What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex


Congratulations! By opening this book, you’ve moved one step closer to becoming an approachable parent for your child on all matters sexual.

I’m Fred Kaeser, former director of health for the New York City Department of Education, and I’d like to speak to you about your child’s sexuality. It’s pretty frightening out there these days, isn’t it? If you’re the parent of a child who is twelve, eleven, or ten years of age—or even younger—this is your book. You know all too painfully well just how crazy this hypersexualized world is, and how it is affecting your child and other young children. (If your child is already in middle school, know that although I focus here on somewhat younger children, you should keep reading; there’s plenty in here that will be of help to you.)

Perhaps your six-year-old has come home from school asking what sexy means, because he has heard other kids using the term. Or perhaps your seven-year-old son’s friend forcefully touched your boy’s penis on a play date, and your boy has come to you frightened and upset. Or maybe your ten-year-old wants to create a profile on Facebook or MySpace, and you want to say no, but you’re afraid that if you do it’ll cause a nasty confrontation.

You are certainly not alone in your concerns. Today, sexuality-related issues are affecting younger and younger children. No matter your culture, religion, ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status, if you live in America you are dealing with a sexually saturated society that bombards young children with sexual messages. These messages—many of which are explicit, heterosexist, homophobic, and misogynistic—have invaded our homes, our schools, our playgrounds, and our communities like never before. The innocent days of Leave It to Beaver are long gone, and all parents, regardless of their child’s age, are confronted with the harsh reality that they must become sex educators for their children. We cannot put off conversations about sex and sexuality or hope that our schools and places of worship will take on this responsibility. We must stand up and face this reality head-on.

Parents of young children are being forced to confront sexual behaviors and concerns that no previous generation of parents has had to deal with. This means that we must be prepared to discuss certain aspects of sex and sexuality with our children at ages that seem far too young for this. It means that before middle school—indeed, by age ten—we must be having conversations about intercourse: what it really is, and when is the right time to have it, with whom, and under what conditions. We must discuss with our children why people have sex and why some people try to hurt other people through sex. We must explain to them why they are too young to join Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites. We must talk with them about kids who molest other kids. We have to talk about contraception and condoms, and how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. In short, everything that you thought your sixteen-year-old had to know about sex is what your ten-year-old now needs to know. We have been witnessing this “age creep,” with regard to the age at which a young person must become informed about human sexuality, for several generations now. As the world around us becomes increasingly more sexually explicit, there is the accompanying need for parents to address the complexities of sexuality with their children at younger and younger ages. Consequently, ten is the new sixteen!

But there is some good that emerges from this craziness. If we take the responsibility to have these meaningful discussions with our children about sex and sexuality by the time they are ten years of age, there is a good chance we will see some remarkable, positive results. If we do this, it is likely that our kids will make the following choices:

  • Postpone intercourse until adulthood (When I say adulthood, I mean some point over the age of eighteen. I will describe in detail later on the various qualities I believe one must possess prior to engaging in sexual intercourse—and age is only one of them. While there is no guarantee that the older a person is when they have sex, the less risk they will experience, it is reasonable to suggest that someone nineteen, twenty, or older will make better sexual decisions than a teen would.)
  • Avoid getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease during adolescence
  • Avoid sexually abusive relationships
  • Above all, develop a healthy attitude toward sexuality

It really is that simple. If you win the battle to become the number one influence on your child’s sexual behavior, you will see these remarkable results. Forget school sex education; forget community-based support programs; forget trying to fight the media’s sexualization of everything. If we do our job correctly, we win. If we don’t—and right now many of us are not managing this crucial task—then we lose out to our child’s peers, the media, and all the other influences clamoring to capture our kids’ heads and hearts.

If you communicate with your child early and often about sex, are authentic and sincere in your discussions, and do so as part of an authoritative style of parenting, you and your child are going to be just fine. You’ll find that you can do a better job of influencing your child’s sexual behavior than any educational program. That’s how powerful an influence we parents can be on our children. This is not rocket science; you don’t need a PhD to make this happen. I’ll say it again: Parents can be the most significant influence on children’s sexual behavior.

