How to talk to your child about sex

Mum and daughter talking
Many parents dread the day they have to explain the birds and the bees to their children. Jasmin Qureshi looks at ways to make it easier.

The rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK has been steadily rising for years, and 60% of sexually active teens say that they regret their first time. Many professionals place the blame on lack of accurate information and guidance for children in schools. And many parents don’t talk to young children about sex either due to embarrassment or personal beliefs. But author of Talking to your Kids about Sex, Dr Laura Berman, advocates talking to your kids about the body and basic sex-related facts from a young age – still keeping it age appropriate and reflective of your own values.

Currently, sex and relationships education (SRE) is only compulsory in local authority maintained state schools. However, the government has announced plans to make it mandatory in all state primary and secondary schools, including academies and free schools. The government will consult on what children should be taught and when, but the focus in primary schools is likely to be on safe and healthy relationships, starting from Reception. It will also become compulsory for schools to teach children about sex, but parents will have the right to withdraw their child from these lessons. The new curriculum is likely to come into effect in 2019. 

Teaching about the body

“It is a good idea to teach your child about the body from a young age,” says Dr Berman in her book. “Using accurate language and being relaxed about the body’s functions will help encourage a healthy body image.” She says that kids from as young as two will be vaguely aware of gender differences, and that this is a good time to start introducing the proper names of body parts, avoiding using "cute" nicknames for genitalia.

For children aged four to six, you can start to teach them about the proper functions of body parts. Keeping the information age-appropriate is key, so talk about body parts in a basic factual way.

How to go about it

For children under four, drop the names in naturally as you talk to you child when changing their nappy or at bath times. Or Dr Berman’s suggests saying, “Let’s name the parts of your body. This is your nose. This is your elbow. This is your ankle. This is your vulva. Do you know what to call all these parts?”

For children aged four to six, Dr Berman recommends using pictures and diagrams to talk about body parts – for both male and female bodies. Ask your child to name the body parts they know. Start by talking about non-sexual parts and their functions to help you feel more comfortable. Then talk about the genitals, giving very basic facts such as, “this is the vaginal opening where the baby comes out”. She says to reiterate that these parts are special, private and are to be kept private.

How to answer sex questions

“Between the ages of five and nine, your child will begin to ask questions about what sex means and how babies are made, and you can give honest information about the basic mechanics of sex,” says Dr Berman, “Remember that until children hit puberty, they don’t conceptualise sex as an erotic act."

Here are her model answers for answering those tricky sex-related questions:

Q: What is sex?
A: Sex is how mums and dads are able to make babies.

Q: Where do babies come from?
A: From inside the mum’s tummy.

Q: How does the baby get there?
A: Mums have eggs in their uterus, and dads have sperm. When a mum and dad want to have a child, their egg and sperm meet and turn into a baby.

Extracts taken from Sex Ed: How to talk to your kids about sex by Dr Laura Berman (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99)