My friend's discomfort isn't unusual: Many parents I know admit to feeling embarrassed when they talk to kids about sex. Mind-boggling, isn't it, that at a time when oral sex has been on the national agenda and when movies and TV portray intimate acts, the mere mention of "penis" or "vagina" in front of the kids can rattle many parents. "Most of us didn't have parents who talked to us about sexuality, so we lack the skills to discuss it," explains Debra W. Haffner, M.P.H., author of From Diapers to Dating and former president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). "It's okay to tell a child that you're uncomfortable talking about sexuality, but that you'd still like to discuss it."
Still, how far should you go? Saying too little can confuse kids even more; saying too much can overwhelm them. To guide you, we've pinpointed the most common questions children ask, canvassed the experts for advice, and broken down the answers into two levels: minimum disclosure (the bare-bones info kids need to hear) and maximum disclosure (when you and your child feel comfortable enough to explore the topic further). There's no need to follow these responses word-for-word; consider them a blueprint. Now go on, speak up!
Ages 5 to 7
"What does having sex mean?"Minimum disclosure: "Sex is a way that grown-ups show love for each other. It's also how people make babies. It's a special kind of snuggle."
Maximum disclosure: After saying the above, ask, "Did that answer your question?" If your child wants more information, provide details using correct terminology for body parts. For instance, "The man puts his penis in the woman's vagina." Watch your child's body language. If he changes the topic, looks glassy-eyed, or makes "yuck" faces, back off, recommends Haffner. "Just say, 'We can talk more about this another time,' and then give him a big hug."
"How do the sperm and egg get together?"Minimum disclosure: "They meet inside the woman's body and form a baby. The woman keeps the baby safe in her uterus for nine months until the baby is ready to come out."
Maximum disclosure: "The sperm comes out of the man's penis during sex and goes inside the woman's uterus, where it meets the egg. They join to make a baby." Kids this age aren't ready to hear about arousal, so keep further explanation clinical.
"How does the baby come out?"Minimum disclosure: "Through the mother's vagina."
Maximum disclosure: "When the baby is ready to be born, the mom's uterus pushes the baby out. This is called labor. The vagina can stretch wide enough for the baby, and then it shrinks back to its regular size."
"Why does my penis get hard?"Minimum disclosure: "Because it's working right. That's what penises do. It's okay. It will get soft again."
Maximum disclosure: "That's called an erection. It means that extra blood goes into the penis. But don't worry; it isn't hurt or broken. It happens because you have an exciting thought, you've been rubbing it, you have to pee, or sometimes for just no reason."
"Why can't I come to your bed at night when the door is shut?"Minimum disclosure: "You can come in if it's an emergency, but otherwise, Mommy and Daddy like to spend quiet time together. Everyone needs some privacy, including you. We will respect yours, and you need to respect ours. Please knock and ask to enter."
Maximum disclosure: Explain that you're having sex behind the closed door only if your child catches you in the act, says Monica Rodriguez, director of information and education at SIECUS. Reassure him that nothing is wrong: "Daddy was not hurting me. We were showing love."
Ages 7 to 9
"Ewww! Do I have to have sex to have a baby?"Minimum disclosure: "This is not something you need to worry about now, because having babies is something only grown-ups do. But yes, that is how babies are made. There are things you don't like to think about when you are little that you start to like when you are older. Most grown-ups like making love when they want to make a baby."
Maximum disclosure: "When you are older, if you really don't want to have sex, you can adopt a baby or have in vitro fertilization, which is when a doctor mixes a woman's eggs and a man's sperm."
"Does sex hurt?"Minimum disclosure: "Sex is meant to be an enjoyable experience between grown-ups."
Maximum disclosure: If your child's inquiries persist, there may be a subtext: Perhaps he saw an inappropriate scene on TV or had a frightening experience. Gently draw out his concerns: "Sex should happen only when both people want it and when it feels good to them. No one should force someone else do it. If you are ever in a situation where someone hurts you, speak up and make them stop. Then tell me or Daddy or another adult you trust."
"What's masturbation?"Minimum disclosure: "When people touch their own genitals to feel a special kind of pleasure."
Maximum disclosure: Regardless of whether you believe the behavior is appropriate, children should know that masturbation doesn't cause physical or mental harm and that it should be done in a private place, notes Haffner. Myths such as masturbation causing blindness or hairy palms are still floating around the playground. Tell your kid that such stories are untrue. You might add: "Some boys and girls your age masturbate, and some don't."
"What's an orgasm?"Minimum disclosure: "Orgasms are good feelings in the genital area. Men and women can have them."
Maximum disclosure: Continue with, "There's a feeling of buildup and a release, sort of like when you sneeze. During an orgasm, a man ejaculates -- that means sperm comes out of his penis."
Ages 9 to 12
"What's safe sex?"Minimum disclosure: "Bodily fluids -- including saliva and sperm -- can be exchanged during sexual acts. These contain bacteria and viruses. Most are not harmful, but some, such as HIV, can be dangerous. Safe sex is how you can lessen the chances of transferring them." Point out that safe sex reduces but doesn't eliminate risks and that only abstinence offers 100 percent protection.
Maximum disclosure: If your child asks what oral sex is (there's been anecdotal evidence that kids are engaging in this at startlingly young ages) and how it can be safe, explain: "It's when one person puts his or her mouth on another person's genitals to cause sexual pleasure. It counts as sex and has the risk of spreading sexual diseases. To be safe, people use protection like condoms."
"How do gay people have sex?"Minimum disclosure: "The same way as anyone else: They kiss, hug, touch, and become intimate."
Maximum disclosure: "Gay people fondle each other's genitals and may engage in oral sex." Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., coauthor of Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character, cautions: "Don't explain anal sex at this age unless they ask you pointblank. Then I would be matter-of-fact and say, 'Some men have a form of intercourse, except that instead of inserting the penis in the vagina, they insert it in the anus.'"
"What's on the websites you won't let me see?"Minimum disclosure: "Some display pornography, pictures of sex that are only for adults. Relationships are about real people with feelings for one another, and these sites don't usually help people learn how to be a good partner. I don't think they are appropriate for a child."
Maximum disclosure: "Many websites have images that reflect a warped view of sex. They show selfish behavior. I don't want you to think that's what sex is about."