might have some ‘out-there’ misinformation, or even details about something that you think is way too old for them, but it’s important not to laugh at anything they say or even get angry. Sometimes we can think they’re trying to ‘get a rise’ with what they say, when really, it’s a sincere question or something they’ve heard that’s confused them, so be wary of allowing your discomfort to get in the way. When we feel uncomfortable, we can be sensitive and may react negatively or even find excuses to avoid a conversation. Thinking a child is being ‘silly’ for asking a question (when they’re not, and really just want to know the answer) is an example of this. Once you’ve asked them what they know, before you get into the actual mechanics, it’s a good idea to go over the proper names for all the basic reproductive body parts (breasts, vulva, vagina, uterus, ovaries, penis, testicles).    
 
How to explain how babies are made
Start using the language your child is familiar with and then you can build knowledge and vocabulary along the way. You are in control of how much you say, so what we have below you can cover all of, or pick the bits you want to begin with. A simple start might be: all babies are made from two tiny cells, a sperm cell from a man and an egg cell from a woman. (Some parents of young children might prefer to use the word ‘seed’ for ‘sperm cell’ – that’s fine, but they’ll need to know the proper word later.) A baby is made when the sperm and the egg meet and join together. Depending on the age and interest of the child you can stop there and see if they have any questions. Books are a great way to introduce the topic and we’ve listed a few to start with at the end of this article.
 
If they’re ready for more information you can go on and explain: most women are born with eggs in a part of their bodies called ovaries and most men make sperm in a part of their bodies called testicles. The egg travels from the ovaries and begins to make its way to the woman’s uterus – which is where a baby can grow. When two people decide that they’re ready to make a baby, the penis fits inside the vagina. Once inside, the penis releases sperm (millions of them) through the end of the penis into the vagina and the sperm swim through the vagina, into the uterus and then up a special tube (fallopian tube) looking for an egg. If it finds an egg, the egg and the sperm join together and then travel to the uterus where a baby might grow. It takes about nine months for a baby to grow. This is called pregnancy. When the baby is ready to be born, most of the time it comes out of the vagina, but sometimes a doctor might instead make a small cut in the person’s belly to take the baby out.


 
Of course, not all babies are made this way and you can also talk about assisted reproduction. Once again, keep it simple and say that sometimes a doctor can help a person have a baby by joining the sperm and the egg outside the body and then placing it carefully in the uterus to grow. It’s important to remind children that no matter what a person’s family looks like or how a child is conceived, all children come from a sperm cell and an egg cell. You might want to talk about what sex is and that it’s important that both people agree for this to happen. You might also like to include the statement that sex is not something for children, it’s for older people but you can also have this conversation without using the word (‘sex’) if you feel they’re not ready. We don’t talk about sex with five-year-old children in the classroom; usually a five year old is  satisfied with hearing about the egg and ‘seed’, but you know your child best and what they’re ready for.
 
This might seem like a lot to cover, but remember, it’s something you should talk about more than once (or twice) – so you don’t have to get it right the first try. Take the time to revisit the topic with your child, adding more as they grow up. Remind them that they can always come to you with their questions. Tell them that if you don’t know the answer straight away, you’ll make sure to find out and get back to them (and make sure to do it). Children at this age are often curious about sex and babies, and having open conversations can help to stop them developing any shame around the topic. Sex, reproduction and pregnancy are normal and natural. And at the end of the day as the parent or caregiver – you’ll know best how much they’re ready to know. Using picture books can also help them understand.

Finally, it’s important to know that talking about these topics with children does not change their behaviour in any way, as research shows young people who have received accurate, age-appropriate information from a reliable source growing up delay sexual activity and make safer, healthier decisions. Nor does talking necessarily lead to more and more detailed discussions about topics you may not be ready for. Children are usually satisfied with simple clear answers, and remember you are in control of the chat and you can say ‘we can talk about that another time’ if you feel you’re losing control of the conversation. This slows things down and gives you time to think.

A note on being inclusive

For some families, using inclusive language is really important and think it’s never too young to start talking about diverse families, and diverse sexualities and genders – and to teach respect around this. You can talk about the fact that there are lots of ways to be a family; a family could be a mum and a dad, two mums or two dads, blended families, children who are adopted or fostered into a family, children who live with grandparents, and others who are looked after by parents who don’t live in the same house. Additionally, some people feel it’s important that children learn about gender diversity (and the sooner the better) but it’s a topic that families will manage differently.

For families that have children wanting to talk and learn more about gender and identity and expression, you can read more here.

If you want more information on talking to your primary-aged child about babies and reproduction, we recommend this page and this site.

We also recommend the following books for you or you and your child to go over together: