“When did you lose your virginity?” Don’t be surprised if your son or daughter asks you that or another intimate question. It’s often a sign of a warm, open family dynamic when your children come to you with questions about sex and sexuality. “The key is to take advantage of the opportunity to have a good conversation,” says Mechele Pruitt, San Francisco Parents Place Director.

For some, these questions about the birds and bees come in the pre- teen or teen years. For others, they come early. “I had many memorable conversations with preschoolers while I was pregnant,” say Mechele. “I was a preschool director at the time, running two schools in Silicon Valley, and many children stopped to touch my stomach throughout my pregnancy. Some would ask questions about the baby’s sex and if it moved inside, and how it would come out.”

As parents, we want to be prepared, yet often feel unprepared, and more than anything, we wish to appear comfortable and free of nerves. “Many of us come from families in which our parents would or could not have these conversations with us, so the subject of intimacy continues to be shrouded in embarrassment or shame,” says John Gusman, LCSW , Marin Parents Place Clinical Director. “It is always best, before broaching the subject of sex with your children, to make sure that you have dealt with feelings that may prevent you from talking to them openly and honestly.”

Sometimes talking about sex takes practice. Role playing with your spouse, partner, or significant other can help before a talk with your son or daughter. Your partner can play the part of your child—and then vice versa—to become more comfortable with what you want to say and with possible scenarios.

As for the question of virginity, you can take a number of approaches. “In households in which parents and children have always talked openly about many important matters, parents may feel that they can answer this directly,” says Mechele.

Healthy sexuality also includes the ability to set limits on what you’re comfortable sharing. It’s okay not to answer personal questions if you are uncomfortable with them or feel they’re inappropriate. This can help you set healthy limits with your children. Whatever you end up saying, try to ensure that it leads to ways for fuller, more candid, and less threatening discussions about love, sex, and intimacy.

Parents Place offers some other ideas to prepare parents for talks with their kids about sex and sexuality:

  1. Start young. There are books geared for children as young as 3 that answer the questions about body parts and set the stage for more questions, such as where did I come from? Consult your librarian or local bookstore for the best of the literature and incorporate it into bedtime reading, along with other stories.
  2. Acknowledge your feelings to your kids. “It’s not uncommon,” says John, “for parents to giggle or laugh nervously when talking about sex with their children. Say to your son or daughter, ‘You know, Grandpa never talked to me about this, so excuse me if I just laughed. I’m dealing with my own discomfort, but I want you to know I take our conversation seriously and I’ll try not to laugh in the future.”
  3. Make sure that the information you are providing to your children is accurate. “Not long ago, I heard a sexually active teen say that he didn’t need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases,” because he’d had his ‘shots,’” says John. “His immunizations were to protect against tetanus, not syphilis or chlamydia.”
  4. Remember, conversations with teens are often about risk management. If your adolescents are already sexually active, make sure that they are safe and responsible and have the information to remain so. Discouraging kids from having sex when they’re already active is probably unrealistic.
  5. Talking about sex is not a one-time conversation. It’s about creating the environment and rapport that allow for ongoing dialogue. This will allow your children to feel that they can approach you whenever they need you to address their questions and concerns.
  6. Use helpful books. We recommend It’s Not the Stork and It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley.

Do you have other questions or concerns about talking to your children about sex? Contact your local Parents Place office or call 415-359-2443.