I talked about sex with my kids… and possibly scarred them for life

May 11 2011 | Guest post by Jenn
Photo by Flickr user gniliep, used with Creative Commons license.

I always thought that when it came to the talk, I'd be super fly about it — I wasn't going to be one of those moms who used words like "hoohah" and "doodad." Nor was I going to fill my children's heads with lies that involved storks or magic fairy dust. I pride myself on being an unconventional and deeply honest mom.

Fast forward to when my kids were eight and five, respectively, and we had the talk. Let me tell you — it was harder than I thought. Using the appropriate words was a cinch, but getting down to the mechanics of it was a challenge. Answering where a baby comes from is easy, but answering the hows of it can be a little more complicated.

The two catalysts that lead up to the actual conversation were as follows.

The first involves my son. He was five years old when he came walking into my bedroom one day, stark naked, and with his little hand cupped around his balls and asked, "Mom, what are these for?"

Welcome to the real joys of parenthood.

What would you have done? If you're anything remotely like me you would have hurled yourself onto the floor in a giggling fit of hilarity. At least, that's what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I approached the matter with a little more maturity and decorum. I simply and gently explained that they're for holding "these tiny little things called sperm… that are kind of like tadpoles" and "they're very important in helping to make babies."

In hindsight, I can see how that might have been totally freaky for a five-year-old. A look of grossed-out horror came across his face, and he screamed, "EWW! They're in there now?!"

That time, I did laugh. Then I assured him that there were no sperm swimming around in his balls just yet, and that he didn't need to worry about it for many years. Relieved that he was tadpole-free, he turned and walked back into the simplicity of childhood.

The second catalyst involves my daughter, who is too smart for her own good — simple as that. I'd already explained to her where babies come from, and that it takes boy parts and girl parts to get the job done. She was fine with this elementary knowledge for a few years, but eventually reached a point where that song and dance wasn't good enough anymore. She knew there was more to the story, and by golly, she wanted to know.

The three of us were in the car on the way to the post office when out of nowhere my daughter asked — without any shred of apprehension, mind you — exactly how a man's penis and a woman's vagina make a baby.

Cue inner monologue: What the fuck, kiddo? We went from singing with the Wiggles to inquiring about the physical methodology of sexual reproduction?

Of course, I recognized that this was the moment of truth — do or die. The little lovely lady had cleverly, and I'm sure quite purposefully, constructed her question when there was absolutely no possibility of escape. I had to face it. I'm not sure how, but I could tell she meant business this time. Her eyes were practically screaming, "and woman, don't you dare feed me the same ol' crap anymore."

I had been so cool and on point in the past, but I fumbled to find the right words in that moment. Maybe it was because my son was right there, or maybe it was because I wasn't as prepared as I thought I would be. Either way, it took me a couple of seconds to form my thoughts in such a way as to not scar them for life. I don't remember what I said verbatim, but it went down a little something like this:

"Okay. You know how a boy has a penis and a girl has a vagina? And you remember that I told you that both parts are needed to make a baby? Well, when a boy and a girl love each other and they decide they want to have sex to show each other their love, the boy puts his penis inside the girl's vagina. And you know how we've talked about boys having sperm? Well, the sperm comes from inside the penis and when they have sex, the sperm is put into the girl's vagina. Then the sperm swim to find an egg inside the girl. When the sperm reach the egg that's how a baby is made. That's how a girl gets pregnant."

True, it was a somewhat dumbed-down, candy-coated, not-entirely-medically-accurate version, but it was still fairly sufficient in accuracy for their ears.

The car fell silent. As I looked in the rear-view mirror to see their faces, my poor son had an expression that I can only assume was related to repugnance. Considering his mortified face, the silence, and his young age, I'm convinced that I might have planted a seed of celibacy in him.

My girl, however, was in deep contemplative mode. Naturally. I could see that her wheels were turning, but I swear to Almighty I was not prepared in the least for what came next.

"But mom, I'm confused. How come the boy can't just stick his penis in the girl's mouth and put the sperm in there so she can get pregnant?"

Then I crashed the car and we all died.

When I finally contained my laughter and composed my thoughts, I gave her the simplest and most accurate explanation I could think of on the spot: "Because the eggs aren't stored in a girls mouth."