Yet even though we can wield more influence over our children than any other entity they encounter, somewhere along the way many of us have become lost in our efforts to effectively parent in this hypersexualized world. After all, for the most part, us parents have grown up “sex stupid.” By this I mean not that we are actually stupid, but that we have had a woefully inadequate preparation to be “sex smart.” Now we live in a world that is sex saturated. No wonder many parents either don’t feel confident communicating with their children about sex or would rather have someone else teach their children.

So we’re going to sit down on the couch together, you and I, and figure this whole thing out. It’ll be just you and me, parent to parent. You’re going to learn what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. I’m going to make this as easy to understand as possible. I’m not going to recommend any books your child can read about sex; I’m not going to suggest any educational videos or DVDs that you could show your child; there will be no props, no gimmicks, and no gadgets. This is all about you, the parent, becoming approachable for your child.

I hear doubts from parents all the time: It’s so hard; my kid won’t listen to me; I can’t get through to her; I can’t compete with his friends, the media, or the Internet; there’s sex all around us. It goes on and on. I’m here to tell you, you can do it. Have faith in yourself. And I’ll be there with you along the way.

I hear another concern: All this talking about sex will make my kids more curious or even make them go and try it out. But you’ll find that just the opposite happens—particularly when you learn how to package your conversations around sex. You’re going to be sharing your values and helping your child understand what is right and wrong with regard to certain sexual behavior, and you’re going to be authentic and sincere in your discussions. That is, you’re going to help your children understand how to manage real-life situations they may encounter as they learn about relationships and sexual behavior. And you’ll use a style of parenting that sets clear and defined boundaries for behavior: you’ll be an authoritative parent.

Why listen to me? What makes me an authority on such matters? Well, I may have fielded more questions about sex and had more conversations about sex with kids of all different ages than any other adult, ever! In fact, I have been a sexual educator and director of health for more than twenty-five years in the largest public school system in the United States. I have held various positions, including director of health education for 1,300 schools and director of health services for 260 schools. Over the years, I have been asked by teachers and principals to speak to children and adolescents about sexuality. I have spoken to thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students, but I confess I’ve always preferred speaking to elementary students. My favorite age group has always been ten- and eleven-year-olds—that is, fifth-grade students. At these ages, most children are either on the cusp of or just beginning puberty, basically very innocent and wide eyed, but also very hungry for information and guidance about sex. I have found that when you have truthful, dignified, and adult-like conversations with them about sexuality, they just eat it up! Kids appreciate it when an adult shows them the respect they deserve by helping them better understand the sexualized world that is all around them.

I have a doctoral degree in human sexuality studies from New York University, and over the years I’ve studied the modern problem of the accelerating premature sexualization of young people. I have given hundreds of presentations to school PTAs and parent groups on the topic of communicating with children about sexuality, and have consulted with many individual parents who had sexual concerns about their children. Many school principals, administrators, and counselors have asked me to intervene and assist with problematic sexual behaviors of children and adolescents, many of which were actually taking place in their schools. My work along these lines has provoked my concern, in particular, over a problem that has emerged since the 1990s: the apparent increase in sexual bullying and molestation of children by other children.

I am also a parent and have been married for thirty-five years. Two of the greatest challenges for any person—being an effective parent and maintaining a nurturing and caring lifelong partnership—have certainly given me invaluable insights for my professional role as a sexual educator. For all of us, our past experiences of learning about sex and sexuality help shape who we are as sexual beings today; so, too, have my personal experiences as a parent and a partner contributed greatly to my professional role as a sexual educator. I have often referred to these personal experiences during my work with students, parents, and school faculty. You will see these references throughout this book.

I have no doubt that as you read through this book you will have very strong opinions about what I say. Hopefully, you will agree with me, but there may be times when you don’t. I do know, however, that my words and advice will challenge you to become the very best sex educator you can be for your children. You will find that as you read each chapter you will not only be evaluating what I am saying, but most importantly you will be thinking about what it is you need to do and say to help your child navigate this very sexualized world. So let us begin our journey together as you explore how to become an approachable parent for your child on all sexual matters.