Talking to Kids about Sex without Religion

Hello there,

So, I don’t know if this is an odd thing to do or not, but I was wondering if I could suggest a topic I would be so curious to hear your thoughts on.

I was wondering how you talked to your kids about sex/ how you framed your families expectations of sexual propriety. Much like you, I grew up in a very religious household and had the strong “no sex before marriage because Jesus says so” training. But now I’m not religious and so my values have changed on that topic but I find I sort of miss (weirdly) the clear line of “no sex before marriage” to tell my kids…even though I am okay with sex before marriage but I don’t think they’ll buy my real feeling of “no sex until I think you are ready”.

I’m not sure if this makes sense…but, basically, how did you approach this topic with your bigger kids?

Best wishes,


One thing I’ve done when talking especially to my older two (they’re now 15 and 13) is to mention ahead of time that my own upbringing was religious and that all my own decisions/experiences at that stage of life were influenced by my own religious beliefs at the time, and to be frank that that means I’m not always sure what to tell them or what the rules should be. There are things that still freak me out just because they freaked me out at the time and in that context, and it’s hard to know which things are still good things to freak out about (“FEAR/PREVENT THE STD”) and which things could use a little adjustment (“PREMARITAL SEX CAUSES ALL FUTURE MARITAL SEX TO FOREVER FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD”).

It helps, I think, to know that people who were taught about sexuality from a non-religious standpoint ALSO have to figure some things out before teaching their own kids: what’s considered normal and proper changes with time, and with inventions/discoveries, and with changes in the way the culture thinks of things.

And people continuing on with a religious structure have to do a fair amount of interpretation: the Bible, for example, goes into a lot of detail about clean/unclean foods, but is a little skimpy on the sort of thing a parent might need for the Where Did I Come From? talk. I remember being very surprised to learn in college (from the boyfriend of my roommate: it’s uncanny how studious a young man can be when properly motivated) how unclear the Bible is on the topic, and seriously out of date at this point: women in our culture, for example, are no longer stoned for failing to bleed on their wedding night, nor do most religious people follow the extremely strict rules about dealing with menstruation and childbirth (UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! UNCLEEEEEEEEEEEEANNNNNNNN!!!). Most of the sexuality teachings associated with Christianity (and I assume with other religions as well, but I only have experience with Christianity) are church teachings rather than biblical teachings: i.e., ways the people who follow that version of Christianity tend to believe people should behave based on their own understanding of God and the Bible, rather than anything specifically discussed by God himself. Which is fine, but means that even religious families have to do this kind of figuring things out before they start passing that information on to the next generation.

In general, my method with kid questions on difficult/unclear topics (afterlife, politics, ethics, religion, etc.) is to start with something like, “Well, different people think different things,” and then go on from there. This is good for stalling, and also for filling up a long car ride with a chatty child. So, like, when Rob was little and liked to talk about things Very Thoroughly, and he asked what happened after people died, I said something like, “Well, nobody really knows for sure. Some people think….” and we went through reincarnation, heaven/hell, heaven without the hell, limbo/purgatory, ghosts/spirits, anything else I could think of, and the “nothing at all” theory. I also mentioned that there were a lot of other theories I didn’t know about from other cultures/religions.

With sex questions/lectures, I do pretty much the same thing: I say that different people think different things. Some people believe in abstinence before marriage, some people believe in abstinence in theory but not in their own specific situation; some people think sex is dirty/bad, some people think sex is natural/good, some people think it depends on the situation; some people think sex is for fun, some people think it’s only for when you’re in love, some people think it’s only for creating babies, some people think it can be for different things in different situations; and so on. Which leads naturally to listing a lot of different reasons, too: because of believing that God (or someone else in the Bible) said so or thinks so, because of health reasons, because of safety reasons, because of emotional reasons, because of pregnancy hopes/fears, because of ancient and recent beliefs about sex and morality and romance, and so on. I don’t always know what I’m talking about, and I try to make that clear as the discussion goes along—like, “I don’t know all the details, but as I understand it…”

Sometimes I talk to them about it from a parental point of view: “Some of my friends think kids shouldn’t even be taught about sex and birth control, while some of my other friends take their daughters to get on the pill,” etc. (I don’t say which of my friends are which, for general privacy and because sometimes my kids are friends with my friends’ kids.) They seem to like that kind of talk, and will often be very strongly opinionated about other parents’ decisions. I think it’s easier for them to argue with Theoretical Unnamed Parent than it is to argue with an actual parent—and it’s easier for me to present the point of view fairly when it belongs to someone I know and like.

