THE BLOG
12/26/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

New Year's Resolution: Change "The Talk" Into the Conversation

Do something different this New Year's: Start talking to your kids about sexuality. I don't mean tell them how often you have sex or what your favorite positions are; those things are none of their business. But you should start talking about why people date, why they kiss, why they hold hands, and why they have sex. The younger you start talking to your kids about sex and the more you make it an ongoing conversation, the fewer misconceptions and fears there will be.

Many parents dread that moment when they need to have "The Talk" with their teens. But we need to get away from the idea that we can cover everything we need in one conversation. Most parents spend years teaching manners and respect. Parents expect to talk to their kids repeatedly about things like friendship, how to manage time, how to manage money, educational and career goals, and who they see themselves becoming. A topic as important as healthy sexuality also needs that kind of repeated attention.

Starting with younger children has several benefits. For one thing, it lets you start talking about your values before your children need those values in place. Sure, they'll question those values during adolescence or early adulthood, but they can't question what they haven't heard yet. And they'll also need those values during the inevitable round of crushes and so-called relationships that happen around fifth grade.

Another reason to start young is that it gives you a foundation to build on as your kids get older. After hearing your values and having received useful information from you, they're likely to come back for more. That's particularly important because you'll return to this topic over the years as your children's cognitive abilities improve and they get more experience with how relationships and bodies work.

By age 6, many kids have seen some type of pregnancy: whether it's the birth of a younger brother or sister, the family (or a friend's) pet, or even livestock. They may know that people date and have sex, but they don't really know what those terms mean. But they're curious about it, in the same way that they're curious about everything, so they've probably asked questions about where babies come from.

Those questions often get parents nervous because we make a big deal out of sexuality. We think that it's very different from the rest of our -- or at least, our children's -- lives, even though it's not. When you're partnered, you probably think about and talk to that person almost every day. You may even take comfort in just knowing they're there for you. And, of course, there's likely some type of physical intimacy, anything from cuddling or holding hands to kissing or sex.

When your 6-year-old asks those questions, give him or her age-appropriate answers. If your child asked how the doctor knows how to fix a broken arm or how to remove an appendix, your answer would be something like "that's why they go to doctor school." The same answer is just fine when your 6-year-old asks "how will the doctor get the baby out of someone's stomach?"

If 6-year-olds have the ability to ask those questions, then they deserve some answers. The writers of the newly published "National Sexuality Education Standards" believe that children should learn that living things reproduce during first or second grade (ages 6-8). They point to a science lesson we've all had: Put a seed in some dirt, water it, place it near a sunny window, and a week or two later a plant starts to grow. Children don't get much biological detail at this age because they don't have the cognitive ability to understand it.

By age 8, kids are watching a mixture of children's shows and primetime comedies (often in reruns). An analysis of the television shows most favored by children and adolescents in 1992 showed that one in four conversations addressed some aspect of sexuality. That was 20 years ago. Anyone out there think TV has less sexual content today or that it has become less explicit?

Waiting until children in middle school to begin a conversation about sexuality is simply too late. Although less than one percent of children have seen online porn at age 8, about one-third of boys and one-fourth of girls have seen it before their 14th birthday. Some of that is accidental, but a lot of teens choose to look again and again in order to learn about sex. Unfortunately, this exposure also means they're also learning a host of other misleading lessons, including the idea that everyone is attractive, everyone is always ready for sex, and "no" doesn't always mean no.

To be clear, you don't always need to make the conversations about dating or even sex. Although adults are fairly comfortable talking to girls about relationship dynamics, we rarely talk to boys about those things. Yet boys certainly have and appreciate romantic relationships and friendships. Parents who choose to wait aren't protecting their kids, they're setting them up for unnecessary questioning and confusion.

This is an easy New Year's Resolution to keep, especially when you consider your children's health -- including their sexuality -- starts with you.