How Do I Talk to My Children About Sex?

God has given our children sex organs. They encounter these organs every day. As their organs develop, so should their understanding, with special acceleration at the onset of puberty.

Wise parents serve their developing children by helping them grow in understanding of what God designed all this engineering for. Differences between maleness and femaleness are discerned very early by children, and wise parents help bring clarity to their children’s understanding of these myriad differences and God’s purposes for them (Proverbs 16:4).

“We’re not just teaching our kids about sex, but about stewardship.”

Maleness and femaleness are divine ideas. “Male and female he created them,” Genesis 1:27 says. It is God who invented all these body parts and their functions and pronounced them good. While it would be unhealthy for our homes to dwell too much on such topics, it also would be unhealthy to ignore them, much less to make them strictly off-limits as topics of instruction. We’re teaching our kids not just about sex, but about stewardship, about God’s design, and about God himself. Sex is not a dark and evil subject when stewarded properly. When God said it was not good for Adam to be alone, he implied good could get better.

God is pleased to address sexual matters in the Scriptures, so we would be foolish to muzzle him, thinking we have better standards than he.

Why Parents?

One of the roles of parents is teaching. God told his people, “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so” (Deuteronomy 4:10). And Paul says to fathers, “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

Generally speaking, parents really should be the ones who initiate conversations with their children about sex, because the children’s health-education teacher or kids on the playground might not share the same values, and it is values — more than biological and anatomical diagrams — that matter.

Learning from parents can head off error and help address the shock (some newly enlightened youngsters predictably respond with, “Gross!”). For example, today, if you are a virgin, the world thinks there is something seriously wrong with you, something even immoral. And some say that if you can’t stop youth from having sex, just teach them how to do it “safely.” But there is no safe way to thumb your nose at God, who has placed guardrails around this wonderful, powerful, and sometimes mysterious aspect of human life and spirituality.

The stakes here are high. The rewards and regrets are often much more consequential in sexual matters than in most of the matters on which parents tend to focus — grades, friendships, sports, and so on. Oh, the shipwrecks that have occurred in the swirling waters of sex.

Children Are Learning Sex

Your children are already forming an understanding of sex. But what kind of input is shaping that understanding? Perhaps we’re already behind the curve. I didn’t want my children to arrive one day at a place where they asked, “Why didn’t my dad tell me about this?”

Our children hear voices saying, “If you don’t look at porn, how will you know how to treat sex?” But if they do look at porn, they will be misled regarding how to steward their bodies, minds, and souls. Today’s dominant view of sex — the view permeating pornography — ignores (even mocks) God and objectifies others. In this view, other people are simply objects for one’s own immediate gratification, no matter what that gratification does to them. But sex involves more than anatomy; it’s inescapably enmeshed with values, relational dynamics, acceptance or rejection of God’s design for one’s own life, and the lordship of God himself.

So, your children are likely already learning about sex. Are they learning what they know from you? Or from somewhere else? And if somewhere else, do you really trust their teachers?

How Then Shall We Begin?

We can assume that parents already know something about the biological aspects of sex, which, after all, is how parents typically come to be parents. I assume you know more than your children’s peers, who may already be speaking about sex with your children. It’s not primarily how much you know (you don’t need a medical degree), but the context in which you converse about it, and the spirit of reverence and heart of love.

Don’t worry about giving the subject an exhaustive treatment. Your children have years to grow in their understanding, just as you have grown in yours. With that being said, here are some lessons you might apply over the long haul.

1. Begin with God.

The first step, then, in answering how to speak with your children about sex is to embrace God’s endorsement of the subject matter.

Sexuality is good, and stewarded properly it is not shameful. After creating male and female, God declared it good work (Genesis 1:31). He charged them (and Christian marriages today), “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). And he called sex between a husband and his bride “wonderful”:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
     four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
     the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
     and the way of a man with a virgin. (Proverbs 30:18–19)

As you teach and caution your children about the dangers of sexual immorality and impurity, remember to be as supportive of (godly) sex as God is.

“Sex is one slice of a larger pie called ‘discipleship.’”