Or I’ll tell them about parents/kids I knew when I was a kid. My parents took the religious/abstinence view of sex but my mom was extremely big on giving us information, so I ended up having to pass on that information to a fair number of friends whose parents thought they didn’t need to know. “Oh my gosh,” Never-Had-a-Boyfriend Swistle would say, “No, it is not going to work to rinse out afterward with diet Coke, you are going to need something that works better than that. Let me tell you the stats on condoms vs. the pill” or “YES you absolutely CAN get pregnant that way and he is either a JERK or STUPID for saying you can’t.” And they explained to ME what French-kissing was and what “69” and “third base” and “feeling someone up” meant, and gave me a dog-eared copy of Forever, so really it was a well-rounded education for all of us and gives me some comfort whenever I hear talk of taking sex education out of schools.

Here are the things I like about this “let’s talk about all the different opinions and ideas, with lots of anecdotes” method:

1. It makes it clear that I don’t necessarily know the right answer
2. It makes it clear that there isn’t only one way to think about it
3. I find that kind of conversation fun

Plus, it forces the children to take some responsibility for their own decisions, which takes some of that responsibility OFF of ME. And it IS off of me: I DON’T have to make the decisions for them, and in fact I CAN’T: THEY are going to make all the decisions. I can set some boundaries and/or make things difficult for them (“No, you can’t lose your virginity here at home, so it will have to be in a car I guess” or “No, you can’t date, so I guess you’ll have to lie and tell me you’re going to a friend’s house”), but that’s it: the actual decisions are in their hands whether I like it or not. So rather than telling them what The Right Way is, or even what our family expects, I tend to tell them what I hope: that they will wait until they’re ready, that they won’t be pressured into it, that they will be safe, that they will be kind and respectful and careful with other people’s feelings, that they will remember that sex is about sex but it is also about the people involved, that they will not accidentally ruin their lives, that I will never have to catch them at it, and so on.

Another method I use is the Making Books Available method. As a child/teenager, I really really really really did NOT want to ask my mom questions—not because she was unavailable or wouldn’t answer, but for the OPPOSITE reason: she would get twinkly-eyed and LOVED to use Embarrassing Words and discuss Embarrassing Concepts. I was very glad to have the books Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? for reference (though less thrilled to receive the latter for a pre-teen birthday (11? 12?) and have my mom start leafing through it laughing and pointing out the “perky boobs”).

Even more helpful was a book I found at the library; I don’t remember the title of it, but I remember it was written by someone who sounded young and cool but was also an Experienced Adult Woman. I think it was in a Q&A format—maybe an essay on a topic, followed by questions submitted by young girls? something like that. It had lots of stuff about sex and periods and kissing and boys and pregnancy and STDs and birth control, and lots of embarrassing stories from the author’s own experience (I remember one story about the time she and her boyfriend tried to have sex for their first time and COULDN’T FIGURE IT OUT). Here’s a list of the books I’ve bought so far for the kids:

Where Did I Come From?: The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense
What’s Happening to Me?: An Illustrated Guide to Puberty
What’s Going on Down There?: Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls (this has since been republished in two volumes, one for younger girls and one for older girls)
It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health


I read Where Did I Come From? and It’s So Amazing! to them as littler children—different ages for each depending on when they started asking questions and showing more than a passing interest, but basically very early school age (kindergarten/1st). The other books, I’ve handed over with a brief official statement about having access to information they might not want to ask me about, but of course they SHOULD ask me if they want to, and they can also ask me if they don’t understand something in the book. The rest of the talking is done forcefully, usually in the car with one or two children at a time, at my initiation (Swistle: “Today we are going to talk about various methods of birth control!” Children: *groaning*). I like to talk in the car because there’s so much less eye-contact involved, and because they’re trapped. I’m glad to know too that their schools are covering some of the material, to reinforce points or in case I forget something.

But I think it’s important to add that at this point I don’t have any children who are clearly sexually active. (That is, my impression is that none of them are involved with it at all, but I’m aware that I could be completely unaware of it. I remember as a teenager noticing the wiiiiiide gap between what parents knew and what was true.) At that point I may become significantly less chill about the whole thing: right now it’s theoretical and interesting to discuss, but how will I be when it’s “Can he or can’t he have a girlfriend/boyfriend in his bedroom?” and “Will I or won’t I ask her doctor to put her / let her be on birth control?” WE SHALL HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE.

