How to Have "the Talk" with Your Tween

Talking to a tween about sex can be uncomfortably embarrassing and scary—for you. 

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My daughter crawled into the car and snapped her seat belt, excited after a recent party. “We talked about boys,” Lizzie said, giggling like a schoolgirl. Which, at 12, is exactly what she is. (Or was. She is now 16, but this still feels like yesterday.) Just a few weeks ago Lizzie thought boys were icky, but now she was chattering about what she considered her ideal qualities in a boy (“kind and smart with red hair, tanned skin and enchanting green eyes”). My husband and I exchanged knowing glances. It was time for our next “talk”—and I needed to figure out what to say very soon. The thought of having a conversation about sex with my daughter disturbed me in an entirely new way. Those earlier chats didn’t have anything to do with her actually liking boys. Or even “like-liking” them.

“If you like-like a boy, you talk about him with your friends at sleepovers. If you’re really brave, you can even tell him,” she explained when I’d inquired what it meant to like-like someone. Lizzie then immediately added, “But we wouldn’t do anything romantic, like they did in the olden days.”

I thought back to my so-called olden days. I never would have chatted with my parents about boys. And definitely not about sex. Deep into my teen years, my female parts were just the anatomically ambiguous but geographically accurate “down there.” Requesting to have “the talk” with my mom would have implied that I had—or was thinking of having—sex. Instead, I blundered into it blindly, blissfully unaware of possible consequences: pregnancy, STDs, emotional attachments. What could happen seemed as real to the teenage me as the Tooth Fairy.

Unlike me, I want Lizzie to head into her teen years armed with information so she can make educated choices. And as terrifying as broaching the topic seemed, I decided I’d rather be uncomfortable and speak honestly than pretend I’m protecting her by staying silent on the subject.

So Lizzie and I snuggled together, bridged by the sex ed book I’d recently bought. Yes, we were both embarrassed by the pictures and the frank descriptions, but I soldiered on even as my voice quivered. At first I was glad I had the book to mask my unease, and then I was just glad to have something to stare at. Otherwise, I might have burst out laughing. Our conversation actually turned out to be pretty entertaining.

We flipped to a picture of a couple under a blanket. “You and dad don’t do that, do you?” I assured her we did. “I’m never going into your bedroom again!” She actually shuddered. I grinned, relieved I didn’t have to worry about Lizzie having sex anytime soon—or about her barging into my room unannounced. Now I had some privacy and peace of mind.

Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in The New York Times,The Washington Post, Real Simple, Parents and others. She is the author of the parenting memoir Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore.