What sex education do children and teenagers need and when? Sex education is a very emotive topic, but we also need to deal with the practicalities.

What is sex education?

The word ‘sex’ can be used interchangeably with gender, but it usually refers to the act of having sexual intercourse, or touching, kissing and oral sex. Sex education may therefore be taken to mean teaching young people about sex and reproduction – but it is far more than that. Sex usually occurs as part of a human relationship and is therefore part of the bigger picture of sexuality, sexual behaviour and sexual relationships. Sex also has possible consequences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, so sex education needs to embrace these issues also.

What is sexuality?

Sexuality is about being a sexual being, whether that is a homosexual or a heterosexual or otherwise. It is about fantasies, desires and beliefs, rather than sexual acts. Sexuality lasts a life time. Sexuality is about fashion and clothing, dancing, interacting socially with others and many other things that make up who we are and how we perceive ourselves.

What is sexual orientation and identity?

Sexual orientation is whether we are attracted to opposite or same sex people, or both. Sexual identity refers to how we identify ourselves and this may be different in private and in public. For example, a person may present as heterosexual in public, but actually identify as homosexual in private.

Sex Education – the practicalities

What do children and teenagers need to know about sex, and as parents what sex education should we be teaching them at home?

Children and teenagers eventually need to know everything about sex! Not just the act of sexual intercourse and reproduction, but the stuff about relationships, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy also.
They certainly will learn it all too – whether they learn it from their parents, their peers, the media or their school is, by and large, up to us at an early stage. Parents can control children’s exposure to media to a large extent, for example, but this becomes increasingly hard as they progress through teenage years. Therefore, if parents want to ensure that children learn about sex in a caring, positive, respectful way it is surely better to be proactive about sex education at an early age, answering questions honestly in an age appropriate way.


Young children will show a natural curiosity about their body and where babies come from – but most will not require much information at this stage. Honest, concise answers to the typical question of ‘Where do babies come from?’ will usually suffice.

‘Babies grow in a special place in mummy’s tummy called a womb’ will normally be all that a 4 year old wants to know.

As children get older, further questions can be met with the same factual and honest approach – answering questions on a need to know basis and using language that you want your children to use.

Pre-teenagers (‘Tweenies’)

Puberty can occur as early as 9-10 in children and they need to understand the changes that are taking place in their bodies.

It is wise to teach both boys and girls about puberty, bodily changes in males and females, including periods and wet dreams.

These conversations will inevitably lead on to discussing sex and reproduction, which needs to be addressed openly and honestly, but again in an age appropriate way. The following topics may be mentioned, but not necessarily discussed in detail:-
Puberty and physical changes
Periods and their role in female reproduction
Changes to the male body, including wet dreams
Relationships and sexual relationships
Sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction – how a baby is created
Pregnancy, touching on prevention through contraception
Sexually transmissible diseases – even pre teenagers should be aware that STIs exist.

The extent to which these topics are discussed at home will depend upon many factors:-
The maturity of your child
The presence of older siblings/cousins etc
What the school is teaching your child
What you want your child to know (but remember that you are not in full control of what they hear outside the home, but you are in control of what they learn from you)
The curiosity of your child
Family circumstances
Use TV programmes, new babies in the family, adverts etc to provoke a conversation if you can, rather than having the dreaded ‘birds and bees’ talk.
If you are embarrassed discussing these topics then talk to your partner/friends first to relieve the initial embarrassment – and remember the car is a great place to have a chat as there is little eye contact.


Teenagers are bombarded by the media, their peers’ views, and peer pressure – information on sex and sexuality comes at them from all sides. Much of this may be hyped and inaccurate, so parents need to ensure that a positive, factual and caring message comes across from them too. As the teenage years progress and your child becomes an independent adult, ensure they have information on all of the following, to enable them to make good decisions about their own sexual behaviour:-
Puberty and physical changes
Periods and their role in female reproduction
Changes to the male body, including wet dreams
Relationships and sexual relationships, treating others with respect
Sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction
Masturbation, oral sex and other sexual behaviours
Pregnancy and different methods of contraception
Options for unplanned pregnancies, including termination of pregnancy
Sexually transmissible diseases –the different infections, preventing them and the possible long term consequences
Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality

This information will come from a variety of sources – books, leaflets, films and TV programmes, discussions within the family and school sexuality education.

In every appropriate conversation with your child, reiterate the safe sex message – Use a condom every time you have sex.

Useful Articles

These articles are part of the Kiwi Families series on sexual education –

Sex Education – An Introduction

Sexual Education and Emotions

For more information on Sexual education relating to STIs, visit our parent and teenager friendly article

For more information on Contraception, click here.

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Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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