55 thoughts on “Talking to Kids about Sex without Religion

  1. heidi

    Why do we not live closer so I could make you be my friend? Why? I love the way you have handled this.

    I happen to have at least one sexually active child (son, 19, sophomore in college, living with girlfriend). I have one (son, 18, freshman in college, girlfriend of year and a half) whose girlfriend wants to wait until marriage. (I have two others that I’m HOPING are not yet sexually active beyond a little kissing – sons, 16 & 14. But who know? 16 y/o has been with his girlfriend for THREE YEARS!)

    I approached most of this like you with books left around, questions all answered, some forced conversations in the car. One conversation in the grocery store asking if they knew where to buy condoms.

    The only thing that actually has me at a loss, or feeling uncertain of is the waiting until marriage. It is totally her right to want that (obviously) but it gives me FEELINGS. I know we’re not supposed to want our kids having sex but I also don’t want them getting married at 19 just so they can have sex. Does that make sense?

    Btw, thanks for giving me a place to share these comments. I can’t share this on my blog because of obvious privacy issues.

    1. Alice

      That’s a rough spot with your 18-year old. I remember talking about this kind of situation with my brother, who had a number of friends who were planning on waiting until marriage for sex, but it would be SO DIFFERENT when it’s your own kid. Obviously, I don’t have any answers, but wanted to let you know that I’ve got a small inkling of how tricky that must be, and that I feel for you!

    2. Kerry

      My dad once tried to tell me that a mistake he made in college was that he tried to turn things that maybe should have just been casual sex or one night stands into long term relationships. I can tell you that this was a concept that I was completely unable to wrap my head around at 18 or 19 and his honesty probably didn’t do me much good. I also got pretty mad at him for suggesting that my Mormon friend’s older brother’s reasons for getting married 10 seconds after he got back from his mission were maybe not the truest of true love. People forget how idealistic teenagers are (boys included), in addition to being horn dogs.

    3. Rbelle

      It makes so much sense. I’m pretty sure that’s why my brother married his wife. He wasn’t 19. In fact, he was quite a respectable age. But she was his very first serious girlfriend, and he’d had no interest in her as anything but friends until the kissing started. Suddenly, she was his soulmate. They seem to be working out fine, but it’s hard not to wonder where the relationship would have ended up if he (or she!) had been raised with different views on sex.

  2. Laura

    You are right — the car is the best place to talk with kids. For the price of a quarter tank of gas, I’ve had the most interesting chats with them while driving around town. I also volunteer to drive for sports/social pick ups and drop offs. For some reason, my kids and their buddies forget I’m in the car and I overhear many, many details about what’s really going on at school and in their friend circle. It is so worth the hassle of being an on call taxi driver, and other parents are grateful they aren’t sitting in the movie theater parking lot at 9:30 pm. It’s a minimal investment of time and money that has yielded big returns. I’ll be so sad when my oldest gets his license
    and doesn’t need a ride anymore. Thanks for your honesty in addressing this topic. Gave me lots to think about.

  3. Kerry

    I grew up in a non-religious household and turned out ok!

    It seems like most of the conversations my mom and I had about sex ended up revolving around some TV show or movie. As in “No, the third date rule is not the way the world works” (sitcoms) or “Being pregnant and not knowing who the father is is an easily avoidable situation for most women” (daytime soaps) or “Even though Lancelot just saved Guinevere’s life, that does not mean Guinevere has to sleep with him.” (First Knight) or “This movie has a lot of sex in it, but I’m comfortable with you watching it because it’s wholesome sex.” (Shakespeare in Love). Occasionally she would just yell morally bereft at the TV. Making it about stupid TV shows kept it relatively light, but over time I did get a pretty good sense of my mom’s adult assessment of different character’s choices. I did find it frustrating that she didn’t set hard and fast rules…rules appealed to me and I didn’t know whether I was supposed to feel guilty about french kissing my boyfriend without them. I think with my daughters I will make sure to actually explain why I’m not making declarations like “No kissing until you’re 16.” But overall, I think she achieved her goals.

