Excerpt: 'Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex'

In his book "Everything you Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask)," Dr. Justin Richardson offers parents tips on talking to their kids about sex.

Talking Points

Some of the little exchanges that, cobbled together, make up these three lessons will fly along smoothly. Some will sputter and die. A few tips on talking may help improve your chances of success.

* If your little one starts things off by asking you a question, give her a pat on the back. A simple "Good question!" may help encourage her to keep sharing her curiosity with you.

* Start by clarifying just what it is your child is asking, so you can be sure of answering the right question. Try to get a sense of how much she already knows. For example, if your daughter asks, "What is sex?" you might try:

"Sure, I can answer that. Sex can mean a lot of different things. Tell me what you heard about sex, so I know which one to talk about." Or: "OK. That's a good one. Why don't you tell me what you know first, and then I can fill in the rest?"

* If, when you bring up a subject for discussion, your child tells you she already knows all about it, don't assume she does. This is an infamous technique used to deflect sex talks with parents. You might ask her, "How would you feel about discussing it again with me?" Then listen for her response. If she says she would rather not, talking about that may be even more interesting than discussing the point you originally wanted to make.

* Remember that young children's thinking is concrete. Avoid using metaphors that your child might take literally. For example, to the question "What is an orgasm?" try:

"An orgasm is a really good feeling you can get from having sex or masturbating."

It's a better answer than "It's a great feeling you get from sex, like scratching an itch, only better."

The latter comment may lead your child to believe that all orgasms require scratching (when, in fact, only some of them do).

* You don't always have to know the answer to your child's question. If you don't, say so and make a plan to look it up together. Use a book, search the Internet, or call her clinician. Do so as soon as you conveniently can, before her curiosity evaporates.

* You may know the answer but not be sure you want to give it. If so, tell your child, "That's a good question. I want to take a little time to think about what to say, so I can give you a good answer."

Set a specific time when you will give her your answer, preferably by bedtime that night or the next morning. Remember to follow through.

* Feel free to be authentic in these conversations. If you feel uncomfortable, it's OK to say so. Sometimes a simple statement like the following can actually make it easier to proceed:

"Wow, for some reason talking about this gets me tongue-tied. I think I get embarrassed sometimes. Do you ever feel that way?"

* Your child may have a harder time recognizing and commenting on her feelings than you. She may feel she has to continue a conversation even if it is uncomfortable -- which, of course, she doesn't. If you sense she's freezing up, it may help if you put her feelings into words:

"Do you feel a little bothered by what I just said? Maybe this is tense to talk about. What do you think?"

* If your child isn't asking you about the sexual topics you want to discuss, try to create a setting that will spark her curiosity. Visiting a pregnant friend can be helpful. So can looking at pictures of the family shortly before your child was born. A natural "Where was I then?" can get the ball rolling.

* Many books have been written for parents and children of all ages to help teach these lessons. Try them. We recommend It's So Amazing for children in preschool and the early years of elementary school and It's Perfectly Normal for children ages 10 and up. Both books are by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley.

* As the conversation is winding down, check to see if you got your point across. "Did I answer your question?" sometimes works. If you really want to check for comprehension, you might try:

"So if you had to explain this to your sister, how would you say it?"

* Even if your child seems to have understood, expect to revisit any topic a number of times. Many of these lessons need to be repeated often to allow your child to master them.

* Remember in all of these conversations that one chief goal, aside from teaching a fact or two about sex, is building a relationship in which your child feels sexual questions will be accepted and explained.

From "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask)" by Justin Richardson, M.D., and Mark Schuster, M.D., Ph.D., Copyright 2003. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.