By Josh Wester
Talking to children about sex is difficult, even in the abstract. But when it comes to talking to real children about the complexities of the way that God has designed them and their bodies, the difficulty is ratcheted-up immensely.
That’s because kids are literally moving targets. The idea of sitting still and having thoughtful and nuanced conversations about sex with a kindergartener just isn’t a reality for parents.
And even in the brief windows when these conversations take place, there’s simply no anticipating what questions or responses are coming your way.
But at the same time, it is critical to begin having these important conversations with your children from a very young age because the culture they’re growing up in isn’t going to wait until either one of you are ready.
Even before their kids are born, every parent thinks about the future awkwardness of having “the talk” with them one day. But talking to your kids about sexuality isn’t something that can be put off until they hit puberty or enter the throes of the teenage years.
Instead, we need to think about this topic holistically because sexuality is about much more than lust or intercourse. Sexuality is about the way God created us as people.
As Christian parents and ministry leaders, we want kids to understand who they are and how they should live according to God’s design.
One of the best things we can do for children is commit ourselves to being the primary influence shaping their understanding of issues related to sex from an early age.
Here are four suggestions for parents to remember along the way.
1. Talk about sex, not intercourse.
The first step is easier than you might think. God makes us male or female (Genesis 1:27). Don’t forget that biological sex is part of a larger conversation about sexuality.
You can begin talking to your kids about what it means to be male or female when they’re only a few years old without using words or language they aren’t ready for.
Regularly finding ways to talk about and affirm these categories will help your children understand why God made them as He did.
A good practice is to tell your child how thankful you are that God made him or her a boy or girl. I often do this when I pray over my kids at bedtime—something I picked up from a mentor years ago.
It’s a helpful way to reinforce the goodness of God’s design in my kid’s lives without taking up a whole discussion.
When my son hears me thank God for making him a boy, he knows his maleness is a good thing. As his father, that is what I want to constantly reinforce. God made him a male. He did it on purpose. And that’s a good thing.
Regularly looking for opportunities to talk to your kids about what it means to be a boy or girl is an effective way to build a foundation for larger conversations down the road.
2. Think about how they learn.
Our kids are always observing and learning even when they aren’t speaking.
As parents, we usually don’t think about connecting something our kids have seen with the concept of sexuality unless we’re talking about a negative example.
And, of course, you’ll need to do damage control after your child witnesses something that they don’t understand or you wish they hadn’t seen.
But probably more often, they will see things—especially in your home—that can help further their understanding in a positive way.
Look for these kinds of examples and don’t be afraid to make the connection.
For example, if mom normally does the cooking in your home and you happen to visit a friend’s house for dinner where the dad prepared the meal, don’t be afraid to talk about that (in a positive manner) on the way home.
Or, if you are watching a show or movie together where the father steps up to protect his family, take the time to highlight it later.
Silence breeds all kinds of assumptions.
One of the reasons kids—even those who grow up in Christian homes—have a hard time understanding concepts like gender is that they don’t know the difference between stereotypes (e.g. who normally cooks dinner) and God-intended patterns of maleness and femaleness (e.g. a man’s duty to protect his family).
Taking the time to talk through specific examples will protect your kids from drawing false conclusions and bring clarity to abstract concepts like the roles of men and women in the church or in the home.
3. Make “the talk” a conversation.
From transgenderism to same-sex marriage, kids growing up today will be confronted by things previous generations never even thought about. To navigate these challenges, they’ll need a biblically faithful understanding of sexuality long before it’s time to talk about dating or sex.
Our sons need to understand that being a boy is about more than enjoying to hunt or playing football or preferring the color blue. After all, King David was a man who was both a warrior and a harpist.
Likewise, girls need to understand it’s okay if they’re courageous or outgoing or have big aspirations. The Bible’s story of redemption is replete with examples of courageous women like Ruth or Esther or Rahab or Miriam—to say nothing of Jael. And none of them betrayed their gender through their courage.
One day you’ll need to talk directly with your child about the birds and the bees. But that conversation will be much easier if it follows years of preparation focused on the way God designed men and women.
Laying this foundation takes time and patience and commitment. Instead of living in dread anticipating an awkward conversation about sex with your preteen, you can make that talk part of the bigger conversation that will continue taking place as he or she grows up.
When kids are very young, they don’t need a lot of details. But failing to guide them toward a biblical understanding of sexuality is to neglect our duty.
4. Don’t put too much pressure on them—or yourself.
No one knows your kids better than you. As each week goes by, there will be multiple opportunities to help them develop a better understanding of what it does and doesn’t mean to be a man or woman.
Be intentional about building this foundation a little bit at a time. Trust the Holy Spirit to help you along the way. And try not to worry too much.
Not every conversation will go exactly like you planned. In fact, most of them won’t. And that’s okay. There’s a reason our kids are supposed to live in our homes for almost two decades.
Parenting is important work, and it takes a lot of time. Teaching your kids about sexuality is challenging, but giving them the confidence to understand and embrace God’s design is worth it.
JOSHUA WESTER (@jbwester) is director of ministries at Redemption City Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and serves as the director of research for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.