    1. Swistle Post author

      Ha ha, I do that with TV too! It brings up so many issues I might otherwise forget to mention, such as the third-date rule. I am adding “Morally bereft!!” to my TV-yelling-at vocabulary RIGHT NOW.

  4. Alice

    Swistle, this is FABULOUS. I grew up in a non-religious household, and my parents took a similar approach to yours. I really loved the “What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls,” and I snagged my brother’s “Book for Boys” as well. They were a group form of sex ed, since I was the kid with the most objective information at the time. Books are *invaluable,* because even with the good information that’s available online, there’s still a ton of urban legends and the like. Avoiding the Diet Coke misconceptions is so important.

    My situation was probably affected a fair bit by the fact that my parents divorced and started dating when I was 12 +. They were discreet, but didn’t hide the fact that they had sex before they remarried. There were two live-in folks, one of whom became my stepdad, and so that brought some additional context to the conversations. They’d always maintained a “sex is for when you’re ready” attitude, and had made sure that the practical and emotional consequences were part of the “ready” discussion. Their behavior didn’t contradict things, so it worked out well.

    And I think that one of the other good things they did (that you’re doing, too) was to talk about it regularly – there wasn’t The Talk and then total silence afterwards. It meant that if I had questions or opinions, I could talk about them after thinking about them for a while, and it wasn’t a really big deal.

  5. Anon

    I love this discussion and would add the recommendation of _Our Bodies, Ourselves_. I like how it incorporates sexuality into a broader conversation about health and well-being.

    I’m curious also about how families are addressing issues of online p*rn and expicit digital content. How to talk about some of the really potentially damaging content so easily accessible online? Or the consequences of s*xting, etc.?

      1. Tessie

        Appreciate that link! I’m also trying to avoid the shame/morality angle and focus on the difference between real and artificial sex.

        What really freaks me out is the idea that adolescent sexual inputs affect your views/attitudes/preferences FOR LIFE (scientifically proven and even mentioned by the author of that article). Makes the porn talk (for me) a little more urgent considering what’s now available to your average 9yo (WAYYY different from what was available when we were kids). Even if MY daughter isn’t using it (obv not a given), her future sexual partners MIGHT BE, and how will that affect her and the expectations placed on her?

        IDK, I used to think of porn as a “parent of boys” issues, but NOT SO MUCH anymore.

  6. Carolyn

    LOVE the reader submitted question and the amazing response! My kids are still toddlers but I’m saving the books you recommended in a Wishlist for the future, and hopefully I’ll remember some of your tips. I love how honestly you addressed the topics, maybe you should do more of these types of posts ;)

    1. Peyton

      For toddlers, try Amazing You! and It’s So Amazing! (that one was listed above). Also, Your Body Belongs to You, if you’re looking for personal space or good touch/bad touch kind of things. We got those when my 4YO got very interested in her vulva this summer.

  7. Lawyerish

    LOVE this post, even though I am nowhere near having a teenager. I think you’re handling it EXACTLY the way I would handle it, except it sounds like you’re doing a better job than I would. And I, too, had a twinkly-eyed mother who LOVED to get into these kinds of conversations — though less out of a sense of fun and more out of a sense of having a Deep and Meaningful Moment, and it was EXCRUCIATING for me. I actively feared being in the car sometimes because I was nervous she would seize the opportunity to discuss these things. (I love her and always have, but I was so mortified by everything at that age; it wasn’t personal.) I far preferred the being-handed-a-book method that she also used (thank goodness). Also, since I was never even in proximity to a boy outside of class when I was in high school, unless it was in partnering at ballet, it wasn’t as though I needed a whole lot of information beyond the basics.

  8. Wendy

    See, I *knew* you’d have a fabulous answer to this topic!

    I love the list of books and am cheered to know that I can use the bad choices of television characters to my eventual advantage.

  9. Missy

    Thank you, thank you for this post! Gives me a lot to think about. I have a 12 year old who is absolutely mortified when I bring up any of this so the books work well for her. My 10 year old, on the other hand asks me questions I never in a million years thought I would have to discuss with my children (eg, how often do you and dad have sex). Uhhhhhh….I don’t think they make a book for those questions :)

    I am struggling on how to teach kids about sex WITH religion. My kids attend a Catholic school so in school the teaching regarding sex is abstinence until marriage and no information on birth control. But I think their health teacher did a great job in framing abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancy/STDs 100% (versus abstinence is the ONLY option). Also he sent an email home basically saying their curriculum was in line with Catholic teachings and strongly recommending that we discuss with our kids and supplement with information with whatever is in line with our own personal beliefs.
    I am open with our kids and want them to have all the information – birth control information is pretty straightforward to explain. But I struggle with how to get them to understand the consequences of sex on an emotional level (seriousness in terms of pregnancy/STDs seems easier to explain) and some of the more subtle aspects.

