How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex: Life Kit Consent, dating, masturbation, porn. It can be difficult having conversations about sex and relationships with teens. NPR's Life Kit has a few tips to help make those talks your kids feel more comfortable.
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What Your Teen Wishes You Knew About Sex Education

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What Your Teen Wishes You Knew About Sex Education

What Your Teen Wishes You Knew About Sex Education

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CORY TURNER, HOST:

I'm Cory Turner, an NPR reporter and the father of two boys.

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

I'm Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and the mom of two girls. And if you're in a public place right now, make sure your headphones are in, OK?

TURNER: Yeah, 'cause we're going to get awkward.

CORA BREUNER: Saying masturbating is - also sounds bad, right? Like, why does that word sound like it's, like, not OK, but it's OK to say self-pleasure?

TURNER: That is Dr. Cora Breuner getting us right in there. We caught her on the phone at the Adolescent Medicine Clinic at Seattle Children's Hospital.

BREUNER: The people all around me that am where I'm doing this interview are laughing so hard. I'm telling you, they're being very quiet, but there's 30 people literally within about three feet of me going, Cora, what? Who are you talking to?

TURNER: Just tell them NPR, you know.

BREUNER: NPR (laughter) - National Public Radio, damn it.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) Dr. Breuner is board-certified in pediatrics and adolescent medicine, and she's no stranger to masturbation talk. She's also been teaching sex ed to middle school students for 15 years.

TURNER: Yeah, and she is going to help us a lot with this episode - sex ed, part two, adolescence. We're going to give you some of the tools you'll need to handle the most difficult conversations you will have with your tween or teen about sex.

KAMENETZ: And we know it is hard to talk about this stuff. We know from experience. It also might be in conflict with the values that maybe you or your family were raised with. But keep in mind, the research says that being an open book keeps kids safer. As Dr. Breuner told us...

BREUNER: If we were more open and honest with sexuality education early, there would be less non-consensual sex. There would be less use of substances and a lot of the issues that stem from taking high-risk behaviors.

TURNER: So when we come back, we're going to talk about all the things from sex and consent to porn and masturbation.

KAMENETZ: Basically, if it makes you squirm, we're going to cover it, so stick around.

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KAMENETZ: This is NPR's LIFE KIT. In our first sex ed episode, we focused on kids from birth to the doorstep of puberty. And in this one, we're going to focus on puberty and beyond. And, you know, this is the hard part, Cory.

TURNER: Takeaway No. 1 - puberty starts earlier than you think, so start talking about it now.

KAMENETZ: That's right. Puberty can kick in as early as 8 or 9 years old, especially for girls. And, you know, this is a huge transformation physically, emotionally and mentally.

TURNER: For one thing, Dr. Breuner says the architecture of our frontal lobes, which is the part of the brain that regulates our emotions - it's undergoing really big changes. Our brains are being flooded with estrogen, testosterone and progesterone.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Breuner says at this age, we'll see kids' decision-making ability going a little haywire.

BREUNER: There are all these things that are happening, and the part of their brain that's supposed to say, stop doing that, isn't really working.

KAMENETZ: This is one of the reasons that teens take risks, that they make some mistakes. And other times, they'll just be really moody and extra vulnerable.

TURNER: One mom named Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski - she lives in Las Vegas, and she told us how she started picking up on these telltale signs of puberty along with her daughter, Lily.

ELECTRA MCGRATH-SKRZYDLEWSKI: Just little things I had noticed, like telling Lily, hey; did you brush your teeth today, as we're getting ready for school in the morning and her bursting into tears just because of all the hormones coursing through her body.

LILY MCGRATH: It's a sensitive topic, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRATH-SKRZYDLEWSKI: Yeah, and, you know, essentially getting - going to my husband and saying, it is really important that we're kind to her and that we don't forget how confusing and frustrating it feels to not be able to manage your emotions in the way that you want to.