No, not really, but I literally had to slap my hand over my mouth to keep from spewing laughter. I already suffer from severe inappropriate moments of giggles, but this was more than I could take. With only one hand on the wheel, my body convulsed with silent waves of shrieking. I consider it one of my greatest driving achievements thus far in maintaining focus long enough to not careen off the road.

When I finally contained my laughter and composed my thoughts, I gave her the simplest and most accurate explanation I could think of on the spot: "Because the eggs aren't stored in a girls mouth."

And with that the car fell silent once more and it has never been spoken of again — at least not to the extent of those details.

The lesson here is pretty obvious. It's all well and good to be open and honest with your children. I encourage it wholeheartedly and I still have conversations that make me wince. However, I must warn you: if you do, you have got to be prepared for those uncomfortable, unimaginable, sometimes horrifying, can't-make-this-shit-up moments when you wish to hell you would have stuck with the lies of storks and magic fairy dust.

  1. And that is almost exactly how my mum did it, and I'm ever so grateful. She even went into the semi-specifics of STDs.

    So, I was scarred for quite a while, I think I was four when I really got it. On the upside, I avoided all of that crazy high-school drama. I was able to explore my sexuality by myself without fear, and completely avoided any pregnancy scares or that awkward first time moment. It's worked on all of my siblings as well, so far. (I'm the eldest of four.)

    I know exactly what I'm doing for my future kids. ;D

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  2. I grew up on a horse ranch, so my father decided that the best way to inform me about the "facts of life" was when we took our female horse to get bred by a stallion. If anyone here has seen horses mating you know that it is the most terrifying, un-romantic, un-human-like thing nature has to offer. My dad took me to see this, and said "this is how babies are made, your mom and I did this to make you and your sister." Ummm…talk about scarred for life. Did I mention I was 6 years old at the time? Luckily I was also allowed to watch R rated movies so I figured out eventually that human sex is slightly different than horse sex.

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  3. I think it might be better to only tell as much of the truth as they are ready to hear. So maybe "Those things are called testes and they make the hormones that tell your body to grow like a boy instead of like a girl. When you're grown up they help with making babies too." or something like that would have been a little more comfortable. But I'm sure its a lot harder to think of a "true but appropriate" answer when your kid says this instead of when you're sitting at your computer reading about somebody else's kid. πŸ˜‰ I think I'm going to try "That's a good question! What do you think they're for?" as a stock answer for situations like this.

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  4. I was about five when I was enlightened on the how-to of having babies and immediately asked whether I could have one. My mother told me I had to grow a lot before I could. My response – "Couldn't I just have a little one this size? (Holding up fingers 3 inches apart) That would fit in, wouldn't it?"

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  5. I hope I'm half as eloquent when it comes time to have "the talk" with my kid. Good job!

    My two-year old is pretty fascinated with his balls right now, but so far – thank goodness – he hasn't asked what they are FOR.

  6. I have a feeling that this will be my similar story when it comes time to tell my son about sex and babies. I always hated that "when two people love each other very much magical fairy dust" kind of story. I think it's better to be honest.

  7. We went through something similar with my partner's 10 year old son pretty recently.

    I work for an HIV clinic and he and his father came to bring me lunch one day. Upon seeing the condoms in their wrappers, he asked if they were candy. I told him that no, they aren't candy, they're used for safety and to stop from getting pregnant.
    Since we decided, as a team along with his mother, that we were to answer his questions with age-appropriate honesty, his dad then decided to open one up show him what it looked like, at which point, the boy turned bright red and said "Let me guess, that goes on your crotch!"…. I nearly died!

    Later that day in the car, the boy was sitting behind his father and pulling on his dad's ears playfully. His dad said something along the lines of "Stop or you'll stretch out my ears!"

    The kid then replied, and I quote, "Maybe you should do that to your wiener so it fits into those plastic things at Sandy's work!"

    I ERUPTED with laughter. I love moments like those.

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  8. I read lots of books on the subject (started with one for kids and worked my way up later on). They had them at the library and my mother was also happy to provide (books of all kinds always). Then we had the subject in school first in 4th then in 6th grade and while my mother did offer to talk to me about all of it some time in there, I totally turned her down. I was MUCH more comfortable reading about it!