    If anyone is a Friday Night Lights fan, the episode where Tammy talks to her daughter after she finds out she is having sex – that scene is forever in my mind as the kind of mom I want to be – open, caring, concerned about all the right things.

  10. el-e-e

    My 10yo boy isn’t asking any questions yet but I know that in 5th grade at his school, 2nd semester, they will have A Discussion about it. Tick-Tock! I feel like I want (my husband, or, okay fine, both of us) to chat with him FIRST, before that discussion.

    This is a truly great guideline, Swistle. I don’t think you realize how wise you are.

    1. Britni

      We also had “A Discussion” 5th grade style.
      But honestly, I remember it being a lot more about hygiene. They gave us all deodorant and told us we would probably need to start using it now..
      And they explained periods.. which resulted in a lot of boys yelling about periods for about a week after.
      But there was no real.. “sex” talking.

  11. Tessie

    I recently had a minor freakout after reading “Your Brain on Porn” (I think there’s also a TED talk), which TOTALLY CHANGED the way I feel about not only porn but sex in general, especially for puberty-aged kids. In short, I have CHANGED MY MIND about some things. Porn/masterbation would not have been topics I would have worried about specifically discussing with my kid, but NOW THEY ARE.

    I love the “no one knows for sure but some people think x,y,z.” I find it useful in SO many contexts (nutrition/weight/sexual orientation/religion/autism/etc).

  12. Tessie

    ALSO I’ve been thinking a lot about how to discuss the differences between men and women in relationships (and in general), which is a subject that is hard to discuss without making sweeping generalizations but which is also SO IMPORTANT to life happiness and success. GAH.

  13. rebecca

    No religion in our house, we go straight up secular humanist. Focusing on respect for oneself and respect for the other person. Terrified of it but I plan to be direct as we have been thus far(they call their genitals by the scientific words without blinking). We’ve already had to tell the 8 year old that kissing classmates on the lips is inappropriate at his age and that dating is something teenagers do. My mom asked me recently how we explained gay people. I was like “WTF? why is that a problem?” which just goes to show the generation gap. I likened it to red hair, blonde hair. Most people are born with brown hair but some have red and some have yellow. Most people like the opposite gender but some like the same. No big deal. I am hoping sex, when it comes to it, will also be no big deal. I believe in demystifying it– teens explore to get answers. Give them answers (like the fab books suggested here) and they are less likely to explore.

  14. Britni

    We were actually talking about this today at work.
    One thing I’d add to the conversation is it might be worth it to mention (even if it’s in a super casual manner) where there’s a planned parenthood or something of that sort that provides free contraception, etc.
    No matter how close you are with your kids, they still may not come to you when they become sexually active. Bringing up “oh you know the Smith Pizza shop? Well there is a place two doors down from there where you can get condoms/birth control FOR FREE” is helpful.
    As someone (Swistle?) said, it is ultimately THEIR decision to have sex, so highlight the tools available to do it responsibly if that’s what their choice is.

    1. Kerry

      This might be more useful for girls than for boys, but I always thought it would be a good idea to teach your kids how to make their own doctors appointments somewhere in the early teen years, even if you don’t explain why they might someday want to make a doctor appointment without telling you what it’s about. Sure this time it’s just a sports physical, but its also a life skill.

      1. Britni

        Ugh! I hate that stigma of “It’s more up to the girls to protect themselves, etc. etc.”
        Boys should know how to get condoms/get them for free if they have no money in case the girl doesn’t have the pill — and ALSO.. the pill takes 3 months to work so if the girl is just starting the pill.. he still needs condoms. Plus boys need STD testing, etc. just the same as girls.

        Good feedback on the making of drs. appts though. Never thought of that aspect of it!