KAMENETZ: The point is to help our kids through this tough time, we need to be proactive. Talk about hormones, about breast development, tampons, birth control, wet dreams, sexual orientation, gender expression, orgasms, masturbation. Don't wait to bring it up.

TURNER: Yeah, and we know that this is going to be uncomfortable or awkward for some of you, so, you know, we recommend doing it when you're not necessarily eye-to-eye. Maybe it's in the car, a bike ride or just going for a walk down the block.

Now let's flip the script to go to takeaway No. 2. When your adolescent clearly wants to talk to you about something related to sex or sexuality or gender, you need to listen, to love and be humble.

KAMENETZ: For Electra, her style as a mom is to be totally upfront and open about everything with Lily from periods to birth control.

TURNER: And today, at 15, Lily is actually a volunteer youth ambassador for a group called Amaze, and she talks about young people's sexual health.

KAMENETZ: So with all of that, you might think Electra would be super-prepared for anything, and she thought she was, too. But when Lily was 12 years old and decided one sunny afternoon to come out to her as pansexual - meaning gender and sex aren't determining factors in Lily's attraction to others - well, that coming out conversation was still really hard for both of them. Here's Lily.

MCGRATH: I think I just wanted it to be, like, a slightly emotional, slightly dramatic, slightly funny kind of moment, and that was not how it was. It was just so awkward. It was just me sitting on the floor pointing to a pride flag going, P - you know the acronym - P. That was literally the whole moment.

TURNER: By the way - and we did have to look this up. Lily is talking about the full acronym, LGBTQQIAAP. That stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, allies, asexual and pansexual.

KAMENETZ: Electra tells us that on the listening side of this conversation, it was also really difficult.

MCGRATH-SKRZYDLEWSKI: As I was watching her struggle to find the words, I just felt some really deep sympathy because it felt painful in a way that - from where I sat, it didn't have to be that because I was like, oh man. Have I done something wrong?

TURNER: Now, we want all of you listening out there to imagine what you would do if your kid came to you with something like this. Now, it could be about their sexuality or their gender identity.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, or it could be about something else - about body image or consent or dating violence.

TURNER: Or maybe your teen wants to go on birth control or had their heart broken. First of all, congratulations. I'm not kidding. The fact that your child wants to talk to you at all about this stuff is great.

KAMENETZ: As far as what you should do next, we get some pointers from someone who's been answering these questions for more than two decades.

HEATHER CORINNA: I'm Heather Corinna. I'm the founder and director of Scarleteen and the author of a couple of books, and I use they/them pronouns.

KAMENETZ: Scarleteen is a sex and relationships organization. They run an online sex ed clearinghouse that's packed with information on relationships, bodies and sexuality for teens and emerging adults.

TURNER: Heather's first message to parents and caregivers for these tough conversations is listen and be reassuring. Offer love and unconditional support.

CORINNA: It's a little harder to have a conversation with somebody about loaded things, of course, when they're fearful and they're scared because in order to have a really good conversation, you have to get somebody calmed down.

KAMENETZ: Even if your teen comes to you with something you're totally not ready for, that's OK. Just admit it.

CORINNA: The biggest message that can just be said is, you know, we love and accept you. And then you can follow that up with, we don't get it - right? - and, we need to find out more about this.

TURNER: Heather says bonus points if you do research together because kids need help getting trustworthy answers.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff out there on the internet, as I'm sure you know. Now, to be clear, when we say, we don't get it, it's not the same thing as, we don't believe you.

TURNER: For example, you should know - we talked with Dr. Breuner about this. If a child in puberty is exploring, say, a different sexual or gender identity, according to the latest research, it is not likely to be a phase. So don't tell them, oh, you'll just grow out of it.

BREUNER: My generation of physicians was taught that, which was wrong. And so the likelihood of somebody growing out of it is extremely low.

TURNER: Both Dr. Breuner and Heather say the follow-up to, I love you - and maybe, let's find out more - is, how can I help?

