If you have children, the question of how and when to have the “birds and the bees” talk can be confusing. Some parents may be unsure when to talk to kids about sex. Others may feel like they don’t have the right knowledge or worry that introducing the topic of sex too early may lead to their kids becoming sexually active before they’re ready. Many people simply find it uncomfortable to speak with their children about reproduction and sexuality. Yet, there’s good evidence that kids whose parents provide fact-based, nonjudgmental information about sex are more likely to wait to become sexually active, and to make safer choices when they do. (1)
Why is it called “the birds and the bees” talk?
It’s not clear when “the birds and the bees” became an expression referring to sex. The term may have been inspired by 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote a love poem containing the line “the bees are stirring — birds are on the wing,” or, more recently, by a 1928 song by Cole Porter, which includes the lyrics, “Birds do it, bees do it. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.” (2)
It’s also possible that the term became associated with sex because both animals are responsible for fertility and new growth, bees by pollinating plants, and birds by spreading seeds.
Whatever the term’s origin, it’s likely that people started calling reproduction and sex “the birds and the bees” because they were uncomfortable talking directly about sex, especially with children. Being direct when talking to kids about sex, though, can help them get the information they need to understand their bodies and stay safe.
When is it time to have the ‘sex talk’ with your kids?
Children develop at their own pace, and what works for one kid might not apply to another. It’s always a good idea to take your child’s individual personality and maturity level into consideration when deciding when to have the birds and the bees talk and how much information to include: at earlier stages of development, simple explanations are appropriate, while at later stages, topics like pleasure, different types of relationships, birth control, and STI prevention can be introduced. It’s important to make it an ongoing conversation, rather than a single talk.
Sex educator and author Cindy Pierce tells O.school, “Children who receive sexuality education that starts when they are young and continue to have conversations with their parents have a much better chance of making healthier sexual choices as teens and young people. These conversations may feel awkward for all involved, but they get easier with practice.”
It’s a good idea to share information that makes sense for each developmental stage, starting with basic concepts like privacy and what kinds of touch are and aren’t appropriate, and gradually introducing more complex information as they grow. Pierce says that parents should “be ready to openly answer questions about sex by 5. If it hasn’t come up by 6, create opportunities to have a conversation about sexuality.”
5 things to keep in mind while giving ‘the birds and the bees’ talk
Parents have a big influence on their kids’ beliefs, behaviors, and choices, and sex is no exception: If you share information in a way that’s positive, matter-of-fact, and judgment-free, your kids are likelier to understand that sex is a natural part of life and to have a healthier approach to sexuality. (1) While there’s no one-size-fits-all “birds and the bees” script, there are a few general principles to keep in mind:
- Use anatomically correct names for body parts (penis, vagina, and vulva instead of nicknames like “weewee”). Children who use the correct terms for their sex organs can communicate more effectively with caregivers and may be at lower risk for sexual abuse. (3)
- For kids of every age, emphasize the importance of consent. Let them know that it’s not ok to touch or be touched without permission anywhere on the body, especially the genitals.
- Keep information medically accurate, but don’t use scare tactics. It’s important for older kids to understand that sex involves risks like pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but research suggests that a “lecturing” approach that emphasizes the dangers of sex can backfire and make kids more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. (1)
- Be real about why people have sex. Talking about the fun parts of sex — pleasure, intimacy, connection, and more — can help kids develop a healthy and balanced perspective. It’s also important for kids to know that “sex” can mean different things to different people: There are many ways to connect sexually, and vaginal intercourse isn’t the only kind of sex.
- Giving kids accurate information about sex, reproduction, and relationships is an important part of helping them learn and grow and isn’t the same as encouraging them to be sexually active. Sharing your values and expectations around sexual behavior can have a big influence on their choices. (4) Pierce tells O.school, “Parents who engage their children in conversations about sexuality early and often help reduce the risk that their child will learn about sex from unreliable resources online or on the playground.”
How to have ‘the sex talk,’ depending on your child’s age
“Children at different ages can ask different kinds of questions. And the answer depends on what the child is capable of understanding. But every child, whatever age, has the right to receive an answer, even if you think the child might be too young for this topic,” Psychologist, sexologist, and author Sanderijn Van Der Doef tells O.school. Dr. Lea Lis, a psychiatrist and sexual health educator, agrees, adding that “questions about sex should be answered honestly and factually at each stage of development. The answers should be age appropriate and can be supplemented by using visuals like books to help with the discussions.”
When you’re deciding how to have the birds and the bees talk, take your child’s individual emotional and social maturity into account, and be on the lookout for signs that they’re ready for more information. Here are some guidelines you can follow based on your child’s general developmental stage.
Kindergarten and elementary schoolers
- Use correct names for sexual body parts. It’s never too early to teach children anatomically correct terms for sexual or private body parts. You can make this a natural part of your parenting by using the terms “vagina,” “vulva,” or “penis” from the beginning. Dr. Lis tells O.school, “Talking about bodies and using the correct names for body parts is important before a child goes into kindergarten [or starts to spend time away from trusted adults]. These conversations can start as soon as they are born, as children are already absorbing language and knowledge."
- Emphasize which body parts are private. Having a relaxed, matter-of-fact approach to bodies and which parts are private lets your child know that bodies and bodily functions are nothing to be ashamed of and can help protect them against abuse by giving them language that others can easily understand if they need to talk about something that’s happened to them. (3) Encourage your child to speak up if anyone ever touches their genitals, especially if that person has told them to keep it a secret.
- Teach them the importance of consent. You can help protect your child and teach them to respect others by letting them know that their body is their own and that hugging and kissing — even when it comes to relatives — are always optional. “A conversation about consent and boundaries in play and social contexts with small kids helps lay the foundation of healthy attitudes and awareness as they get older,” Pierce tells O.school.