        1. vanessa

          YES ME TOO. please everyone everywhere, TEACH YOUR BOYS ABOUT CONDOMS AND BUY THEM SOME. or show them where you keep them in your house (even if you don’t usually keep them in your house). You can also make an educational appointment at a planned parenthood for your daughter or son JUST to ask questions and be very clear with your young teen that they don’t have be examined (girls REALLY worry about exams, understandably).

  15. Carrie

    Yes, we do the same things. I have talked to the kids a lot in the car–specifically the 14-year old. (The other day we were so into the discussion, when we got close to home, SHE asked if we could drive around more to keep talking.)

    I was a bit put out to find out when having The Talk with my 9-year old this summer that her 12-year old BROTHER (and sometimes the 14-year old sister) had already told her A LOT. Although I don’t necessarily mind the idea of her having a relationship with her older sister where they can talk about that kind of thing, I know that her brother is a DORK who when he doesn’t know something MAKES CRAP UP. I told her she just can’t go to him (or the sister, really), for any questions, she needs to come to me. And I always make sure the kids know that if I don’t know the answer, I will look it up. And yes, there is a LOT of, “there are different beliefs about x,y,z” discussions.

  16. Elizabeth

    If anybody belongs to a UU church, I can recommend the O.W.L. (Our Whole Lives) classes there for a lot of good information geared to specific age groups of kids. There are trained facilitators (always one male, one female), and the class has to be roughly half boys and half girls, so they get the viewpoint of the “other” side, so to speak.
    Before my daughter took the class for 4th through 6th graders, the facilitators met with the parents and I thought it was kind of poignant when the lead facilitator said that although the kids are thrilled to find out about the actual physical side of things, they are EVEN MORE interested in the relationship side of things. There is a lot of talk about values, how to treat someone else, and how you deserve to be treated, etc.
    My girl recently took the class for 7th through 9th graders, and was particularly interested in getting to hear the stories of people of various more unusual orientations (gay, transgender, etc.) Several of the parents who had older children who’d already been through the classes said their kids were resources of accurate information for all of their friends. We live in the Bible Belt, so that could be a good thing!

  17. Kirsty

    This is just amazing, Swistle!
    I grew up in a profoundly non-religious family, but we NEVER, and I mean NEVER, discussed anything like this… I got all my information from either school, or friends or (to a lesser degree) my aunt (though I rarely saw her). Even periods weren’t discussed/explained (I had to deal with the whole first period thing on my own and it was traumatic, to say the least. Afterwards, when my mother figured out what had happened (because I certainly didn’t TELL her), she would just occasionally leave a pack of pads discreetly in my room, no questions asked, no questions answered, no questions at all in fact). I think this “technique” (plus the all-girl schools I attended till I was 18!) most likely explains why I never had a boyfriend…
    As a result, I feel like I have let down my two daughters (aged 12 and 10). Despite wanting to be as unlike my mother as I could possibly be, in this respect I have totally, totally failed… To be fair, my daughters live with the father, so I don’t see them very much, and I now have a live-in boyfriend who is usually here when the girls are, making it hard to imagine having any kind of conversation of this sort. Also, I don’t drive, so the “car” option doesn’t work either. *sigh*
    I know my elder daughter will be getting sex education at school after Christmas, which comforts me a little, but I really, really can’t imagine talking about any of this myself.
    HOWEVER, reading your wonderful post makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I might manage to say something sensible and coherent, if not particularly comfortable (and supposing that the subject comes up – my relationship with my elder daughter in particular is a little… distant) if I applied your techniques…
    So, thank you, dear, dear Swistle! I don’t feel any less like a failure (THAT would take a miracle), but at least I feel a little more prepared…

  18. Rah

    I grew up in a very religious family, pretty much with the idea that you would Go To Hell if sexually active outside of marriage. Then as a junior in high school I found my sister in bed with her boyfriend, and worried not about her mortal soul, but about whether my parents would find out, which would (to me) mean a far worse outcome than going to hell.

    Your post is, not unexpectedly, quite thoughtful and reasoned. I followed a similar course with my own children, being cautious not to offer more information than they were seeking at a given time and keeping it kind of an ongoing open topic. [Based on a cautionary tale about the young child who asked where he came from, and after his parents had provided an exhaustive explanation that covered menstruation, spermarche, and intercourse, said “Oh. Casey said he came from Texas.”)

