To instill an understanding of consent and body autonomy, we should also let our kids make their own decisions about who they touch (and are touched by). Avoid instructing children to give their friends hugs at the end of each play date, for example, and make sure they understand that they don’t have to be embraced if they don’t want to be, said Emily Rothman, a community health scientist at the Boston University School of Public Health.
It’s also wise to talk to kids about pornography from a young age — even as young as kindergarten, Dr. Rothman suggested. You can frame these early discussions as being more about nakedness than about sex, though. “You can say, ‘Sometimes grown-ups like to look at naked photos or movies of other grown-ups, and they do it because it’s fun for them and makes them feel good, but we don’t think it’s that good for kids’ brains,’” she said. When kids start chatting with friends over digital devices, we should also make clear that it’s never a good idea to send naked pictures to others, that this is called sexting, and that it can get kids in lots of trouble.
This all said, parents shouldn’t only talk about sex in a negative way, either. It’s important that our kids understand that sex can be a joyful and important part of adult life, and that it’s OK for them to get pleasure from their bodies. Parents might worry that framing sex in a positive way — or talking about sex at all — will make it more likely that their kids will start doing it, but the opposite is, in fact, true.
A 2015 study reported that when parents introduce their kids to the issue of sex with a stern, scare-mongering lecture, their kids are more likely to have sex during the teen years. When parents have more supportive and receptive conversations with their kids about sex, on the other hand, those kids are less likely to take sexual risks. And in a 2012 nationwide survey, 87 percent of teens said that it would be easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have open and honest conversations with their parents about sex.
When we talk to our kids about these important but complex issues, we share our values and our wisdom, which allows them to make better choices. And if they choose to yell out “penis!” on the playground, it’s not the end of the world.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science journalist and the author of “How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.”