During a family Scattergories game a few years ago, the category was parts of the body. The letter was F. You know the drill – you have to come up with an answer no one else writes down in order to get a point. Finger, foot, femur. They were all repeated.
My son – who was about 6 and insisted on playing by himself, without a partner, for the first time – proudly announced that he had a word no one else had thought of.
“Fagina!” he exclaimed, sending his parents, sister, cousins, and grandpa into gales of laughter. “It’s a word!”
“Yes, but it starts with a V,” I told him, stifling my giggles at his innocent spelling mistake. “The word is vagina.”
Which sort of embarrassed some people at the table, but I figure you have to take those moments when they come. We’ve been doing that for the past few years, answering questions, sometimes honestly, sometimes with those kid-friendly explanations that don’t tell the whole story.
My son kind of knew what sex was. Sort of knew where babies come from. I didn’t really think he needed to know, you know, everything. But now that he’s approaching 10, topics related to sex and puberty are coming up more often, so I thought we’d better prepare for “The Talk.” It seems a little trickier with my son than my older daughter, so I signed up for a “Moms of Boys” workshop with some friends. And I bought him a book, of course. I figured my husband and/or I would read it with him, then we’d sit down and answer all his questions and that would be it.
It didn’t quite go as planned.
He wanted to read the book. Alone. And then he didn’t say a word about it. I asked later what he thought and tried to start a conversation. He flat-out refused to talk about it.
I know a lot of parents struggle with how to have these uncomfortable conversations. My friends and I have talked – and laughed – about our boys’ questions and the approaches to them. Some of them laid it all out there for their sons early on. Others insist their sons still don’t know the difference between boys and girls. (Love you, ladies, but give me a break.)
So when I was asked to write an article about how to talk to your kids about sex, I jumped at the chance. Here are some of the main points all the experts told me:
· Talk about it early and often. One sex ed expert recommends children know the usual way babies are made by the time they’re 5. You decide if your kids are ready for that.
· Use anatomical terms for body parts. Penis and vagina are just words, like eyelash and belly button.
· Reinforce respect: for your own body, and for others. Teach them that our bodies are our own, and no one should touch them without permission.
· You, parents and guardians, are the primary sex health educator of your children. Not the school health teacher, not a book or a class you attend. There are lots of great resources out there you can rely on, but it’s our responsibility to make sure our kids are educated.
· Don’t take this so seriously. Use humor if it helps (always does for me). I mean fagina, that’s funny. And we tell that story a lot.
· Don’t assume you kids are clueless. You don’t know what they know unless you tell them. (And trust me, they know more than you think.—some of it completely wrong.)
· Don’t wait for questions to arise, but answer them – succinctly -- when they do. You don’t have to spend hours on the question “What is French kissing?” Just answer the question, and move on.
· Number one? Don’t save it all up for a huge sit-down. Have lots of small conversations when life presents opportunities for them. Keep that conversation going over time.
All this expert advice in hand, I casually brought up the book again. I told my son we didn’t need to have some big talk, but I needed to make sure he understood what he had read and see if he had any questions. I told him he could always ask us anything – even if it seems embarrassing. He assured me he’d let me know. (I also told my husband he’ll talk about wet dreams and spontaneous erections, because I seriously don’t get how those things have a mind of their own.)
So when my son found an in-case-of-emergency tampon in middle console of the car and asked what exactly women use those things for anyway, I didn’t put him off. I gave him a straightforward answer about periods and how all girls and women have them.
“Ewwww,” he said, his hands flying up to cover his reddened face. “I was afraid it had something to do with blood.”
“Well, now you know for sure,” I said matter-of-factly. “Just let me know if you have any other questions.”
And we moved on.
There are so many chances to introduce such brief but educational conversations, like when you hear suggestive lyrics on pop radio, or see grownups kissing on TV, or someone becomes pregnant or gives birth. Or when you’re playing a game.
Like our latest round of Scattergories the other day. (Yeah, we like that game.) The category was toiletries or cosmetics. The letter was C. Again, my son came up with an answer unlike anyone else’s: Condom. My husband I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, then asked if he knew what those were for.
“Yep, it’s in that book you gave me,” he said with a shrug.
Perfect opportunity for another quick conversation.
We don’t need The Talk. Because we’re talking all the time.
A version of this post originally appeared on Ravishly.