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Sex education starts at home

May 29th, 2005

Dr Petra

This week Beverley Hughes, the new children and families minister, stated parents should play more of a role in educating their children about sex and relationships in order to reduce teenage pregnancies.

Which is fine in theory. But in practice it’s another way for the government to avoid taking responsibility for sexual health issues.

Telling parents they need to talk about sex sounds great, but is completely meaningless if said parents are offered no additional support or training to help them achieve this task.

And it’s even more meaningless if the government does not adequately fund nor support sex education and sexual health services.

Many parents of teenagers and young children were not provided with adequate sex education.

Think back – did you have any sex education at all, and if you did, what did it cover?

My school sex education was a visit from the ‘Tampax lady’ who told us about periods (that happened twice, when I was eleven and when I was fourteen. On both occasions boys were excluded). We read about the reproductive organs of a rabbit when I was twelve, and when we were fourteen we were shown a film about a 1960s lady having a baby. We were never taught about contraception, how to use a condom, saying yes or no to sex, or homosexuality. I expect my sex education was worse than some, similar to most people, and better than many.

Parents of children and teenagers may have had some basic information during biology classes about pregnancy or childbirth. Some might have learned about HIV (but probably not any other sexually transmitted infections). Those growing up when section 28 was in place would never have been taught about issues around sexuality since the then government banned such discussions. And many parents wouldn’t have been taught about confidence, communication, or contraception.

This means before parents can jump into the sex education role, they need sex education themselves. And the government seems to be taking no steps to ensure that happens.

Many parents, apart from feeling under qualified to discuss sex, and possibly having problems or uncertainties in their own sex lives, may have additional worries about discussing sex with their children. When should they start? What should they say? Can dads give sex advice or should it be down to mum? If they mention any sexual behaviour might it encourage their child to experiment? What if they say the wrong thing, get embarrassed or don’t know the answer? All these issues remain barriers to talking about sex.

So here are some suggestions on how to talk sex to your kids.

Don’t let it fall on your shoulders
Hold the government accountable. If they want you to teach your kids about sex, then demand they provide you with the resources to do this.

Get support from other sources
If your child’s school is not already offering sex education, or what is offered isn’t delivered to the high standard you wish, then talk to the head teacher or school governors to ensure that sex education is provided to your child.

Do your homework

As mentioned, you may not have had much sex education. Before you start to talk to your child about sex, then read up on the subject. That way you’ll feel more prepared to discuss issues with your child. I’ve listed useful resources to help you and your child at the end of this blog entry.

Don’t feel you have to know everything
It’s fine to say ‘I don’t know’ if your child asks you a question. But you should then be prepared to find out the answer for them and either explain it, or point them in the right direction to find out more.

Don’t wait for your child to come to you

Many parents assume if their child wants to know something, they’ll come and ask you. Often children are waiting for parents to chat to them! From childhood you can start talking about naming the body, confidence and boundaries. Prior to puberty you can prepare your child, explaining about periods or wet dreams, and anticipating developmental changes (e.g. growing breasts or pubic hair). During puberty and after you can advise on sex, feelings, negotiating boundaries, contraception, sexual health and so on.

Boundaries are okay

Parents often feel they have to cover all the sex education bases, but frequently children may not want to hear certain things from their folks. Certainly stuff like oral or anal sex, sex toys, or your own sexual antics may not be what they want to discuss with you. Cover basic sex information, be willing to discuss other issues, but refer your child to other resources so they can find about out those things they’re too shy to talk about with you.

Use available resources

There are plenty of opportunities to talk sex with your child. Soap operas, music videos, films and TV shows, teen magazines or websites all have sex or relationship-related content. Rather than criticise these outright, use plotlines, articles or lyrics to discuss issues, and to let your child ask questions. Currently you might use Britney Spears’ pregnancy as a means for discussing everything from ‘where do babies come from’, to discussing pregnancy, sex, contraception, and relationships. Combine these easily accessed media sources with reputable sex advice to empower your child.

Don’t close doors

If you have strong moral or religious views, it’s easy to say ‘this is what we believe’ and not discuss anything further. Topics like premarital sex, abortion or homosexuality may be things you don’t understand or disagree with. Nevertheless your child needs to know about these issues – not least so they won’t be an outsider at school or wider society. If you feel you can’t discuss an issue, again point your teenager towards a resource that can help them. Discussing taboo topics won’t make your child rush out and try them, but it could lead to them feeling more confident and less judgemental.

Try not to be shocked

Your child may mention things that concern you. They may raise issues that you feel they oughtn’t know about, or perhaps offend you. It may make you aware of your lack of sexual knowledge, or problems in your own sex life. If you feel upset or concerned, it’s okay for you and/or your child to have ‘time out’ – where you collect your thoughts. If you’re having sex or relationship problems, then you can get advice from your GP, sex therapist, or relationship counsellor. If you think your child is being sexually exploited, stay calm, try and find as much information from them as possible, and then seek appropriate legal and medical help.

They want to know the basics

Frequently parents worry that a simple (ish) question like ‘where do babies come from?’ will either have to lead to an in-depth chat about everything sexual, or needs to be a lengthy biology lesson. Most kids have straightforward questions that need straightforward answers. Sure, they may lead to other questions being asked, but that can only be positive. If your child asks you a question and you know what to say, give them a short answer and ask if that was what they wanted to know. If so, refer them to additional resources so they can find out more, and if not try and answer the question as best you can – or using available information. Your child may not know all the technical terms so finding out what they want to know can be an adventure for you both, but there’s plenty of information out there to support you.

Talking about sex doesn’t lead to sex

Parents’ main fear is discussing sex leads to their child rushing out and trying it. Rest assured, the evidence around sex education suggests that the more you talk about sex with children, the less likely they are to try sex early, and when they do have sex they’re more likely to use contraception, enjoy the experience, and not be coerced. By talking about sex and relationship issues with your child as they grow, they’ll be less likely to have sex when they’re young and put themselves at risk from pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

Useful sex education resources


For 2-4 year olds ‘Mummy laid an egg’ by Babette Cole.

For 5-8 year olds ‘Where willy went’ by Nicholas Allan, and ‘How did I begin?’ by M.Manning and Brita Granstrom.

For parents of 9-16 year olds ‘Letters to Judy: What kids wish they could tell you’ by Judy Blume (who also writes excellent stories for teenagers about sex, life and growing up).


Advice from Family Planning Association.
Brook offers sexual health advice to the under 25s.
The National Children’s Bureau offers advice for children and parents.

RUThinking answers teenager and parent questions on sex and relationships whilst Dr Ann’s virtual surgery offers advice on all health issues, including sex.

And don’t forget many schools programmes dealing with PHSE (Personal Health and Social Education) have accompanying education websites and books. Search for PHSE information from the BBC and Channel 4.

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