Second, take other important steps long before addressing the topic of sex, because preparation for understanding sex starts long before they’re “old enough.” Do your children first have a strong spiritual foundation? Do they know God made everything? Have they learned the difference between serving and being served? Sex is one slice of a larger pie called discipleship.

2. Cultivate credibility.

Wisdom keeps age-appropriateness in mind, but if you’re asking yourself, “How long can I put this off?” you’re asking the wrong question.

Establish loving credibility with your child. When I asked my now-grown daughter (who today has her own children) about this subject, she reminded me that I took her as a preteen on dates and “had her heart” before broaching the subject of sex when she was 11. “I love you, and therefore I will be candid (yet discreet) about this important subject (and every other subject),” was a yearslong preamble to speaking of sex.

3. Beware of putting off the conversation.

Third, be proactive. Shortly after being asked to write this article, I was working on a home project with two granddaughters, ages 15 and 10. I told them I was invited to write an article on how to talk about sex with your kids, and asked them what they thought I should say. There was no big gasp or long awkward silence. They jumped in as they would on any other subject. It seemed natural, not forced or artificial, as though we should get back to real life after talking about this embarrassing, fake subject. They weren’t embarrassed but helpfully frank.

Again, be proactive. The subject of sex becomes more awkward the longer it is put off. The awkwardness is ours, not theirs — unless they adopt our awkwardness as their own. Be open; welcome any question about anything, including sex.

4. Seize teachable moments.

In addition to scheduling a bigger conversation, seize upon smaller, teachable moments with younger children — about body parts, modesty, privacy, strangers. Some call this the Drip Method — many talks versus The Talk.

Consider: Have you ever heard parents ask other parents if they have given their child The Talk about driving, getting a job, pursuing holiness, or any other subject in the whole wide world? You seldom give your children The Talk on any other subject. You don’t give them The Talk on nutrition, money, or nearly anything else, so why do it that way with sex? We don’t need to make a bigger deal of it than it is.

5. Read the whole Bible with them.

In your family Bible reading, don’t avoid texts that mention such things as circumcision, prostitutes, rape, and Rachel’s feigned period in Genesis 31. The whole Bible is for the whole family. By treating such biblical incidents matter-of-factly when you encounter them, you make helpful deposits in the steady development of your children. If your 4-year-old doesn’t ask what a prostitute is, move on. But if your 10-year-old asks, “Mom, what’s a prostitute?” that’s a teachable moment.

Explicitly teach biblical precepts such as do not commit adultery, don’t marry an unbeliever, and so on. Moses goes into remarkable sexual detail in giving God’s law to Israel. And then he says this: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Yes, to the children — teach the children Moses’s precepts about sex.

Heart of Sex Discipleship

Help your child see sex within the context of broader principles — for example, the Ecclesiastes Principle: there is a time for nearly everything and a time for refraining from nearly everything. Or consider this broad principle: the impulsive desire for immediate gratification can torpedo future happiness, and instead bring painful regrets.

“The most significant sex organ is the heart, and the second-most significant is the brain.”

Remember that not all children are the same, some being more forthright and others being more withholding. Tailor your interactions accordingly. Be discreet. The older the child and the more specific detail to be addressed, the more likely having the conversation in private would be wise. Let them know that if they have questions later, they can always come to you.

In instructing your children, keep in mind that the most significant sex organ is the heart, and the second-most significant is the brain.

Employ All Your Resources

What is sex for? Sex isn’t just about an act. It’s about God’s ways — his ways of making babies, of populating earth and heaven (no one is born again who isn’t first born), of providing for intimacy in marriage, of displaying the complexity of his creative design.

Along the way, commend your developing children for evidences of manliness or ladylike grace in contexts not primarily about sexual intimacy — a son carries heavy boxes for his mom, a daughter interacts politely with adults, a child demonstrates self-control in any area of life.

Plunder the wealth of resources in your congregation. Specifically, talk to parents who have conversed with their own children about sex, and ask them how they went about it. Did they take their pubescent youngsters on special outings, or go through a book together? Did dad talk to the sons and mom speak with the daughters? Ask them.

Pray, asking God to guard the hearts and minds of your children. And then take heart. It’s always the right time to grow in stewardship of God’s gifts and to speak with your children about them.