How do you react when she asks where babies come from? Or when he asks about somebody’s pregnant tum? We talk to sex expert Dr Martha Tara Lee about what, when and how...

Giving the “sex talk” — what to say and when

If you’re planning to have a child, you need to plan to talk to your child about sex. Do you think that you can leave it to “the school” or that your child will somehow learn the facts on their own? Dr Martha Tara Lee, clinical sexologist, says: “Sex ed cannot be taught in one lesson but should be an on-going discussion especially if parents wish to impart their values as well.”

She adds sadly: “Many of my adult clients complain that they ‘inherited’ their negative/shy/ ignorant thinking about sex and sexuality from their parents. Parents should get educated and overcome their own sexual inhibitions so as to be the best resource possible for their children.”

It impacts more than just whether your child knows the mechanics of sex, she says. “What parents do affects their children way more than what they say. If parents do not have a loving relationship, it can be challenging for their children to grow up looking forward to similar adult relationships. Behaviour modelling is a big part of raising healthy and emotionally resilliant children.”

Four tips on Giving the Talk:

1. How old should the child be?

Don’t faint, but Dr Lee suggests you start from birth. Obviously, the child won’t understand word one, but she suggests: “Instead of using pet name for genitals use the correct names (vagina, penis, testicles). Also, avoid saying, ‘Eek! That stinks!’ or ‘chou chou!’ when changing the diaper to avoid body shaming.

“Children should not become ashamed of their body. If there is confusion, this can present later in life as body-image issues or shame surrounding their sexuality.” So when changing the diaper, consider saying, “What a healthy bowel movement!” to reinforce that it is just part of normal life.

2. Does it matter if a mother does the talk to a son?

Dr Lee says. “How it is said is more important than the gender of the parents. The language should be applicable to the gender of the child — such as how to clean his or her genitals or parts of them.

“However the conversation does not need to be limited to one gender. You could explain that, ‘You are a girl and you have these parts. A boy will have different parts…’”

Also, whether your child is a girl or a boy, talk to them both about menstruation — obviously in more detail when the child is closer to actual puberty. And you would also give the girl more practical information; just don’t be squeamish when talking to the boy about it — he’ll just have to learn that it is normal.

3. How much detail is appropriate?

If you can get into a “this is normal” mindset from the word “go”, it will help. Dr Lee says: “Rather than become overwhelmed by what your child says or asks, try answering questions using a matter-of-fact approach and in bite-size stages.”

She suggests that you look for “teachable moments, unplanned events during the day that adults can use as a learning opportunity for kids”. Sex education can, after all, start as easily as answering the comment by a child, about why “aunty’s got such a big tummy!” or “Where did I come from?”.

Says Dr Lee: “It’s a misconception that sex ed is about the physical act of sex, when sex ed really should cover our sexuality. This include our relationship with our bodies, body image, masturbation, safer-sex practices, sexually transmitted infections, consent, negotiation, our anatomy and more.”

You will also need to realise that children are curious about their bodies, and other people’s bodies too. Dr Lee says you must realise that self-exploration and curiosity about one’s genitals is normal and healthy.

“If your child is exploring his or her body and genitals in public or at inappropriate times, explain that while it feels good to touch the penis or the vulva, they are private parts and this touching should only occur in private.

“Teach your children that their private parts are their own and that no one else should touch them, other than parents/ caregivers who are helping to wash them or wipe them. Also, let them know that other people’s private parts are off-limits, too.”

How much detail you discuss with your child depends on the question asked and the age of the child. Our links below may give you a guide — adjust them to your own family’s understanding and norms.

Advocates for Youth
About Kids Health
Mayo Clinic on Sex Education

4. What about the Internet?

About the Internet, she adds: “You may wish to look into installing a parental software for your electronic devices. Look up the information with your child, and let them know that not everything on the Internet is reliable.”

Two fairly reputable websites for accurate information, says Dr Lee, would be WebMD and Scarleteen.

5. What if he says “my friend at school says…”?

Dr Lee says: “You could ask, ‘And how does your friend know this?’ Your response invites your child to learn how to question the source as well as credibility of information — a skill that will set them up for critical thinking!

“And if you are unsure about the information, you could say, ‘Let’s look it up for ourselves, shall we?’”

Dr Martha Tara Lee’s Keys to Sex Education

a) Discuss in a matter-of-fact approach. Use correct terminology.

b) Avoid lecturing.

c) Include more than just biological facts — this is a good place to include your family values.

d) Don’t worry about telling too much.

e) Teach prevention and protection from abuse.

f) Discuss the opposite sex. If your family is comfortable with the concept, you can also discuss homosexuality

g) Teach about STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections).

h) Help them be comfortable and check to see if they understood.

Dr Martha Tara Lee is a clinical sexologist with; e-mail her at if you have questions.