CORINNA: And usually, the answer is that they just want to be seen and validated. It's always hard as you're going through adolescence to be seen.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Breuner agrees with this. She says, let the child lead the conversation, especially when it comes to things like sexual and gender identity. It probably took a lot of courage for them to come to you.

BREUNER: Many times, they just want to have you listen to them. And then you say, well, OK, that's - how would you like to proceed with that? Would you like to have more conversation about it? Would you like to change the clothes you wear, or do you want to change the friends you have, or - what else would you like me to do?

TURNER: Watch out, though, because it's also possible to go overboard, Dr. Breuner says, and that's either negatively or even positively.

BREUNER: Sometimes, parents are actually, interestingly, very excited about this and are happy that their child is exploring other gender or another sexuality. So they actually want the kid to explore things faster than the kid wants to.

KAMENETZ: If your kid is telling you that they are heartbroken or that they, you know, want to become sexually active, this is not about you, right? Heather says, be humble.

CORINNA: Young people don't really have any power but the power that we give them. And if we present ourselves all the time as the ones that know the most, the ones that are the experts at everything and the ones that have all the power, you know, it's really - it's hard for us to have good relationships with them. You know, it's like the great and powerful Oz - right? - you know, like, letting young people know that we're really just the dude behind the curtain.

KAMENETZ: When we take on tough conversations with this kind of respect and empathy, we're modeling those things for our kids, and that really connects deeply to the next takeaway.

TURNER: Yeah. Takeaway No. 3 - kids need to understand healthy relationships and consent. We spoke with a lot of sex educators for this episode, and one of them, Dan Rice at Rutgers University - he used an analogy for sex that I really like. He said sex is like algebra in that it requires that kids already have some fundamental skills. Obviously, in the case of algebra, those are addition and subtraction. But with sex, he was talking about things like communicating what you want, understanding what other people want and also how to take it when you don't get what you want.

KAMENETZ: These are relationship skills - communication, good listening, respect. They're not specific to sex, but they are required for a healthy sex life.

TURNER: Yeah, a lot of people mentioned this social-emotional foundation when we talked to them, including Brittany McBride. She works at Advocates for Youth and helps school districts all over the country with their sex ed.

BRITTANY MCBRIDE: I can't have, you know, a meaningful lesson with young people on what relationship goals may look like when we haven't established the foundation of, like, how to negotiate with a partner, how to communicate, how to select a partner who's respectful of you.

KAMENETZ: These are things that, you know, if you're lucky, your kid might pick up around the house. But it's still a good idea to talk affirmatively about relationship ideals, about kindness and consideration, how people in a family or a couple take care of each other, show love.

TURNER: Yeah, and let your kids see you resolve conflict, admit fault, show forgiveness.

MCBRIDE: There's a lot of things that sometimes, I believe, folks believe sex ed will kind of do for us. But because we haven't set the foundation, it's nearly impossible to kind of cover within, like, 45 minutes on a Wednesday.

KAMENETZ: Heather at Scarleteen comes at this from a different direction. They say middle school is a great time for parents to start paying more attention to their kids' relationships with their peers.

CORINNA: By and large, what we think of as, you know, quote, unquote, "mainstream culture" in American public middle schools and high schools - you know, platonic relationships are often really abusive. I mean, it's not even dysfunctional. They're just flat-out abusive.

TURNER: Verbally, emotionally, and even physically abusive for so many reasons - because of tweens' brain chemistry - which we mentioned earlier - because our pop culture makes cruelty seem really cool and because too many kids don't experience consistent, loving, respectful relationships at home.

KAMENETZ: So Heather says parents can really help with all this kind of just by noticing and reflecting what's going on.

CORINNA: Just kind of watching what happens in their friendships and their relationships and asking them questions about it to kind of say, you know, I just overheard, or, I just saw, or whatever - you know, whatever the thing was that you did. And then you say, how do you feel about that? Is it OK with you? And then have a talk about it.

