Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Preparing for an open dialogue with children about sex
Q: I really admired the letter-writer from a recent column. I'd like to have an open dialogue with my kids about sex, too. They are 5 and 3 now, so while we have some time to build that relationship, I also know the time is coming way sooner than we think. And I realize this is not an "on-off" switch — we need to lay the foundation early.
So how do parents establish that foundation for open dialogue, about anything from sex to drugs to any of those uncomfortable topics?
Open With Kids
Carolyn: (1) Tell them the truth. They will ask so many questions, so much sooner than you think they will. Give them the real answers — for example, use the real names for body parts versus euphemisms or cute-isms — but don't give them the whole five-minute answer.
In fact, give them as little as possible, and see if that suffices. If it doesn't, they'll ask followups. This approach will help you figure out, on the fly, what is age-appropriate for them, because they will be telling you directly whether they understand. (You can also educate yourself with the work of Deborah Roffman. Given the ages of your kids, I suggest But How'd I Get in There in the First Place?: Talking to Your Young Child About Sex.)
(2) Do not punish your kids for asking tough or embarrassing questions, or for expressing opinions that shock you or catch you off-guard. Do not laugh at them, either, when they do or say things about bodies, body image, where babies come from, etc., no matter how cute or funny they're being. You want to create an atmosphere of safety around these topics, or else your kids will fear ridicule and won't tell you the truth. They'll look to others to answer their sex questions.
When kids get into the painful adolescent years, that's when they traditionally go "underground" with all the awkward and embarrassing stuff. The precedent you set early and maintain consistently is your best ally years down the road.
(3) Listen to them. If you're the one doing all the talking, you'll lose their attention. You can even catch yourself mid-lecture: "Wait — before I go on. What do you think the answer is here?" Let them tell you what blanks you need to fill in.
Anonymous: Mind if I chime in here too? One thing my husband and I also did is to respect each other so they knew they had a safe environment. We disagreed but calmly. With our bodies, we were open with affection but discreet. We didn't hide our bodies but weren't sexual. We let them make choices and helped them when they failed, especially helping them to see why they failed or made bad choices. We didn't coddle them and we did have boundaries, but it was their life to live inside those age-appropriate boundaries. We have grown, healthy kids now who are very open with us.
Carolyn: Great stuff, thanks — though I might throw an "overtly" in front of "sexual," since sexuality isn't the problem, in-your-face sexuality is. But that's a quibble.