Q&A with David Kesterton from sexual health charity fpa

David KestertonDavid Kesterton is parenting and community project manager at sexual health charity fpa (the Family Planning Association). He answered Mumsnetters' questions about talking to children about sex and relationships. 

Boys and respect issues | Gay sex | What information at what age | Peer-group pressure | Internet and pornography issues | The Speakeasy name


Boys and respect issues

Q. ByThePowerOfGreyskull: I have two boys, aged five and seven, and they both know generally how babies are made. (haven't gone into the more medicalised options). We are a very open family.

Having read on here so many stories of men treating women as objects to be manhandled at will, could you help with guidance on how to help them grow up into respectful men.

For some reason, some men don't feel that there is an issue with commenting, jeering, touching girls/women. There must be a way of helping a new generation of boys to grow up with a different attitude. And helping girls grow up knowing that unwanted groping is sexual assault and they don't have to put up with it.

Q. swallowedAfly: How do we actively teach boys about consent and respect? Society doesn't seem to have much interest, and pretty much eroticises force and submission and blurs the lines of sex and violence. How do we make sure we raise our boys to know active consent is vital and how to recognise when a girl is not comfortable?

A. DavidKesterton: Good points. I think this is a question most parents of boys ask at some point. I'd advise you to look for opportunities to demonstrate to your son how to value other people. Children are like sponges, they'll watch what's around them and build it into their DNA. Some Mumsnetters may have quite difficult families, which can make positive role modelling difficult. But talk it through and help your children think about what is good and unhealthy in different types of relationships. TV soaps you've watched together can be a good launch pad and there's a lot about it in the news at the moment, too.

Consent is a complicated area. But, ultimately, 'no' means 'no', and the power of no really does link to the rest of your parenting style. Think about when and what you put your foot down over? Do you give in, how often and why?

"Consent is a complicated area. But, ultimately, 'no' means 'no' and the power of no really does link to the rest of your parenting style."

Something that comes up again and again for parents is sex and violence in films, gaming and the internet. You can control what your kids watch at home (but you may not be able to at friends' houses, for example) so be ready to discuss it with them and friends' parents. Try not to over-react, but explain calmly why you think the game or DVD is demeaning and gives a false picture of sex and relationships between women and men.

Gay sex

Q. stretch: I have a nine-year-old daughter and over the past couple of months have been talking about sex/relationships. I am fairly open with her and try not to cringe (!) but last night we were discusing gay/lesbian relationships and she asked how men have sex and were do they put it. Now, I am not really embarassed, and I have been enjoying our 'chats' actually, but how do I explain this? My husband thinks we shouldn't be explaining anal sex yet and, actually, I agree. Can I add that I am not homophobic in any way, we discussed lesbian sex (not in great detail though), but I am unsure how to approach this.

A. DavidKesterton: It's great you've already introduced your daughter to the idea that love and sexual relationships happen with people of the same sex. You may feel uncomfortable (in my experience, the thought of having to explain anal sex to their child can leave even the most PC parent filled with horror) but children will hear about things like this and other things you wish they didn't.

Don't let embarrassment prevent you from talking about this or other subjects. Ultimately, your child will be grateful for the time and trouble you take. So you need to be ready to answer any questions and these might include 'where do they put it?'

Be direct. Say the penis goes in the bottom. Generally, children are quite matter of fact about bodily functions. At nine, your daughter may think anal sex is a bit disgusting because that's where poo comes out. How you follow that through depends on your parenting style. And remember it's not just gay people who enjoy anal sex. Many men and women express their feelings for each other this way.

Some Mumsnetters may come from cultures and faiths that have strict taboos about anal sex. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't discuss it. Whatever their background, kids need the same information - but you can do it in a way that's appropriate to you.

What to tell children about sex and relationships at what age

Q. Staircase: My eight-year-old stepdaughter recently came home from school telling me that she has learned all about sex from older girls in the playground. She said she was too embarrassed to talk about it with her mum and dad, who are in turn too embarrassed to talk to her about it, so I had a frank conversation with them both to find out what they were happy for me to discuss with her, and the conversation I had with my stepdaughter was comfortable and good-humoured. We are all keen that she not grow up uncomfortable or embarrassed about sex, indeed, to approach it as a fun adult activity to set upon when she is ready to do so.

However, there is one question that I can't keep a straight face to, let alone come up with a sensible answer to, and it is this: What's the most disgusting part?

A. DavidKesterton: Well done for taking the initiative. You've perfectly illustrated how children will learn about sex and relationships from any and every source – and why it's important as a parent to talk about the subject.