    Now, I'm kind of medically literate and have also always been likely to answer all questions to the best of my knowledge, so I guess future kind of mine will be scared off by blunt overinformation?

    I do think that for more involved questions it's ok to say: That takes a bit longer to explain, is it ok if we talk about it tonight when we have more time (and are alone)? (Or something like that.)

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  9. As a kid your daughters age, I thought the SAME THING. I was homeschooled and my parents taught me to read "early", couple that with an itching curiousity and I already had gathered some vague facts of life at 8 and wondered the same thing.However, my parents had me under strict instructions not to ask about sex until I was 13.

    Which meant at ten I found the puberty section at the public library and figured it out for myself :-p

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  10. I think kids are ready for the answer to any question they ask. Maybe not "the whole truth" but some condensed age-appropriate version of the truth. I honestly doubt there are many kids today who don't know what sex is before they are 12.

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  11. I have to disagree. Do you know that a lot of kids are having sex–especially oral sex–by age 12? Or that girls are menstruating earlier and earlier? My aunt started her period at age 9 and thought she was dying b/c no one had told her about it. My Mom told me where babies come from just like the description in this article when I was about five and I think her openness really helped me to be safe. Too many kids get their information from other kids, TV, the internet, etc. and I'd rather be the first, best source of that information.

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    • Chante,

      I think the fact that my mom wasn't honest with me has been a catalyst for my being so honest with my kids. As I responded above, my daughter, 13, has a friend who still thinks a girl can get pregnant from drinking sperm. I mean, seriously.
      This fear that parents have with truth does nothing but a huge disservice to our kids -second only to the lies they hear from other children.

      For a while, my daughter and I did do a webisode series on how parents can be honest with their children. Together, we spoke about drugs, religion, bullying..and had planned on more, but life sort of distracted us. But the reason we did it is because, as a mom, I knew parents struggled to be honest; and, as a kid, she knew kids were often left in the dark. I'm not saying my way is the best way to parent, but I do believe that honesty between parent & child builds strength and trust, which I never had (and still don't have) with my mom. My daughter does come to me, literally, for everything. Some of the conversations are haaaaaarrrd. But I value that she knows she can come to me.

  12. I have to disagree too. My niece is 10 and all the girls in her class are already passing around inaccurate information.

    My niece (who lives with us) and I have had multiple talks about sex this year, especially since her other aunt just had a baby. As to the "how does the baby get in there", at one point I ended up drawing a uterus on some scrap paper.

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  13. I completely disagree with you about "waiting until they are 12." I taught 6th grade last year and teach 7th grade this year, so I work with kids that are in the 11-13 year old range. I can assure you that 12 year olds know WAY more about sex, where babies come from, blow jobs, birth control and everything else we wish they didn't know about by that age than you and I did at 11 or even 15. If you wait till age 12 to have "the talk," you're leaving the door WIDE open for your kids to hear stuff from their friends and be misinformed. Maybe 5 is a bit too young to explain to a boy what other duties his penis has other than pee-peeing, but 8 is not too young to explain the facts to a girl. Girls are maturing much faster these days, and an 11 year old who is capable of having her period and therefore getting pregnant needs to be informed before that possibility even presents itself. I would much rather know that my son heard the facts from his dad and I at a young age than from his peers in the locker room during gym class. Just something to keep in mind.

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  14. If your kids are asking, then they're ready. I think parents have an obligation to be honest and in this day age, I mean, children know a lot more than most parents give them credit for.
    For what it's worth, my kids, 10 & 13, have never seen an R-rated movie. They don't watch MTV or VH1 or any stations other than what we've programed on the television (Discovery, Disney, Nick, stuff like that). Yet, they're inquisitive and always have been.

    I certainly respect every parents decision, but I would much rather the truth come from me than some made up stories from the school play ground and trust me, it does happen. My daughter, now 13, still has a friend in 7th grade who believes a girl can get pregnant if she drinks sperm.
    In 4th grade she asked me what a "slut" was because she'd heard her friend say it at school.
    I fully believe that as a parent, it is my responsibility to make sure to arm them with facts -along with pinky swears that they don't tell anyone else..because, as I told them, it's a parents job to tell their kids the truth, not another child. So far, so good.

