How we told our children about sex

We’ve been preparing for a few years, waiting for that million-dollar question: “How do the sperm and the egg join?” And just this Friday, we hit the jackpot.

Getting ready to talk.
Guess what we’re going to talk about tonight?

When Lucy was about five, she had lots of questions and interest in bodies. We were always very open about it, talking about our various parts using grown-up, appropriate language, while hoping to instill a sense of awe and honor — but no shame — about our wonderfully-made bodies. During this time, we were waiting daily for the “How are babies made?” question.

My own childhood experience in uncovering this knowledge felt awkward and lonely. I remember sitting in my third-grade catechism class at church when someone asked, “How was God made?” The teacher replied, “Well, he wasn’t made the way the rest of us were made…” — a comment which resulted in a cascade of giggles from my peers. I laughed along with them, concealing the fact that I actually did not know what the process of human reproduction entailed, but quickly formulating a theory that it had something to do with belly buttons.

Soon after that incident, I took matters into my own hands. At the time, my mother worked at our local public library, where I would spend most weekday afternoons studying and reading after school. During one of these unsupervised sessions, I researched my question in the card catalog and ended up with a book called How Babies Are Made. (It may have been this book, but I can’t be sure.) It answered my questions satisfactorily, and I finally got the joke that was made in my catechism class.

A year or two later, my mother must have realized that she never covered this topic and attempted to elucidate me during a commercial break of a soap opera, a process which was clearly as uncomfortable for her as it was for me. I quickly assured her that I had all the basics covered, and we gratefully abandoned the topic and returned to All My Children.

As with much of our parenting, I wanted to find a new path that differed from my childhood, one that treated the topic of sex with frankness and reverence within the safety of a close parent-child relationship. So I did what I always do when I need parenting help: I talked with friends and I read.

I read several books about how to tell your children about sex, some good and some not great. I read one that advocated waiting until a child was eight years old, filling in basic information along the way but waiting until their eighth birthday for a special dinner out with the parents to have “The Big Talk.” That seemed a little unrealistic for our inquisitive children. I talked with one friend who encouraged me that there isn’t one “big talk,” but just a series of conversations covering many different aspects of the topic. I talked things over with Jon, and we watched a very funny video about a woman telling her daughter about sex. And I read some more.
How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex

My favorite book turned out to be How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex by Stan and Brenna Jones. I appreciated their focus on positive, ongoing conversations, their openness to discussion at any age, and their encouragement for parents to cultivate close, open relationships with their children in order to foster healthy attitudes about sexuality. I also really liked their biblical focus and instruction on how to influence your child’s values without using guilt and shame. But even more helpful was their accompanying series of age-appropriate books for children, designed to help parents cover the necessary information clearly and with a distinct focus on God’s design for our bodies and his great love for us. We quickly purchased Book One and Book Two, then waited to see what would happen.

Fast forward three years. We’d covered the topics in The Story of Me (Book One) years ago without too much awkwardness. We’d gotten pretty good at using correct terminology for body parts at appropriate times , but we still hadn’t covered the process of sperm-meets-egg. Reflecting on my own experience of being left out of the joke as a child, and also influenced by the Jones’ encouragement to be proactive about this topic in order to be the first to discuss this information with your children, I decided that we needed to take some action.

Jon and I agreed that it would make sense to cover this in our homeschool, treating it as part of the Boyd curriculum and not making a big fat deal out of it. I started getting a few books from the library about pregnancy and gestation, which we read for “science” in our homeschool. The plan was to read a few of these books, then to tackle the “how” question. The trouble was — I felt really awkward about it.

I consider myself to be a person who is not easily embarrassed. I feel comfortable talking about bodies, I attended a friend’s birth as a doula and LOVED it, and I’m not particularly squeamish. But I’d been having a difficult time figuring out how to broach this topic with our children. It dawned on me that the problem was not the information that needed to be conveyed; it was the potential response. We are blessed with two very imaginative children, and I knew that as soon as they heard about this strange marital act, they would conjure up pictures involving Mama and Papa — which felt very embarrassing!

I remember feeling exposed in the same way when Jon and I had breakfast with some family members a day or two after our wedding, imagining that they were all thinking, “I know what those two were doing last night!” I remember another time when we left two-year-old Lucy with a sweet college-aged babysitter, during which time she got into a box containing condoms that we had erroneously left on a low shelf. I think my face was red with embarrassment for two days after that. I don’t mind talking about sex — I just don’t like people thinking about ME having sex. The Jones book helpfully addresses this topic in chapter 9 under the heading “Why It’s So Hard to Tell Them About Intercourse”:

There is a natural privacy around our sexual lives that is difficult to deal with. When we being to talk with our kids about sex, we have a sense of invasion of that privacy; the little people in the bedroom next door now know what we have been doing!

But there was no getting around it the other night when, in a discussion over dessert about menstrual periods and babies, Lucy asked, “But exactly how does the cell from the man and the cell from the woman get together?”