TURNER: At this point, Anya, I want to say one more thing. Obviously, this is for all parents and caregivers, but I want to talk specifically to all the dads who are listening because we need to talk to kids, especially to boys, very clearly and in detail about a cornerstone of, really, any healthy relationship, and that is consent. Research shows it's more often than not the mothers and grandmothers and aunties who have these conversations with the boys in their lives, and that needs to change. We need to do our share.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And kids, no matter what their gender or their orientation - they need to know that consent has to be enthusiastic, ongoing and specific, that no one can consent if they're drunk or wasted on drugs and if that you were drunk or wasted, it is more likely that you will push someone else's boundary.

TURNER: Yeah, that a yes at the beginning of the night is not necessarily a yes at the end of the night. Kids need to know that they have to check in with their partner.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And finally - and you can start when they're super-young. Children need to know how to handle a no gracefully because that is definitely going to come up, especially when you factor in, you know, hormones, maybe alcohol. That is such a vital skill.

TURNER: All right. Let's take a quick breather. OK.

KAMENETZ: What about if we switched over to orgasms?

TURNER: (Laughter) That is one way to transition to our next takeaway...

KAMENETZ: Awesome. Yay.

TURNER: ...(Laughter) Which just so happens to be about the one sex-related topic that teachers and parents seem to be most afraid of. Dr. Breuner says when she's doing workshops with parents...

BREUNER: There's always one little hand that kind of creeps up in the air, and they say, well, can we actually talk to them about if it's fun or not? And you get all the parents looking at them like, what? And then they turn around, look at me, and they say, please answer this question.

TURNER: Takeaway No. 4 - sex feels good. Don't try to hide that from your kids.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Breuner says that it's kind of our fault as parents because when our kids are little and they're exploring their bodies completely innocently...

BREUNER: Parents will say to a child, stop doing that, or, if you're going to do that, go do that in your room, which already starts them into a path of, well, is that not OK? But that part - but it feels OK, so they get a mixed message.

TURNER: That they should feel ashamed to want to have this kind of physical pleasure, and it's often this anchor of heavy feelings of shame that middle schoolers then drag with them into puberty.

KAMENETZ: And, you know, some kids struggle with those feelings. For some kids, it stops them from ever exploring their bodies, and they don't learn what they like. And Dr. Breuner says we really need to stop this. It's time for masturbation to get a full image makeover.

BREUNER: It's not ugly and gross. It's important to establish your own sexuality and to be able to figure out what gives you pleasure so that when you are at a place when you want someone else to give you pleasure, you know what to tell them.

KAMENETZ: You know, this is just such a revolutionary idea. Like, we're not here yet as a culture and...

TURNER: No, we're not.

KAMENETZ: ...you know, masturbation is not just about pleasure, although that would also be fine. Our kids need to know how to get to know themselves so that when they are having sex with a partner, they can communicate about what they like and what they want, and that makes for a healthier, stronger relationship.

TURNER: Another important reason to talk positively about not just masturbation, but really pleasure in general, Brittany McBride says if you're talking about sex without talking about why most people actually have sex, then you're giving kids a picture of sex that is at best incomplete, if not inaccurate.

KAMENETZ: Right. I mean, so much of sex ed is telling kids that they could get an infection or get pregnant or get someone else pregnant.

MCBRIDE: I often thought, like, well, why would anybody want to do this? This sounds miserable and horrible, and, like, there's not a lot of benefits until you finally realize, like, oh, now I get it. It's pretty - it's pretty wonderful and not having that conversation doesn't feel particularly honest or accurate when we want to talk about sex ed.

TURNER: I have to come clean at this point. Because in doing all of this reporting, I realized that I hadn't really talked about pleasure with my 11-year-old. I mean, he knows the mechanics of sex, you know, penis, vagina, sperm, egg, pregnancy. But we were in the car recently, and I just - I just asked him. I said, why do you think people have sex? And he said, well, duh, to make babies. And I said, well, actually, 99% of the time, it's honestly because it feels good.