    My two children asked various amount and types of questions and handled it variously, my son’s girlfriend at age 18 letting me know they weren’t sexually active at our home “out of respect,” which bothered me more than you’d think. My daughter, one night into a more-than two year relationship at age 19, just went up to her bedroom with her boyfriend and was totally blasé about it afterwards. All of this is to say that individual differences in children seem make the approach and outcome vary.

  19. Maria

    Wow! Thank you so much for this post. I read all your posts and enjoy them very much, but I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this topic (and the book recommendations!). I rarely comment, but I just wanted to say thank you!

  20. Artemisia

    I love how thoughtful all of you are with your parenting. It gives me hope.

    This is SOOOO selfish, but I totally hope I get to be the Auntie that my niece and nephew talk with about all of this stuff. Obviously, I don’t want to highjack any Big Parenting Moments from my sisters, but I do hope to be an additional confidant to these wonderful little people in my lives.

    I’d like to think you all will help me be the Helpful Auntie and not just the Crazy Auntie.

  21. Artemisia

    Also – outside of the film at school, my learning of sex and expectations went like this:

    Me: “Mom, what would you do if I can home pregnant?”

    Mom: “You wouldn’t come home.”

    Okay, then. I am not going to hand this conversation down among the generations.

  22. Saranel

    I love this so much. I want to bookmark this for when Elijah and Felicity are preteens/teenagers. Right now they are 5 & 2 but I know I will need those books when they are older.

  23. Tammy

    I’m not going to use my real name on this one as you just never know who will see what on the internet, but I wanted to mention that I think how one deals with sex and puberty is linked to one’s own personality. My parents never really talked about this sort of stuff with my sister and I, but despite being raised in the same environment, having access to the same written information, and being only 14 months apart in age, we had WAY different approaches to puberty and sex. She got her period and announced it proudly to both parents; I managed to hide it successfully for about a year and died of mortification when I was found out. She couldn’t wait to lose her virginity at 16 and had kind of a “reputation” at school; I waited until I was away from any potential small-town drama and at university. She briefly went into the sex trade; I, well, didn’t. She has always enjoyed and still enjoys sex; I… am finding myself kind of envious of her about that these days.

    I bring this up partly to explain why I theoretically want to teach my kids about the importance of waiting until they’re ready, but I don’t just want to try to hold them back from sex and deliver a negative message, I want to teach them the importance of sex as a component of a healthy, satisfying life too. As a non-religious person with a background in biology, I’m fine with imparting technical information, but I’m not sure I’m doing very well on teaching the more personal and emotional aspects of sex. My kids are 6 and 8, and I intend to have books available for them, but I want to be able to have good talks too. I think the car-talk concept is gold

  24. Tammy

    Oh, and I find comfort in that I think I’m doing a good job about making sure my kids are developing good attitudes towards bodies in general. We talk about being healthy at all shapes and sizes, we’re pretty laissez faire about casual nudity in the home (not that we loll around naked, but if a kid walks in on me changing or my husband toweling off it doesn’t raise an eyebrow), and we don’t make either kid wear a swimsuit in our pool unless we’ve got company coming over. I’m hoping to circumvent unrealistic attitudes and expectations that might come from only seeing perfect “media” bodies.

  25. Hannah

    Swistle, I do love your approach to these things! So sensible! My only child is currently four months old, but I’m getting some extracurricular worrying in on this topic. I was raised in a religious “no sex before marriage!” but accepting “your self worth isn’t tied to sex, you are in charge of your body!” kind of home, and would like to strive for a similar tone, but with more emphasis on being ready vs being married, and “the only one who makes this choice is you special snowflake!” kind of a slant. My question for you is this: do you want your kids to tell you if/when they decide to have sex? Or would you prefer not to know? I…can’t decide.

    1. Swistle Post author

      I can’t decide, either! My first impulse is “Eww, no.” But then I think, “Well, but if they told me, that means they’d likely be the sorts to tell/ask me other things I’d want them to be able to tell/ask me.”

      1. Shawna

        I have a friend who has a very close relationship with their son and he told her when he had sex. She made a point of taking the news pretty casually (though she told me that inside she was all “!!!”) because she wanted him to know that he could come to her and tell her anything. “Sex” she said to me “isn’t a problem, it’s a milestone. So if I take that news well, he knows he can come to me when he actually has a problem, like drugs, or he’s gotten a girl pregnant or something.”

        So wise. So hard to pull off though when it’s your kid, I’d imagine.