    True, every kid is different. Some kids aren't ready at 5 or 7, but mine were. I would hope that each parent would gauge the appropriateness of such honesty based on the maturity of their children. I'd like to point out, too, that being honest, even when it's uncomfortable as hell (and even being honest about that fact), builds trust, which is so vital as they enter the teen years. My son is only 10, but my 13 year old daughter can (and does) talk to me about any and everything. She knows she has that trust and respect and that no matter what, I'm going to be straight with her. To me, that's a priceless gift for parent and child.

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  15. "where did i come from" by peter mayle. i may only have a 9 month old but i do have a copy of that book on my shelf. there's pictures, great explanations, and it goes into fetal development and birth at the end- all very appropriate for young ones.
    there are pictures of a naked man and woman, but they're cartoony and cute!

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    • Ugh. My parents showed me the animated movie made from that book. I think I would've been better off not watching an animated couple have sex. I'm sure reading the book is a better route than watching the movie!

  16. My mom told me the medical truth behind how babies are made when she got pregnant with my sister. I was 2-3 and she had this book called "A doctor talks to 5-8 Year Olds" that she gave to me at that point. Shortly after that we were in a cafeteria style restaurant and my mom got a salad with alfalfa sprouts. I shouted out "Mom, those look just like sperms!" loud enough for everyone to hear. lol

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  17. Children need to know the truth, but they don't necessarily need to know ALL of the truth.

    I naively asked my mother, when I was about 5, where babies come from. She told me. Everything. In excruciating detail, including a rather mentally scarring description of the sex act.

    I know that she chose to do it that way because she was told half-truths and fairy tales, and I'm not saying the fact that I stayed a virgin until I was 22 is necessarily a bad thing, but still – I don't believe it was the right choice.

    When my daughter has asked me questions about sex, I tend to give her the basic details – truthfully – and then ask her if she wants or needs a more detailed answer. I can't tell if that's the right answer or not, but it's what feels right to me. I also cheated a bit by taking a mother-daughter 'sex education' class with her when she was 10 or 11. I personally recommend this approach.

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  18. I love this! I am reading a book right now called "Raising Freethinkers." My fiance and I are non-religious and it is about raising children in a non-religious house. Anyhow, I just read that chapter that addresses this issue and this is how it suggested handling it. Blunt and factual a little at a time. Thumbs up!

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  19. Guh totally spurted a drink out of my nose laughing. Best question ever! Hahaa.

    My mother's parents actually got her a book (from God knows where) that explained the process with kid friendly illustrations and everything. It explained how men and women have different parts, what they were for, etc. It kind of glossed over the actual act of sex with "a really good hug" or something along those lines. I always remember that the part about them loving each other very much had an illustration of the people in a bubble bath. Makes me laugh to think about it now.

    I am totally going to have to find that book. My parents decided to have "the talk" with me when I accidentally downloaded porn on to my grandparents computer. I think my mom was ready to die from horror. I think I scarred my dad for life because he had no idea how to approach the subject. xD Ah the good times of childhood.

    • I think that book is the one mentioned a few posts above – 'Where did I come from?'…there is a second one called 'What's happening to me?'.
      We had those in our houes when we were growing up and loved reading them…I still have them and plan to let my soon-to-be child read them too. πŸ™‚

  20. That is probably the hardest I've laughed in a long time. I have an always be honest police when it comes to my kid, but then again he is only 9 months.
    My niece and I went through something similar when talking about how babies get into the world. Her mom had told her that you basically had to poop the baby out, and I accidentally told her where it comes out. I had never seen a six year old look so horrified in my life πŸ˜›

  21. ROFL, been there! When my own daughter wanted to know the details, I gave her the full story using the proper words for all the parts and substances involved. I decided I must have gotten it right when she responded, "EEEEWWWW, GROSS! I AM NEVER GOING TO DO THAT!" (Of course, she changed her mind eventually; but at least she was informed before she started.)

