Talking Sex With Your Kids: Q&A With Sex Educator Amber Madison

Sheri Reed

Amber Madison
Amber Madison
Talking sex with your tween or teen is, I'm guessing, not that shining moment in parenthood you can't wait to experience. However, one way or another, the fact is, you must talk about sex with your tween or teen.

Today we speak with Amber Madison, sex educator, lecturer, and author of the new book Talking Sex With Your Kids, which was both endorsed by Meredith Vieira and called "mandatory reading for all parents" by the Library Journal.

You might think you're too afraid to read this, but I think you'll feel better equipped for talking sex once you do.

At what age do you recommend starting the "talk" about sex, and by sex, I don't mean the generic "birds and the bees" talk but real talk about sexual relationships?

Every child is different, but if I had to put a general age on it, I’d say middle school is the time to start talking about sex as it pertains to your child (not just more generally "where babies come from"). True, most 12-year-olds aren’t having sex. But are they thinking about sex, talking about sex, and seeing sex everyday in the media? Absolutely.

When your kids are in middle school, start broaching topics like sex in the media, sex and technology, healthy relationships, oral sex, sexual decision making, and body image. As they get older, talk with them about birth control, condoms, STDs, and when sex is a good idea/bad idea.

Talking to your kids about sex
Talking Sex With Your Kids;
What's the number one thing we need to teach tween/teen girls about sexual relationships?

The most important message girls need to hear about sex is that sex will not make a guy like them or keep a guy interested. Tell girls: sex isn’t going to make a guy care about you more than he already does, it won’t create feelings that aren’t there to begin with, and it won’t alter the course of your relationship (if he was going to dump you, he would still dump you if you slept with him). Never have sex just because you think it will make someone like you more -- it won’t.

What's the number one thing we need to teach tween/teen boys about sexual relationships?

The most important message guys need to hear about sex is that sex is a big deal for guys too.  Young men receive very little information about sex, and one thing that almost no guys hear is that sex is something they need to think about carefully and not just assume they want. Tell boys: just because you’re a guy doesn’t mean you have to feel ready for sex, that it won’t affect you emotionally, or that you have to have sex whenever you might have the opportunity.

Is there anything we can do while our kids are still young to help prepare them to make healthy sexual choices later?

There are several things you can do when your kids are young to help ensure they’ll make sound sexual choices when they are older. First of all, raise them to feel good about their bodies. And not only their figures, but their genitals too. Teach them there is nothing gross or dirty about their “private places.”

Second, teach them to question authority. If you want them to be able to stand up against peer pressure, partner pressure, and pressure from society to make bad choices, you have to teach them to think for themselves. Lastly, do your best to give them good self esteem. Tell them you love them unconditionally, encourage them in areas they excel, and continue to support them during times they’ve messed up.

What's a good approach if we suspect or find out that our child is having sexual intercourse?

The hard truth about your kids and sex is that if they want to do it, they will find a way. No matter how many rules you put in place, how harshly you ground them, or how strict you may be about dating. If they are dead set on having sex, they’ll figure out a way to make it happen. I’ve spent the past eight years (in college and after graduation) speaking with young people about sex, and I can tell you not one person waited to have sex because their parents said they "couldn’t." 

This is an important thing to realize because it should guide the way you react if you think your child is having sex or is about to have sex. Anger will not get you anywhere if they have already made up their mind… it will only make them shut out what you are saying. 

Your best bet is to talk with them -- calmly and rationally -- about the right and wrong reasons to have sex (a topic so important I dedicated an entire chapter to it). Also, talk with them about condoms and contraception. Nearly 1 in 3 girls will get pregnant before she turns 20, and half of all young adults get an STD by the time they turn 25. Simply telling them "no" won’t do. You have to arm them with the knowledge to make wise sexual choices -- and safe sexual choices -- even if you think the choices they are making are unwise.

What do you say to parents who believe their kids should wait until marriage to have sex?

If you believe sex should only take place between two people who are married, tell your kids that, and make it very clear that’s the choice you want them to make. But because your kids’ health and safety should always be your top priority, you have to talk with them about condoms and birth control too, just in case. I interviewed a Roman Catholic priest for my book, and even he felt that there has to be a middle ground between religious values and young adults’ safety.

The reality is, the majority of people don’t wait until marriage to have sex, even many who plan to. So even if you are telling your kids to wait until marriage to have sex, also arm them with the knowledge of how to keep themselves safe if they don’t. And those aren’t contradictory messages. I look at it like this: you always tell your kids to wear their seat belts -- not because you condone unsafe driving, or because you’re encouraging them to crash into another car -- you tell them the wear their seat belt just in case.

How and when do you plan to talk to your kids about sexual relationships?

Amber Madison graduated in 2005 from Tufts University, where she wrote a sex column and studied human sexuality. She is also the author of Hooking Up: A Girl's All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality (Prometheus). For more information on Amber Madison, visit her website

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