- Teach them when it is and isn’t ok to masturbate. Many young children touch their genitals because it is pleasurable; exploring their own bodies in this way is healthy and developmentally appropriate. You can help your child learn appropriate boundaries by letting them know that, while it’s ok to touch themselves in this way, it needs to be done in private. For younger kids who may not be ready for in-depth discussions of sexuality, Van Der Doef suggests that “calling [the feeling of touching their genitals] nice feelings instead of sexual feelings is enough to normalize it.”
- Introduce the basics of sexual intercourse and reproduction. At this stage, a simple explanation is usually enough to satisfy their curiosity. Books like It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends can help introduce these concepts; What Makes a Baby? has similar information in an inclusive format that incorporates the experiences of adoptive and queer families.
- Welcome their questions — but don’t wait for them to ask. “It is important that [children] get the message that it is normal to be curious and ask questions,” Pierce tells O.school. She adds, “Effective sexuality education requires parents to have many proactive conversations over time rather than wait until they ask. Children are much more likely to consider their parent a reliable source for information about sexuality if their parent steps into these conversations.”
- Build on what they know. At this stage, many kids become more curious about sex and romance, as well as reproduction. Many kids experience the beginning of puberty during this time. Make sure that they understand the basics of reproduction and what kinds of changes they can expect during puberty. Common Sense Media has a list of books about puberty for kids from early childhood through middle school.
- Keep talking — even if it’s awkward. Pierce says, “For most parents, talking about sexuality with their kids feels awkward. Children who receive sexuality education that starts when they are young and continue to have conversations with their parents have a much better chance of making healthy sexual choices as teens and young people. These conversations may feel awkward for all involved, but they get easier with practice.”
- Don’t shy away from discussions of porn. Dr. Lis tells O.school, “It is more common now that children will be exposed to sexualized media or pornography by the time they are in middle school. Parental involvement is important in explaining that pornography is acting, bodies are usually enhanced, and that there is consent by the participants.” Pierce agrees, saying, “Internet porn has become the most common place kids end up on their attempts to learn about sexuality through online searches.” She recommends that parents “reinforce that being curious about naked bodies and sexuality is normal, but porn sex and bodies are not realistic.”
- Introduce identity. Puberty is a time when many kids discover their sexual orientation and explore their identity. (5) Letting them know that you accept them, and providing support as they explore their identity, can help to build trust, and ensure that they’ll feel comfortable asking you questions or coming to you if they’re experiencing challenges. Van Der Doef tells O.school: “Sometimes you can see your child at this age struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Take the initiative to start the conversation; it helps your child to see the parent is caring and empathizes.” Organizations like PFLAG and Gender Spectrum provide resources for families of LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming kids.
- Tell them about birth control and STI prevention methods. It’s important that kids learn how to prevent pregnancy and STIs before they become sexually active. Dr. Lis tells O.school, “It is important to talk about the risks involved with sex, like unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Since this is a time of development and puberty, you need to explain methods of birth control such as IUDs, pills and condoms.”
- Share your values. Research suggests that parents have a big influence on their kids’ choices around sex, and that parents who communicate a strong set of values around sexual behavior can help their children make healthier choices. (4) Pierce encourages parents to discuss the connections and differences between intimacy and sex, as well as “the idea that healthy sexual relationships involve open communication, shared respect, emotional vulnerability, and a balance of interest between partners.” She also urges parents to make it clear to teens that “If it is ‘too awkward’ to discuss consent, pleasure, contraception and safety with a partner, that should make it clear they are not ready for sexual intimacy.” Dr. Lis tells O.school that parents of high-schoolers should be prepared to teach their kids about “sexual etiquette” and how to communicate respectfully with partners.
- Talk about risk and pleasure. The educators we spoke to all agreed that it’s vital to give kids accurate, science-based information about STIs, pregnancy, and other risks associated with sex. They also emphasized that pleasure shouldn’t be left out of the equation.
- Help them navigate peer pressure. As teens develop more independence, they’re likely to face more situations that involve risk and potential peer influence. Even if you don’t want them to be sexually active and think that they would never experiment with alcohol or drugs, it’s still important to help them think clearly about the potential risks involved. “Teenagers are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol,” says Dr. Lis. “Teach teens to wait until they are sober to have sex with a partner.” Pierce says it’s important to help kids understand the potential pitfalls of combining hookups with alcohol use: “Even if your child does not participate, being informed helps them navigate the conversation among peers that is often centered on the hookup scene.”
- Reinforce the importance of consent. Ideally, conversations about consent start when children are very young and continue as their social lives and peer interactions become more complex. Pierce says that the teen years are a good time to reinforce the importance of sexual consent: “Teach assertiveness and clear boundaries for all genders. Most kids are taught the definition of sexual consent and understand it. Applying that understanding is challenging for people, especially when peer pressure, substance use and/or sexual arousal can cause a developing brain to override what they know is right.”
- Give them resources. Van Der Doef tells O.school that “high school students usually do not ask their parents anymore” when they have questions about sex, adding that kids often find their way to information on the Internet. Even if they no longer come to you with their questions, you can point your kids towards good sources of information. Scarleteen.com and Planned Parenthood have medically accurate information about sex, bodies, relationships, mental health, and more geared towards teens.
The bottom line
Talking to kids about the birds and the bees can feel awkward at first, but these conversations usually get easier with time and practice. Starting when kids are young, consistently emphasizing the importance of consent, and giving information in a way that is matter-of-fact and shame-free can help kids to stay safe and healthy. For more information about how to talk to kids about the birds and the bees, check out these resources from Planned Parenthood, the University of Minnesota, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.