Some Important Do’s and Don’ts When Answering Your Child’s Questions About Sex

by | Jan 8, 2024

Where do babies come from? How did I get into your belly, and how did I get out? Why do boys have penises and girls have vaginas? What’s an erection? What’s a period? What is sex, and how old do you have to be to have sex? Why do people even have sex? How come…………

These are just a few examples of the many of questions about sex and puberty that kids will ask parents and caregivers throughout their youth and adolescence. Oftentimes, parents want to know exactly when to talk to kids about sex, but the answer depends. If parents wait for their child to approach them with questions about sex or questions about sexuality, some could be waiting a long time. And, given some parents’ anxieties about how to explain sex to their kids, avoidance of the topic altogether can set in. 

So, it’s important to allow for the space and time for your child to approach you with questions (which many younger children eventually do) but to also be equipped with some ways to draw them out. What age is normal for kids to ask about sex? Most experts believe that if your child hasn’t asked questions about sex by around 10 years old, then it’s time to talk with them. That doesn’t mean you need to wait until this age to start (the earlier, the better), but it serves as a general guideline for parents when thinking about their children asking important questions about sex. 

Whether you have a child whose curiosities and questions about sex and sexuality emerge early or a bit later (upper elementary or middle school), here are some quick and easy Do’s and Don’ts when answering their questions.

Do Draw Them In / Don’t Push Them Away

When responding to your child’s questions about sex, your primary goal as a parent is to make sure he or she comes back to you with more and more questions, which means the process and your answers need to be satisfying and helpful enough for him or her to return to you with more questions. You can best accomplish this by having answers that lead your child to ask more questions and drawing them into these conversations (I call these “Open Them Up/Draw Them In” responses).

Do Use “Open Them Up/Draw Them In” Responses:

So, in learning how to explain sex to a young person or teen, parents can respond to any question by first saying:

“What an interesting question. I’m so curious, what makes you ask?”

“Tell me what you know about that. I’m so interested to know what you think.”

“I’m so glad you asked this. Let me try my best to answer that.”

Not only do these responses lead to more questions from a child within that specific conversation, they demonstrate to the child that you are pleased about their questions and happy to answer openly and honestly, which makes it more and more likely that he or she will return to you as a trusted adult. So, this repeated engagement from your child is much more likely to happen if parents can take a breath and start their response with something resembling the above examples.

Don’t Use “Shut Them Down/Push Them Away” Responses:

Parents have different opinions and values about sex in general, and questions about sex from their kid or tween can stir these feelings up, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, the anxieties and taboos around sex and talking about sex with our children can lead to parental responses that do the opposite of rewarding their curiosity. We want to do our best as parents to avoid these responses because they can shame our child, shut him or her down, and result in him or her seeking answers elsewhere, which isn’t what we want. So, avoid responding like this when your child asks questions about sex: 

“Why would you ask that question? That’s inappropriate.”

“Where did you hear about that? We don’t talk about that in this house.”

“Don’t ask questions like that. You’re too young to learn about that.”

“They’ll teach you that in school someday. We don’t discuss things like that.”

Answers that evoke shame or fear and that stonewall learning will teach your child or tween one thing: to avoid coming to you in the future to ask more questions about sex.

Do Respond With Honesty and Openness

In answering honestly, start with how you’re feeling about talking about sex (without shutting down the conversation). That might look like, “You know, I’m actually feeling a little nervous about talking about this, and I’m not sure why…..maybe because it’s so important. Whatever the reason, the more we talk about this, hopefully the easier it will get for us. So, I’m so glad you brought this up.” If you’re feeling fine talking about these topics with your child, you might say something like, “I’m so glad you brought this up and that we can talk about it. It’s actually something I’ve been looking forward to talking about.

Another element of honesty when talking to your child or tween about sex is to acknowledge when you don’t know something, which will happen often. In the weekly in-person BIG Talks I conduct every year, boys ask questions all the time to which I do not know the answer. When this happens, I say (in front of the entire group of parents and boys), “Great question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I bet you and your parents could find out together later.” Sometimes I will have parents look up the answer quickly on their phone and report back to the group to facilitate some real-time learning. The point here is that no one knows all the answers, including you. Just admit it and say something like, “You know what? That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Would you like to find the answer together right now or have me find the answer and then get back to you? Either way, your question will be answered, and we’ll learn together.

Do Respond With Medical-Accuracy

This probably goes without saying, but a parent’s role in answering questions about sex is to, first and foremost, teach their child, which is best accomplished by providing the facts. Use medically-accurate information, use proper terminology for parts of the body and sexual behaviors, and be specific enough in your explanations (depending on the age of your child).

Don’t Go On and On and On and On and On and On

Stay brief enough in your responses so that they don’t turn into lectures or droning. Take a breath, give your child the information, and then……

Do Ask Them If They Have More Questions

……ask them if they have any additional questions about what you just explained. This allows them to guide the conversation and feel more in control. Remember, your answers should be bite-sized and easily digestible for your child, tween, or teen.

Don’t Forget To Share Your Personal and Family’s Values About Sex

Remember, your role as the primary sex educator of your child is to teach facts and inject your values into the teaching of those facts. The balance between doing this or becoming overly preachy or moralistic to your child can be tricky, with the latter sometimes creating expectations to which your child or teen falls short (which can lead to a sense of shame or embarrassment). However, the communication of your values is an important way for you to talk about ideas like, for instance, why sex should be taken seriously, why waiting for the right person and the right time is valuable, and how pairing love and sex is essential.

Do Remember That You’ll Make Mistakes When You Answer Questions and Can Always Try Again Right Away or Later

Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett (authors of This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained) have much to say about this in guiding parents. They remind us that when you make a mistake, you can go back and fix it. This takes the pressure off of parents to get it right the first time. In correcting yourself, you can say something like, “You know, I think I’d like a do-over for how I explained girls getting their periods. Can I try again because I think I could have explained it better?” These self-corrections can take place immediately or days/weeks later, and your child will respect you even more for having done it.

Do Have Resources at the Ready for Whenever the Questions Come

You can review a list of these resources in my previous post entitled “Breaking The Ice and Taking the Plunge: Tackling The Sex Conversation at Home with Your Son”. Review and then select a few books, websites, and/or articles that align with your personal values and be ready to use them either when your child starts asking questions or as a primer for you ahead of time so you’ll feel prepared to initiate or field those questions.

Do Tell Yourself: “I’ve Got This”

In all likelihood, your child will or has already come to you with questions about sex and sexuality before you’ve thoughtfully planned out how you want to respond. Whether you have to figure out how to explain reproduction to your 13-year-old with whom you’ve never talked about sex or how to explain sex to your younger child, remind yourself that you’ve got more knowledge and support than you might think. Remember to thank your child or teen for asking questions, to respond as clearly and honestly as you can and without judgment or shame, to let them know you’ll get back to them if you don’t know how to answer, and to feel grateful that they asked in the first place. Get support from the numerous resources available to parents, kids, and teens that help answering questions about sex and sexuality go much more smoothly. And, lastly, remember to take the pressure off of yourself to answer perfectly (that’ll never happen). Those “try again” moments and explanations are allowed…….use them!  

Happy New Year!

Dr. Chris Miller