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  22. Love it! Brings back memories of asking if men just "pee out sperm" and how they can control it in front of my whole family after watching an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air that dealt with sperm donation. Led to a very enlightening & somewhat disturbing conversation with my mother about the pleasures of sex and masturbation. Something I don't look forward to with my own kids πŸ™‚

  23. Have any queer families out there had any experience with giving "the talk" to their kids? I have a while before I need to do it myself, but I'm wondering exactly how to do it when the standard narrative of "when two people love each other very much/man's penis+woman's vagina" doesn't work. I want a way to tell my kid's that when two people love each other very much there are LOTS of ways to make babies: some men don't have penises, and some women don't have vaginas, and sometimes the dad's can grow the babies in their bellies, and sometimes someone else will grow the baby for them, and sometimes only one person decides they want to have a baby, and sometimes people need to buy sperm, and sometimes sperm comes from a friend, and on and on and on. I obviously want to give the basic facts of sperm+egg=baby, but find a way to incorporate the science into a queer narrative of how babies are made by real people (especially given that these are going to be the type of people in my own kid's life). I think that the standard kid-friendly version of how a baby gets made doesn't account for queer (especially trans) methods of reproduction, and I'd love to hear from anyone who has had experience with this.

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    • The Donor Sibling Registry has some info in their library about talking to kids about sperm and egg donation. There's also a group in the UK that puts out guides for talking to kids about sperm donation. They put out a kids book that we got to read to our kid about how "the doctor put some sperm inside mommy and then mommy and mama had a baby" or something like that. I don't know about resourses for trans parents but there are some for lesbians and single parents by choice out there.

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    • I don't have personal experience yet, but I was thinking about this as I was reading the comments. I've thought a lot about talking to my future kids about the sperm donor (at the beginning, a man who gave us a special gift that the doctor put inside of me to help us make a baby) but never about the fact that we will also have to have different talks about sex (without the ability to pretend, as I think many parents do, that baby-making is the primary reason for having it or that heterosexual sex is the only sex that needs talking about!) and how many other babies are conceived.

      I think you can introduce some of the things you're talking about by telling your kids that there are lots of different ways to make babies, but that they all include sperm and egg coming together. Then you follow their lead in terms of whether they're asking about their own conception or trying to figure out anatomy or are ready to understand sex. In terms of all the different family compositions you mentioned, I think you take it gradually…you start by talking about the families of the real people around you and then expand from there as your child begins to understand.

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  24. This made me laugh! I totally remember my mom having this discussion with me. I was 8 and she said, "A man puts his penis in a woman's vagina, and that's sex." I was like "I am never going to do that!"

    About five-six more weeks until my baby arrives and I get to embark on this exciting journey!

  25. That's gold! <3 I love hearing these stories of how parents told their kids about where babies come from. I often wonder what what my spawn will end up asking me and how I will react.

  26. That was awesome! I think you handled it very well, under the circumstances! I vividly remember my mom having The Talk with me and my older sister, but it was very abbreviated and she drew confusing pictures: she drew the penis with only the shaft and head, but I could only guess that she had drawn the shaft and balls. I was probably only 5 or 6 at the time and had only seen flaccid baby boy parts. So I perceived the tip as just fading into oblivion, which was never really cleared up for me until high school health class or something! I am very glad she was so honest about it so early though. I was mortified, confused and thus became almost reverent of this human act – something to do only when I was ready.

    As a side note (and this is no criticism of the author cuz I'm sure her kids understood what she meant) I would definitely use the words "man" and "woman" instead of "boy" and "girl". Only for the sake of making it clear that with sex there needs to be a very real shift to maturity. Kids might think that it's perfectly normal that their 11 and 12 year old peers are talking about actually having sex with each other. I know this happened a lot in 7th grade and even earlier when I was growing up. Very frightening how early kids are growing up these days πŸ™

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  27. I'm in the er right now (nothin serious, just need some antibiotics and it's a saturday) and i started giggling in the waiting room while reading this. I think everybody thinks i'm a bad person for laughing in the waiting room now

  28. Hm, I totally didn't have 'the talk' with either of my parents. I have no real idea *how* I came to know and understand about it all. But, somehow, I was always the person who was asked about sex advice in my group of friends. Which is even more weird because I didn't lose my virginity until I was 23 after all of my friends already had.