  26. Jennifer

    Just wanted to say thanks for this and offer up an additional resource. The Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ have a comprehensive sexuality curriculum that is offered both with and without a faith component depending on the church. It is sex positive and age appropriate. My kids have been through the Jr. High curriculum and it is FANTASTIC. More info at Thanks!

  27. vanessa

    as a sex ed teacher I think you are doing a fantastic job. Could also suggest:
    OWL classes at your local UU church (usually pretty secular classes, they might talk a bit about how sexuality is spiritual or whatever, though we never did–but super comprehensive, lots of discussion about how relationships including both friendship and otherwise, work, sexual health, everything you need to know about birth control, STIs, anatomy, etc, lots of discussion about consent, in a fun, easygoing, relaxed environment.

    also, there’s a great book for parents called Sex and Sensibility also highly suggested!

    1. Swistle Post author

      I’m wondering, does the church mind if people attend who don’t otherwise go to the church?

      1. Mikal

        My UCC church just starting offering this. I know that they do not mind at all if families or children have been attending church or are official members of the church for children to participate in any of the youth programs. Since UCC churches do not have a central leadership, each local church congregation would make this decision on their own though. So not all churches offer the OWL program and all individual churches will have their own policy on who to allow into programs. Overall I would say most of not all UCC churches would be open to any new youth into their programs, you’d have to call/email around to get info though.

      2. vanessa

        We never did, and I have spoken to lots of other OWL teachers who don’t either. Most years I taught we had 1-3 kids from outside the church attending just for the year. A couple decided to stay but lots went just for OWL.

  28. vanessa


    go out and buy this now if you have kids 13 and up: s-e-x by Heather Corinna. Also introduce your children to the amazing website scarleteen.

  29. liz

    The Our Bodies Ourselves folks made a book for teens called “Changing Bodies Changing Lives” which is excellent.

    And there was JUST a study about how comprehensive sex education DELAYS the start of sexual activity to a statistically significant degree.

  30. g~

    These two things are awesome:
    a) “some people believe in abstinence in theory but not in their own specific situation” (HA!)
    b) “I like to talk in the car because there’s so much less eye-contact involved, and because they’re trapped.” (HA, HA!)

    I immediately turned to my husband and said, “Read this. This is how we are going to handle this discussion with our kids.”

    So thanks for that.

  31. Heather

    Neither of my parents ever said one single word to me about puberty or sex in my entire life, except one conversation I had with my dad when I was 19 (and still a virgin). “Its funny dear, all my daughters who said they were Christian and waiting for marriage, got knocked up. All my daughters who said they wanted to have sex (Christian and not), got protection and haven’t had any children!” From that I’ve taken one truth: being aware you could try having sex, makes you more likely to have it safely.

    I am raising my niece (daughter of one of my sisters-she was pregnant at 16 btw) and I let her feel me out on topics but don’t really bring them up. When she was almost 16 (age you can legally have straight sex (homosexual sex is a few years older!), she asked me to take her to get the pill and I happily did. I don’t want her to live her mother’s life, I want her to have a chance to be an adult before she becomes a mother. When the doctor was talking to her about it, I realised that we’d already talked through all these issues (for example: the pill doesn’t stop STI’s, the pill increases risk of blood clots etc…) but I don’t recall many specific discussions so I guess we just chat about it as it comes up, and in a very casual way. I do sometimes get questions that make me think I need to do more. “Can I get pregnant from performing oral sex?” o_O Clearly I need to do a wee bit better lol.

    One of my sisters has four sons aged between 18-22. When the 22 year old was about 12, she started stocking condoms in bulk. She just opened the cupboard once a month and restocked if necessary. However the oldest one didnt use them and has knocked up three young ladies so far. So while I like this idea, perhaps encouraging the children to take a box to their room (and making sure they know how to use them) might be a good idea. I’m not sure about over there, but in New Zealand, you can get 144 condoms on prescription for $5!

  32. Laura Diniwilk

    Okay, I don’t even know if I can finish this post because RINSE OUT WITH A DIET COKE OMG. I am going to just hope you made that up for the sake of entertainment and it is not a real life example of things teenagers actually think. The only thing that is making me not want to curl up into the fetal position over the fact that I too will have teenagers some day is the knowledge that my girls will be extremely well informed on the topic. I have a very similar approach to the hard questions as you do.

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