“That is an excellent question,” I said. “I have a good book about it. Get your pajamas on and brush your teeth and we’ll read it together.

There were a few things that turned out to be serendipitously helpful in this situation:

  1. Jon was out of town. I always love to have my dear husband near to us, but Jon happened to be in Florida at this particular moment, on his annual trip with his brother to catch Opening Day of baseball. Jon and I texted about the impending conversation as I cleaned up the dishes, and I was grateful for his support and encouragement. But I must say it reduced my anxiety level to know that, although there was no stopping the imagination of our girls, at least Jon and I wouldn’t have to be interviewed together about our private lives. At least, not right away.
  2. It was bedtime. This meant that we could talk about the birds and the bees for a little while, then read an innocent book like The Three Little Pigs, and then have a break for a few hours. Good.
  3. Both girls were included. If this subject was raised even a year ago, I’m not sure if we would have included Rosie in the discussion. But since she is now six and Lucy almost eight, we thought they could both handle the facts — and we would only have to have the initial discussion once!

Before I Was Born
Once the children were jammied and brushed, we sat down and read Before I Was Born (Book 2). The watercolor illustrations are quite lovely, and I was grateful for the gentle tone of the book, the clear language, and the unhesitating way the text marched us through gems like, “When a husband and wife lie close together, he can fit his penis into her vagina. His semen flows inside of her and their bodies feel good all over.” (Yes, that is what it said.)

The girls were, as expected, surprised and interested, embellishing our reading and ensuing discussion with such colorful questions and comments as:

  • Did you and Daddy do that?
  • Did you do that twice? More? Five times? Sixteen? Twenty-five?
  • Do all married people do sex?
  • Do you have to be naked when you do it, or do you just have to take off your pants?
  • Do you do it on top of the covers or underneath?
  • Did you do that on the very night when you got married?
  • Is it something that you do when you go out for a date on your anniversary?
  • Is it messy? Do you feel like you really have to wash yourself afterwards? Does it get the bed messy?
  • I just want to see it! I don’t really understand how it works. (To which I replied, “You’re not allowed to see it, it is a private thing just for married people.”)
  • That is so weird! And it is too romantic!

I felt pleased that we made it through. I know the journey has hardly begun — even in the past 48 hours, Lucy has been noticing the word “sex” on a variety of previously-indiscernible advertisements and magazines. When Jon returns from his trip, I’m sure he is going to get an earful! But it is only the beginning of what I pray are many, many open discussions, during which I hope to blush less and less over the years.

15 Thoughts on “How we told our children about sex

  1. Pam (Wontor) Strohl on March 31, 2014 at 9:53 am said:

    We have one child who wants to ask questions at the dinner table & the other who turns beet red whenever he does. :) Thanks for the bravery in sharing!

  2. Nicole Harlow on March 31, 2014 at 10:04 am said:

    Thank you for sharing, Ann! We have begun to embark on this ourselves and like you, our first conversation happened when James was gone and with all 3 kids (Isabelle is 5 1/2). We didn’t get fully into the mechanics, but talked pretty frankly about the egg, sperm, etc. I’m sure the mechanics will be coming up soon.

  3. Megan Putman on March 31, 2014 at 10:14 am said:

    Oh Ann, I feel as if I hit the jackpot with your post. What good timing!

    A few weeks back, I told Jack he looked like Daddy when he made a certain face at me. That begat a question of genetics and DNA with Jack finally asking, “But if I came from your body, how did some of Daddy get in me?”

    I shall follow in your footsteps with hopefully, the same ease.

    XOXO

    Megan

  4. I bought that book a few years ago based on a recommendation (can’t remember who recommended it now.) I still haven’t read it, but I need to. We have a very inquisitive 7 year old and I’m guessing the question about how the sperm and the egg joining will be coming sooner rather than later. Sounds like you handled everything wonderfully!

    • It took me awhile to read the book too — it never really feels urgent until the moment is upon you. :) You’ll do great when the time comes!

  5. That’s great! We may have to invest in those books when the time comes. Thankfully that’s still some time off for us…

  6. Dora Winchester on March 31, 2014 at 12:58 pm said:

    That video is so funny!

  7. Kimberlyn on March 31, 2014 at 4:02 pm said:

    Ann, you have obviously turned out to be the most lovely adult (I remember listening to you sing for us when you were just a tween, or maybe a teen). Not to mention a thinking, aware and sensitive but no-nonsense parent. Bravo. I have no children, but two nieces and a nephew. This really nicely written post made me wonder…

    • Kimberlyn, how delightful to hear from you! Thanks for stopping in. Vincie says you have a fabulous place near the Loop and are doing splendidly! So glad to hear it.

  8. Taylor on April 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm said:

    Ann, you are easy to admire! What a sweet story to read. Love those girls! You’re all so lucky to have each other.

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