    Meanwhile, My sister and her family went to dinner with her sister-in-law and her wife. The couple mentioned having a baby soon. My 6yr. old nephew turns to Ashley (the sister-in-law) and says "You do know that you need a fecky to have a baby?" Excuse me? "That's where the baby shoots out of. How are you going to have a baby 'cause none of you have a fecky?" We're going to go to a special doctor…"Well, you'd have to 'cause you don't have a fecky. Are you going to borrow one? Are you going to get one put on you, 'cause you can do that now, you know." This all happened in the middle of a restaurant, mind you, in a child's not-so-quiet voice. Apparently his vast knowledge was gained from one parent-explained dog witnessing incident and accidental late-night watching of the Discovery Health Channel.

    I'm not sure which story (yours or my sister's) is more awkward or amusing. Kids are awesome, yo.

  29. Where Willy Went – Nicholas Allen. Fantastic book. My partner has 2yr and 4yr old boys. I bought the book home recently and we have it on the shelf waiting for when the first one asks! (If i know them well enough its def going to be the 2year old!) But we are planning to have our own children shortly so we thought it wise to be prepared. πŸ™‚

  30. I've been thinking lately that I would want to leave the bit about "love each other very much" out of the sex talk with my future kids. Just because I want my kids to not conflate the two and to know that they can have sex for recreation and they don't have to be in love. I have a little theory that always intertwining the two concepts might lead to reasoning like "we had sex, ergo we must be in love," which just opens a whole can of worms that doesn't need to be. I think I'm just big on getting across the idea that recreational sex is totally fine as long as you use bc/condoms.

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  31. That was the good thing about living with my nurse Grandma. When I was four my step-brother fed me an absolutely terrifying story of what sex was, I asked her and she point blank gave me the run down. And then later she was reading me a Little House book, and Laura is pregnant and there's a line about "those who dance must pay the fiddler". And I wanted to know why it was like dancing. I got books. LOTS of books.

    I do have my grandma's voice burned into my memory saying, "Because, like dancing, sex is fun!"

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  32. I haven't laughed that hard at something I read in a long time! I've had several similarly bizarre conversations with my kids.

  33. I was the kind of kid who didn't ask questions, but rather made up my own answers. There was a woman in my church who wasn't married and had two kids, so I was pretty sure you didn't have to be married; I thought that at a certain age, a woman just started getting pregnant, kind of like having her period. When I was four, I informed my mother that I wasn't going to get married, I was just going to have babies. She looked at me for a moment, then said, "I think you'll reconsider."
    I have four older sisters, and learned just about everything from them. When we got around to The Talk (I was 9 or 10), my mum said, "So, I'm pretty sure your sisters have told you everything you need to know. Any questions?" Then we went over male anatomy in a science book, because I already knew all about female.

  34. It was the middle of the night and my period had started and I had NO supplies, my oldest was 8 at the time and awake, I quietly went in the girls room and told her i needed to run to the store down the road, that they'd be fine, that grandma and grandpa were just next door, reassuring her that they'd be fine. She didn't buy it. "what could POSSIBLY be so important that you have to leave us to go to the store in the middle of the night?" I responded by saying "I need some girl things" and she's like "MOM, makeup is NOT important" lol. so i went on to explain what tampons and pads are and what they are used for, etc. She was SOOOOO traumatized, then she whispered really quietly, "how long do i have?" and i said well, some girls start when they are 10 or so, but some don't start until much much later, like 16. but most girls start when they are about 11 or 12. She's nearly 12 and still hasn't started.
    Then she asked why do we bleed, so I told her that without that we couldn't have babies, then she went on to ask how come you have to have a man to have a baby. and I told her about having sex, but without really any details, and she's just like SOOOO horrified, her her voice goes really quiet and she's like. "did you and daddy have SEX?" and i said, yes, honey, we did. It's been several years and she still hasn't wrapped her head around this, i think i handled it as well as i could, my girls know they can come to me with any questions, i'll give them a straight answer, and try not to go into details they aren't ready for, enough info to answer their question but not too much. It's definitely a tricky balance.
    she's still adamant that she's NEVER having sex.
    one time in the grocery store she asked me…. mom, do you think it's possible that i can find a man to marry that doesn't want to have sex, and doesn't want to have children? I told her, i don't know. I'm sure there are men that don't want children but sex is pretty important to men. but if that is something that is really important to you, be true to yourself. …. she's currently planning on being single and adopting children.

  35. Reminds me of the time my husbands godson found his moms vibrator and was waiving it around like a lightsaber…I am ashamed to say I let him handle that one- to busy ROFL

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