When your child asks where babies come from, do you break a sweat and blame it on the stork? Have you had a conversation about oral sex, masturbation or contraception with your teen? If you haven't started "the talk" with your child, sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman says you could be making a big mistake.
Dr. Berman says kids today know a lot more about sex than we think they do. In fact, Dr. Berman says children are being forced to make sexual decisions by middle school, from receiving sexually explicit text messages—also called "sexting"—to feeling pressured to perform acts like oral sex.
What you need to do as a parent, Dr. Berman says, is arm them with knowledge that will guide them well into adulthood. "You want to start these conversations early with your kids—before they find themselves in the circumstances where they're having to make those healthy sexual decisions."
O, The Oprah Magazine and Seventeen magazine joined forces for a groundbreaking new sex study that surveys moms and girls ages 15 to 22. The bottom line? Parents aren't talking to their kids enough about sex.
"What is so fascinating to me is 90 percent of the mothers, our readers, thought that they had had the conversation with their daughters about sex," says Gayle King, O magazine's editor-at-large. "When you talk to the daughters, you'll find out, well, no, you didn't really quite have the conversation."
Although some mothers shy away from the conversation because they don't want to seem like they're condoning sex, Gayle says you have to arm your daughters with as much information as you can. "Knowledge is power," she says.
Seventeen magazine editor-in-chief Ann Shoket says girls don't only want the nuts-and-bolts talk about sex—they want to learn more about the feelings that can come with it. "It's clear that these girls are doing very advanced sexual things," she says. "And yet what they really want their mothers to talk about is the emotional side. They want their mothers to talk to them about: 'How do I know if this boy is just using me? How do I know if I'm ready for it?' That's the part where mothers play a huge role that the Internet or their friends just can't do."
Dr. Berman says it's important to start an ongoing conversation when your kids are young that will continue to develop as they get older. "They want a sense from a very early age, not so much about the nuts and bolts about sex, but that it's okay to ask questions about their body," Dr. Berman says. "If you wait to have that one big talk until they're 13, 14, it's often too late."
Dr. Berman says making them feel good about themselves is key. "Feeling good about their bodies. Feeling good about their genitals. Feeling good about their sexual function. Feeling empowered about who they are as people and as sexual beings. And then that makes the path so much easier when they're in their teen years."
The magazines' survey says 78 percent of mothers think their daughters feel comfortable talking to them about sex—but only 39 percent of daughters actually do.
When it comes to teenagers, Dr. Berman urges all parents to stay calm when approached for information. Overreacting, she says, could make your child hesitant to come to you in the future. "Listen—don't just lecture them," Dr. Berman says. "[Encourage them] to ask questions about the words and the terms and the things they're hearing about at school, to ask questions about what they're seeing in the media."
Amy, a mom from Tennessee, wants to have the talk with her 10-year-old daughter, Jordan, but she says she feels sick to her stomach every time she thinks about it. And it doesn't help that Jordan's asked for the talk one or two times a week for six months!
Amy says she's scared of saying the wrong thing. "Something that's going to scare her or confuse her," she says. "I don't ever want to let my daughter down. That's my biggest thing. I don't ever want her to ever think she can't talk to me."
Dr. Berman says Amy is putting too much pressure on herself. "What's happened now is that Jordan's been asking you and asking you, and there's this whole [air] of secrecy around it," she says. "The secrecy can be more damaging than just telling it like it is."
Dr. Berman says the main goal of any sex talk is to communicate that sex is a very normal and natural thing. There are three main topics to cover: male and female anatomy, the mechanics of making a baby...and becoming familiar and comfortable with your genitals. "I don't think I can say 'masturbation' to my 10-year-old yet," Amy says. "I don't even think I say that to my girlfriends!"
Dr. Berman says it's important to talk to kids about getting to know their own bodies—and that many kids have been exploring themselves since they were babies. "It's about soothing," Dr. Berman says. "It's not about sexual arousal and the sexual connotations that we put on it. It's just about normalizing it for them and setting the seeds that this is normal."
So how do you start talking to a 10-year-old about self-stimulation? "We're going to show her a picture of her vulva and [say], 'This is your clitoris and it has lots of sensations, so some girls find that it feels good to touch themselves there, and that's totally normal,'" Dr. Berman says.
After some more coaching, Amy says she's ready to face Jordan. "I'm going to be sitting nearby, ready to hold your hand and jump in and help you," Dr. Berman says.
Jordan says she became curious about sex after reading a book about growing up. When she got to the section on sexuality, Amy closed the book. "She said it wasn't for kids," Jordan says.
Ever since then, Jordan says her mom has been promising to have the talk. "It's been eight months," she says. "I get kind of frustrated. And I hope I learn about adult stuff that I need to learn. Because if I don't know when I'm older, it's going to be embarrassing."
After many frustrating months and a little help from Dr. Berman, Jordan finally gets the chance to ask her mom anything she wants.
Jordan got a lot of information in one sitting, but Dr. Berman says it's best to tackle the issue in stages. "They'll first ask how are babies made usually, and you can say, 'It comes from a very special place inside a mother's body named a uterus.' And you can even show a picture of the uterus at that point and get them familiar with anatomy," she says.
Dr. Berman says many kids will ask how the baby gets in the uterus, then how a man's seed gets into a woman. "It's sort of usually a more processed, kind of piece-by-piece conversation in an ideal world," she says.
Jordan says she's glad she got to talk to her mom—and has more questions. "We were on the way home, and I asked her, 'Do old people still have sex?'" she says. "And she said it depends on the couple."
According to the sex survey, only 35 percent of mothers teach what Dr. Berman says is one of the most important lessons about sex—pleasure. "We need to teach them about pregnancy prevention and STD prevention, but we also have to teach them about the gift that sexuality is," she says.
This is why Dr. Berman says it's important to have a big talk with your child when she hits high school about masturbation and orgasms. "This is something that's normal and natural, and if you're talking to a girl from a young age about this, it's a natural thing," she says.
Teaching your daughters to take control of their own pleasure can help them avoid unhealthy sexual experiences. "You're teaching them about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don't ever have to depend on any other teenage boy to do it for them," Dr. Berman says.
Dr. Berman says an easy way to start the pleasure conversation is to point out specific body parts to your daughter on a diagram, encouraging her to explore her own body in private. "You are the best ones to teach them," Dr. Berman says. "You are the one who can incorporate your values."
Still nervous? Dr. Berman says you may need to become more familiar with your own body. "Learn all of this stuff yourself," she says. "When you are comfortable, that's when you can really raise a sexually empowered daughter."
To teach your 15- or 16-year-old daughter the concept of pleasure, Dr. Berman recommends a product many mothers may not think of getting for their daughters—a clitoral vibrator. "I know it's controversial, but I can tell you giving them this kind of information makes them safer in the long run," Dr. Berman says.
Dr. Berman recommends a small vibrator. "I'm talking about something external for the clitoris," she says. "I'm not talking about things that go internally at all—[just] things that they can explore externally to arouse them."
"The reason I suggest a vibrator is because so many women and girls and adult women have a hard time reaching orgasm through self-stimulation alone," she says. "This is just a way to normalize it and normalize sexual exploration."
In the study, only 4 percent of girls say their beliefs about sex are mostly influenced by their mothers—this is your chance to change that statistic. "You are arming them with the information they need to make wise sexual decisions," Dr. Berman says. "You want to be their main sex educators—not their friends who are going to give them the misinformation that you don't want them to have."
"You need to start early, letting them know you're open to conversations, answering their questions without judgment," Dr. Berman says. "Tell them that information does not mean permission."