How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex at Every Age

Hearing the phrase "sex talk" may remind you of an embarrassing conversation you had with your own parents about the birds and the bees when you were a teenager, but the truth of the matter is that we should be discussing sex with our kids from a much younger age. Even if you just had a thought flash through your head about your child's innocence and how ridiculous it would be to try to explain reproduction to a toddler, sex is multifaceted and the actual act of sex isn't the only topic to cover when it comes to this sensitive subject — think consent, bodily autonomy, and boundaries.

We know that talking about sex with our kids can feel Awkward with a capital A, but read through for a few easy tips to help you figure out how to talk to your children about sex no matter their age.

Ages 2-3

Ages 2-3

Although babies could appear curious about their bodies from the beginning, touching themselves during a diaper change or bath time, by the time they're 2 it's a lot easier to communicate the reasons their parts are called "private."

At this age there are a couple ways you can open up about sex with your little one:

  • Teach them the anatomical terms for their genitals. The words "penis" or "vagina" sometimes seem like funny words mostly because they're taboo. Instead of "pee pee" or "VJ" — or whatever else you may call them — try to stick to the anatomical terms instead.
  • Outline touching and talking permissions. Explain to your child that they're called "private parts" for that reason — they shouldn't be pulling out their penis at the grocery store, nor should they start casually talking to another child about their vagina. Our intimate body parts are for ourselves, but let them know it's OK to talk to you about whatever they are curious about whether about their own body or bodies in general.
  • Enforce a "No Secrets" house rule. You should definitely try to discourage your child from keeping secrets from you and other reliable adults in their life (i.e. a nanny, a teacher), especially if it's something that has to do with their body or safety. Encourage them to talk to a trusted adult if they have questions, concerns, or feel weird about something.
Ages 4-5
Flickr user Michelle Bradley

Ages 4-5

Once your child is in the nursery and preschool years, they'll be even more surrounded by other kids, especially kids with older siblings who maybe know more than your little one does about bodies and sex. This is an age with just enough curiosity and just enough innocence to not realize that touching the body of another child isn't allowed without someone explaining privacy and consent early.

Before they head off to school, here's what to talk about:

  • Avoid cutesy stories about babies coming from the stork. It's normal for a child to ask where a baby comes from, especially if they're about to become a big sibling or someone close to the family is having a baby. You don't have to go into the technical details of how conception happens when sex is involved, but explaining that a person with ovaries makes an egg in their belly and a person with a penis and testicles plants a seed to help a baby grow is a lot more realistic. It's also best to use real terms like sperm and uterus in the same way you taught them about their penis or vagina. (It's also important to talk to kids about how even though all babies are born from an egg and a sperm, families can start in tons of different ways, like through adoption or surrogacy).
  • Tell them when it's OK to touch. Children should know that they shouldn't touch themselves in public, nor should they touch anyone else's private parts at all. Touching themselves if they're curious is for bath time or when they have privacy.
  • Begin a simple consent talk. Consent doesn't have to just be about sex. Your child's body is their body, and teaching them about consent is as simple as explaining that their body is theirs and if someone asks to hug, kiss, or touch them, they can say no if they don't want to. Same goes for them and other people — they have to ask first if they'd like to give someone a hug.
Ages 6-9
Flickr user Caitlin Regan

Ages 6-9

At this stage of life, innocence is either still largely at play, or could be quickly disappearing depending on their experiences. Either way, kids are going to vary at this age with how much they "know" and want to know when it comes to sex and their bodies.

Here are a few things you can discuss with your grade schooler:

  • Let a book do the talking. Although your child may not be asking about sex just yet, you can help start the conversation by grabbing a book that's happy to explain difficult topics to them in an age-appropriate way. You can read through it together the first time — then they can reread on their own later if they want — and you should encourage them to ask you questions about any of the content!
  • Use their curiosity to your advantage. There is no need to bring up sexual acts with a child that isn't asking about them, but if your 9-year-old comes home one day and asks you the definition of a sexual term they heard, you can give them an explanation in a straightforward manner. This is also a good time to remind them that those performing any sexual acts should be doing so consensually, and what that entails.
Ages 10-12
Flickr user Anthony Crider

Ages 10-12

Not quite a little kid, not quite a teen, this age range is where things may start to get tricky. They've entered middle school and are no longer the oldest kids at school, so there are a lot of things to potentially overhear from the bigger kids or a show they watch on TV. On top of that, they've likely dug into a deep enough social media hole (even with parental controls and rules) to see some iffy things in memes or on strangers' pages.

