How Young is Too Young to Start Talking with Young Kids About Sex?

Julia Sadusky

With the rise in access to technology, social media, and sexualized content in media, children are being exposed to sexual imagery, topics, and experiences at younger ages than ever before. At the same time, most Christian parents struggle to know when, how, and even if there is value in talking about sexuality prior to puberty. 

Even when parents do see value in talking about sexuality with their kids, they often have questions about when to have these conversations and what topics to cover at each developmental stage. That’s why I’ve written a two-book series, Start Talking to Your Kids About Sex and Talking with Your Teen About Sex, to help parents through these conversations. Both books are subtitled A Practical Guide for Catholics—but if you aren’t Catholic, fear not! The series is designed to help a range of Christian readers shape conversations that are faith-congruent and psychologically grounded, regardless of your denominational background. 

Many of us grew up lacking the sexual education we needed to effectively understand our own sexuality and integrate it without shame. We also lacked role models who showed us how to talk about sexuality openly, respectfully, and proactively. These deficits can have numerous impacts on us as adults. Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted presents survey data of adult Christians who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors. When Stringer asked them what sexual education they received from their parents, 50% of those surveyed recalled never having conversations with their mother about sex, and 60% recalled the same with their father. Only 8% believed the conversations they did have with a mother were “genuinely helpful,” and only 5% with a father.1Stringer, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, 38.

For some people, like those in Stringer’s study, lack of sexual education can contribute to compulsive sexual behavior. For others, it can lead to suppression of desire, stunting a person’s capacity for pleasurable sexual intimacy. For still others, it can spell a complete absence of guidance about God’s plan for human sexuality. No wonder such a large number of Christian young people aren’t compelled by Christian sexual ethics;2Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex sometimes or always acceptable | Pew Research Center in many cases, they’re formed by culture, peers, and social media long before their parents offer them anything substantive. 

In light of this dilemma, what does it look like practically for Christian parents to start talking with younger kids, aged 0-9, about sexuality?

In the 0-3 age range, parents can begin by teaching children accurate names for genitalia. I recommend that parents begin practicing labeling these body parts while changing diapers or helping children learn to clean their body in a bath. Naming genitalia out loud will help reduce your anxiety long before your child remembers the words. Believe it or not, simply teaching children accurate names for genitalia is enormously helpful in protecting against child sexual abuse. It also helps children be more likely to share with a trusted adult if something inappropriate does happen, reduces shame around sexuality, and makes later conversations about sex, puberty, and sexuality much easier.3Why We Should Teach Children Proper Names for Private Body Parts – Enough Abuse

In the 3-6 age range, we expect children to begin exploring their environment, including their own body and other people’s bodies, through their senses. This is when it becomes more common for kids to “play doctor,” ask to see/touch another child’s genitalia, or show their genitalia to others. Just because these behaviors are common, that doesn’t mean we should ignore them when they occur. On the other hand, recognizing that they’re developmentally normal behaviors can help parents not react out of anger or fear, by slapping away a child’s hand or launching into a shame-inducing lecture. 

The best response in situations like these is to be responsive, calm, and clear about boundaries around touch. We want to proactively describe “family rules” around touch, while also reminding our kids, “You will never get in trouble if you tell the truth about something that happened.” This helps kids know there is no one we’d rather they tell than a trusted adult if something bad or confusing happens to them.

In the 6-9 age range, we begin to teach kids more about privacy and boundaries around physical affection. Technology use also becomes more of a conversation at this age. We remind kids that they may come across information and pictures that are not appropriate. You want to tell them what to do when this happens, rather than assuming it won’t happen. We also begin to introduce conversations about possible exposure to pornography, masturbation, and other realities they may encounter or hear talked about. This is especially important as our children begin to have more time away from home and less parental supervision in school, at sleepovers, and elsewhere.  Remember, the key is to initiate and frame these conversation topics so that, when something arises, your children know you can be a resource to them. 

Some children will also have questions about the experiences of sexual minorities—that is, LGB or same-sex attracted people—long before they experience any sexual attraction themselves. Increasingly, kids will hear about sexual minority family members, friends, or characters in stories, and they might have questions for their parents. Many Christian parents struggle with how to respond to these questions, erring either on the side of silence or polarizing commentary.

Take, for example, Joan and David, a Christian couple with three young boys ages 2, 4, and 7. As Joan and David were watching a basketball game with their two older boys, a commercial came on that depicted a gay couple. Joan felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say. She reactively clicked off the TV and commented, “We won’t have any of that in our house.” Several years later, Joan and David’s oldest son began to experience same-sex attraction. His only reference point for what his parents thought about same-sex sexuality was his mother’s response to that commercial. Because he was young at the time and concrete in his thinking, he interpreted his mother’s comment to mean that any gay person would not be welcome in their home. This led him to years of secrecy about his attraction, secrecy that might have been avoided if his mom had responded more graciously. 

There are countless conversations about bodies, sex, and sexuality that we can begin having with children long before puberty. Each of these early conversations lays a foundation for subsequent ones, making your job as a parent much easier in the long run.

For more a detailed discussion of how to have the above conversations proactively, including sample scripts for parents who struggle to find their own words at first, see Start Talking to Your Kids About Sex: A Practical Guide for Catholics.


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