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While some parents may struggle with what to say when it comes to sex education with their kids, celebrities including Elizabeth Banks, Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, and Gwyneth Paltrow are opening up about the candid conversations they’ve been having with their own children about sex, which experts say is “healthy.”
Banks, who has her own sex-ed podcast, My Body, My Podcast, revealed on Wednesday’s The Late Show With Stephen Colbert that she’s had several talks with her two sons Felix, 10, and Magnus, 8, about the topic and encouraged parents to be “straight up” with younger kids and not use euphemisms about how babies are made. “If they ask, it’s because they're curious and they’re age appropriate,” Banks said. “You should tell them straight up what it is. If you say ‘stork,’ then later on they're going to ask, ‘What else does she lie to me about?’ Because they're going to figure out soon enough it ain’t storks.”
During an Oct. 25 conversation with Paltrow on his Armchair Expert podcast, Shepard explained how his wife, Kristen Bell, weaves consent into sex education conversations with their daughters Delta, 6, and Lincoln, 8.
Paltrow herself recently shared that when it comes to talking to her kids — 17-year-old daughter Apple, 15-year-old son Moses, and step-children Isabella and Brody Falchuk — about sex, she strives to stay openminded. “I try to stay neutral and open and non-judgmental and follow their lead,” she told E! News. Paltrow added: “I think there's nothing wrong with understanding your body and what works for you and how you receive pleasure. I think it's beautiful and it's healthy.”
So what do experts think? Overall, this type of honest parenting can serve as a “model” for other parents to have candid conversations with their own kids about sex so they’re well informed and can make better decisions.
“We know that parents want to have these types of conversations with their kids and may be unsure how to do it or nervous to kick off the conversation, but parents really want to do right by their kids,” Julia Bennett, director of digital education and learning strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Yahoo Life. “Any time someone has a platform and comments on how they do this openly with their kids, it can absolutely help some parents think about, ‘I could say that or I could do that.’”
Bennett adds: “It’s a model. There aren't a lot of models about parents having open and honest conversations with their kids, so any time that happens that’s a good thing.”
Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator for more than 35 years and author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex, agrees overall. “I think for them to say, ‘We're really open with our kids and here’s why’ is very healthy and very good,” Roffman tells Yahoo Life.
"It sets them up for success"
There are several benefits to having candid conversations about sex and relationships with your kids. For one, they’re less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. “The biggest benefit is that it sets them up for success for having healthier relationships, healthy sex and a healthy identity,” says Bennett.
It can also improve your relationship with your children. Bennett explains that being open and coming from a nonjudgmental place with your kids “makes them more likely to come to you to talk about hard or embarrassing questions that come up in their life — and that helps build a stronger relationship with your kid.”
Not talking about it, however, can backfire, says Roffman. “Some have a cultural belief that if you talk about it, they will act on it, which is absolutely not the case at all,” she says. “In the name of protection, we create danger — because kids are curious and when they get that the primary adults in their lives are not open, that’s when they turn to all the awful default options,” which may include misinformed classmates.
Roffman says that it’s important for parents to be their child’s “go-to” person for information, including when it comes to sex education. “Their go-to people need to be parents and teachers, immediate adults in their lives who truly care about them and their wellbeing and have done their research and are only engaging in this conversation for the purpose of supporting you,” says Roffman.
When and how to talk to kids about sex
So when should parents start having these conversations with their children? As Bennett puts it: “It’s never too early and it’s never too late to start talking with your kid about sex and relationships.” She adds: “As soon as kids learn to talk, you can start talking to them about the topic” in an understandable and age-appropriate way.
For younger kids, Bennett recommends avoiding euphemisms, which she says can be confusing. “Using clear and direct language with them is really going to help them understand what you’re talking about,” she says. “We use accurate body parts around your belly or your nose and if we’re using euphemisms for genitals then we're sending the message there is something different or shameful that we can’t talk about. Using correct terminology that kids or teens can understand, depending on their age, that helps take away some of the shame.”
It’s also a good time to introduce the “incredibly crucial” concept of consent and body autonomy in an age-appropriate way, which Bennett says helps “set them up to have healthy friendships and interactions with other humans throughout their entire life.” Bennett adds: “Consent at a young age can be about making sure they have body autonomy if and when they do or don’t want to give someone a hug or perform what they learned at school. It’s a foundational building block.”
For older kids, along with answering any questions they may have about sex and relationships, Bennett suggests engaging them in conversations about their values and how they define them. “What are your personal values when it comes to the ways in which you want to be in a relationship with someone, whether that’s an intimate partner or friends?” Bennett suggests asking. This can include “how to communicate with a partner about what their boundaries are and stick up for themselves if things aren’t working for them,” she says, along with identifying “what they do and don’t want to do.”
Roffman says that it’s our job as parents “to raise kids who are sexually ethical — the values we expect them to bring to any and all sexual situations, including their first kiss.”
Still not sure where to start? Planned Parenthood Federation of America provides guides and information for parents on topics ranging from sex and sexuality to bodies and identity that are broken down by the school age of the child.
That’s important since the conversation will change and evolve as kids age, which is why experts recommend having ongoing chats about it rather than a single big talk. “Talking with your kids about sex and relationships and health is a lifelong conversation,” says Bennett. “Not this big pressure 'birds and the bees' conversation, which does put a lot of pressure on you.”
As Bennett notes, there are so many topics under the umbrella of sex education — from body image to relationships and more that “it’s impossible to do it in one conversation.”
Bennett adds: “Having regular, smaller conversations throughout your kids’ lives can help them process slowly over time, and they can come back to you with questions. It sends the message that these are important conversations to have and helps normalize them.”