KAMENETZ: Wow. OK, so what was his response?

TURNER: Well, so luckily for both of us, I think, he was in the back seat and I was in the front. We were alone and there's a long silence, and then he just said, what?

KAMENETZ: You blew his little mind.

TURNER: I did.

KAMENETZ: Well, I'm really glad that you did that, Cory, and I hope to follow in your footsteps soon. Because, like Brittany says, by being upfront about pleasure, we're actually protecting our kids.

MCBRIDE: Because it kind of removes a little bit of that mystifying, really cool. Like, what is this I hear so much about - aspect of sex.

TURNER: And Heather actually has a really great suggestion for how to get into this conversation.

CORINNA: It's actually pretty easy to talk about pleasure of eating things that you really enjoy, right? Or moving your body in ways that you really like, or watching your favorite movie, or listening to your favorite song on a nonstop loop. And I think that you can start talks that you have about how this is what sex is, right? Just like all of those things.

KAMENETZ: Our next takeaway is really about where your kids might be getting their sex education if they're not getting it from you.

TURNER: Dun dun dun.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway number five is - porn isn't real life, and your kids need to know that.

TURNER: Yeah, because you might have a hard time keeping your kids away from porn entirely.

BREUNER: I remember I opened my computer and I looked at my son - who shall remain nameless - and say, why is this porn site on my laptop? And he said, I'm an adolescent male, Mom. Duh. And I thought, OK. Thanks for sharing.

TURNER: So Dr. Breuner says you need to talk with your kids about what porn is and is not, because it can give your kid a completely wrong idea of sex - how it works and how you relate to people. I put this question to Lily: do you believe that porn is a common reference point for teens your age?

MCGRATH: One hundred percent. I think it happens mostly to my male peers where they talk about sex in a way that just seems so theatrical, and that's really what pornography is is just theatrics. And, yeah, I just feel like it gives them a warped sense of reality of what these encounters would be like. So when it comes time for these encounters to occur, they feel unprepared or inadequate because they're like, wait, this is not at all like porn.

KAMENETZ: And, you know, there's other issues. You rarely see negotiations around consent in mainstream commercial porn. In fact, you often see signs of coercion or control or pain, and you rarely see real pleasure either.

TURNER: Yeah, you also don't see a lot of different body types or body hair. You don't see giggling or awkwardness. I mean, even the sounds of porn are misleading. In fact, Heather at Scarleteen says they published an article about the sounds we make in sex because so many teens wanted to know, like, what is it supposed to sound like?

CORINNA: Something like the rules of Oohs and Aahs, right? Because we were like, the sounds you make are the sounds your body makes. Like, they're the sounds that come out. And often, for the record, they're really freaking weird if you just let the sounds come out, come out, right? So you're like, you're thinking it's going to be porn sound, we're thinking more pterodactyl.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) I love that.

TURNER: I do too. Yeah, kids need a reality check when it comes to what Heather calls sexual media.

CORINNA: Think about how people look in cleaning commercials. When you talk about why is that person looking so happy from something we know does not make most people happy, right? Later, there's conversations you can have about that with pornography. Like, why does that person appear to be having an orgasm from something we know almost no one has an orgasm when that happens?

KAMENETZ: If you're having trouble conceptualizing talking about this with your kids, there's a study that I talked about on one of my screen time episodes that I really love on this topic. It comes from Texas Tech University. And it found that when parents had a critical conversation with their middle school-aged children about pornography, sharing that family's values - it could be a feminist critique; it could be a religious critique - when they had that conversation, you could tell, years later, when those young people were in college, it had a protective effect. So they were less likely to be using porn. Or if their partner was using porn, it did not affect their self-esteem as badly.