These are some of the things you may want to bring up with your tween:

  • Puberty. Your child may have probably already had some sort of education about puberty starting in school, but either way, it's not just the job of your child's teachers to educate them about puberty and sex. Discuss periods and breasts with your child — explain to them what a pad and tampon are, and talk about bras. Talk about voices — and other things — dropping, and erections. And regardless of your child's sex, switch it, reverse it, and tell them about what the other sexes go through so that they know what all kids are expecting and how to act respectfully if, for example, their classmate's voice cracks while reading aloud in class or someone has a period-related stain on their clothes. Prepare your kids for the embarrassing moments to come for them and their peers and maybe things won't be so awkward after all.
  • Bodily functions. New bodily functions and fluids go hand-in-hand with puberty, but there are a few little extras, we'll call them, such as wet dreams, that your kid might be worried about — or even be in the dark about. If you've kept an open dialogue with them up until now, they may even approach you about these weird happenings (or their curiosities with things like masturbation), but if not, bring them up.
  • Sexual slang. Largely thanks to social media, it's a lot easier for kids to be in tune with the trendy slang for different sexual acts (think "Netflix and chill"). You owe it to your child — who's at an age when "being cool" can feel super important — to look these terms up and have a discussion with them about the things they're saying and hearing.
  • Sex in the media. This is around the age when they'll want to start seeing PG-13 and even R-rated movies or shows that are likely to have more sexed-up content. You child's potential for seeing more intimate TV scenes or age-inappropriate movies may go up if they're staying up later with access to devices or spending time away from home at friends' houses, so it's a good time to bring up that sex in the media is typically unrealistic, especially when younger people are featured. Using a show or movie character's experiences is a great way to start a dialogue about sex with your tweens.
  • Hormones and having relationships. At this age you might put the term relationship in quotes, but we can likely remember either ours or our friends' middle school flings and how "real" they felt. Discuss PDA, hand-holding, dates, loving feelings, and other seemingly innocent and turnkey things that could come up during your child's first relationship. (If you feel like you need to bring up sex at this age — or you're not sure — you should. Skip forward to hear more about that below.)
13 and up
Flickr user mederndepe

13 and up

In this stage, your teen may go through some big changes. On the tails of puberty and potentially having first crushes in middle school, there could be a lot going on for your teen as they enter high school. Whether they're curious about relationships or are already involved with their first love, this is the time to bring up some of the bigger topics you may have been avoiding until it felt more age-appropriate.

Here's what to talk about with your teenager:

  • "IT." Ahhh, sex. This is the one, the big enchilada — the thing your kid likely wants to know more about and potentially explore. Be direct with your child about all of this — explain what happens during sex, how it works, and what the consequences can be (more below).
  • STDs. Discuss with your teens the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can go the scientific route and image search what STDs look like, but it's most important here to explain why using protection is so important (even if it's "just oral"). This is where you might be moved to announce, "No glove, no love," while your teen's eyes roll into the back of their head and you cringe so hard you think you broke a rib. All jokes aside, this is all super important information your teen needs to have as they become independent and begin making many of their decisions without your input.
  • Pregnancy. If you're a person who's given birth, it can be helpful to talk about pregnancy from your point of view — how it felt, what it meant, how difficult labor was. But in general, talking to teens about pregnancy should include discussing the different stages a person's body goes through and what it could feel like going through labor. Talking about it openly first is a good way to ease them in, then you can go into the ins and outs of how life would change for them if they were to get pregnant. And don't forget to mention contraception — encourage them to come to you (or another adult you both trust) for help getting some when the time comes.
  • Peer pressure. Even if your teen still isn't too openly curious about sex, you have to factor in the different stages that all of their classmates will be in throughout high school. Have an open and deeper discussion with them about consent — they do not have to do anything they don't want to do or that they feel like they're being forced into doing. They may get made fun of or they might feel embarrassed, but that can all be overcome in time — urge to them that it's never worth doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable even if it feels like their social status depends on it (real friends won't make you do things you don't want to!).