TURNER: And this brings us to our final takeaway. Takeaway No. 6 - get backup. We say this often on LIFE KIT. But especially when it comes to adolescents and sex, you may need help.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Heather says this can be humbling. But you know, there's so many reasons you might find it really hard to talk to your kid. Or your kid might find it hard to talk to you - even if you've experienced something really similar to what they're going through.

CORINNA: Some of the parents that are the most scared about their kids being queer or trans are parents who are queer and trans because they know what they went through. Right? Like - and so, of course, they're very scared. You know, they are accepting. Of course they're accepting. But they're also terrified because they're thinking - oh, God - I was really hoping that my kid wouldn't have to go through what I went through. Now, given, times have changed, and they might not. But you know, I mean, these fears are emotional. They're not logical.

KAMENETZ: So another example might be if you have your own experiences with abortion or sexual assault or abusive relationships, it could make it that much harder if your child comes to you with something really similar. It could be triggering.

TURNER: Yeah. So there's no shame in having to find somebody else who can tag in for you.

CORINNA: And if you can be the person that also makes sure that somebody else is an OK person and supports them in that, then you're still really kind of being their best person that way.

TURNER: It could be someone else in your family. It could be your pediatrician to address your child's questions maybe without you in the room - lots of people.

KAMENETZ: Or you can look for workshops or classes at your local health center, YMCA, teaching hospital, a place of worship. Books are good, too, but make sure they're up to date.

TURNER: Heather has a book called "S.E.X.," and their website is scarleteen.com. It's aimed at emerging adults and teenagers, not at children.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, AMAZE animated videos are especially good for the 10 to 13 age range.

TURNER: All right. It's time for the recap, Anya. You ready?

KAMENETZ: I'm ready.

TURNER: All right. Here we go.

Takeaway No. 1 - do not wait for your kids to hit puberty to talk about puberty.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 2 - when your kids do come to you with a conversation, talk less...

TURNER: ...And listen more. And when you do talk, be loving and be humble.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 3 - our kids need to understand healthy relationships from the beginning. This isn't just about sex. It's about life, too.

TURNER: And it includes talking about and modeling consent - and that's especially for you, dads.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 4 - sex feels good, even with yourself. And that's good. Better that they hear it from you than from, you know, the back of the bus or from porn.

TURNER: And speaking of porn - takeaway No. 5 - porn is not real life, and it could fill your kids with all kinds of wrong ideas if you're not helping them with the actual facts of life.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And if you need some help doing that, takeaway No. 6 is don't be afraid to get back up. And we here at LIFE KIT are honored to be part of that backup.

TURNER: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes, like How to Talk With Your Kids about Death and How to Raise Kids Who Are Kind.

KAMENETZ: You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss an episode.

TURNER: And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Kiara Powell (ph).

KIARA POWELL, BYLINE: Have you ever struggled while peeling a potato? Fret not. There's an easier way. After boiling potatoes, take them out and drop them in an ice cold bath. Then, immediately take them back out and the skin will twist off just like a cheap wine bottle.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis.

TURNER: Meghan Keane is the managing producer.

KAMENETZ: Beth Donovan is the senior editor, and this episode was edited by Steve Drummond. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider.

TURNER: Special thanks to all of the smart folks who backed us up for this episode - Dr. Cora Breuner, Heather Corinna, Brittany McBride, Electra McGrath-Skrzydlewski and Lily McGrath.

KAMENETZ: And Bonnie Rough, Dan Rice, Nora Gelperin and Amy Lang.

TURNER: And I would also like to extend one more thanks to our NPR colleagues who sit around us in the newsroom and who've spent the last two months listening to us on the phone talking loudly about masturbation and porn. Sorry?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) Yeah. Maybe sorry, maybe not. Also, if you appreciate what we're trying to do here, which you hopefully do since you're listening this long - hey, how about leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts?

I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: I'm Cory Turner. And thank you for listening.

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