What's the most disgusting part? Well from the thousands of parents we've worked with over the years, the reaction from many young children to finding out that the penis goes in the vagina is a version of 'that's disgusting'. As we all know sex can be many things - funny, happy, painful, heartbreaking, joyous – and everything else that goes with it!

Keep the dialogue going with your stepdaughter, so you're helping her be prepared for a sexual relationship when she's older and she's ready.

Q. VenetiaLanyon: What is the ideal age to first discuss the topic of sex and relationships with your children? Is it better to instigate the discussion even if they have shown no interest in the subject, or wait until you've had an appropriate question from the child?

Q. LittleBlueBoat: I have a two-year-old and I'm pregnant with my second child. I have been thinking how to tell my son about the baby and what he needs to know. Is it possible to tell a child too much? How do you explain to a two year old where the baby is and how it gets into the world? I am very open about sex and I have no problem discussing it, but I'm struggling with what is age appropriate. I would prefer my son to learn from me and not children in school, but would it be wrong to explain babies to a two year old? Or would it be better if he knows from a young age from me and then open up the topic when he has questions later on? 

Q. casperthefriendlyghost: Another one here to find out if we broach the subject ourselves or wait for questions to arise. My eldest son is six, has seen me pregnant with his two siblings and despite the two home births, has not asked any questions, which I'm really stunned about. Also, do you have any book recommendations? I'm pretty sure he's going to want to 'see things' and I feel this will help enforce his understanding. I myself spent years believing that sperm jumped across the bed and want to avoid this sort of misunderstanding at all cost!

A. DavidKesterton: This is at the heart of what parents need most help with: what do I say at what age and how? The fpa thinks that around the age of six, children should be able to name parts of the body (including the vagina and penis) and know the basics about love and relationships. As well as giving them information they need, this also helps safeguard them by understanding what is appropriate and not appropriate touch.

But as you know, all our children are different. Some may have lots of questions. Others may not have any at all. Take your lead from your child, but also ask yourself who you'd rather your child learnt about sex and relationships from? You or stories from friends in the playground. The school will hopefully be doing sex and relationships education. You can complement this in the home. As a general guide, fpa has What at what age?

There are four practical things to remember:

  1. Little and often is better than one big talk
  2. Use everyday situations as a starting point
  3. Talk when you're doing something else (eg washing up, in the car)
  4. How you say something is just as important as what you say

fpa has written a book especially for parents: Talking to your children about growing up. It's available on our website. There are lots of excellent books for different ages of children that you can find. Try your library, bookshop or online.

"'Where do I come from, Mummy?' may not be about reproduction. The answer could be as simple as "Bradford".

Don't overdo it, small points are great. You're child will let you know when they've got the answer they need by switching the subject.

And, finally, "Where do I come from, Mummy?" may not be about reproduction. The answer could be as simple as "Bradford".

Q. Wurzelrubbish: As Christian parents, we have always told our six-year-old daughter that babies are a gift from God, and that God gives babies to couples to look after. We are very inclusive, and tell her that sometimes a Mum and Dad aren't married, or it could be two Dads etc. She has never asked how babies get into tummies (we have two younger sons so she has seen me pregnant and also waved me off to hospital to give birth) or how they get out etc. Should I wait for her to ask, or talk to her a bit more about it now? I don't want her to be ridiculed in the playground for lack of knowledge.

A. DavidKesterton: That's great. I think you've shown really well that faith isn't any barrier to talking to your children about sex and different types of relationships. I would encourage you to talk to her without waiting for her to ask. Use your pregnancies as a way to begin. This will also give you the opportunity to talk about your own faith and values and how those influence love, sex and emotions.

Q. nowyounglady: My daughter is 11 and starting secondary school in September. She is the youngest of two, but is around four years behind in terms of speech and language, cognitive development, but physically right on time. She has a statement.

She understands about sex and relationships, and I think I do the right thing in answering questions when they come up, but I worry about people taking advantage of her when she gets older. Currently, she plays with children about two or three years younger than her but she is very compliant and wants to please everyone (except me, of course). Is there anything I can do now to build up her resilience for the future?

A. DavidKesterton: This is an excellent point and you're absolutely right. Building up resilience is very important for all children. Here are some basics to help you:

  • Make sure she knows the difference between touch that's OK and not OK
  • If somebody touches her in a way that makes her uncomfortable, check she knows it's OK for her to tell them to stop and ask for help
  • Help her build up a strong sense of herself, who she is, what she likes, dislikes etc
  • Support her in keeping a range of healthy relatioinships with different friends

If you've not done so already, find out what your school is doing. The special needs department in your school will have resources to help you. And use the regular meetings with the school to review your child's learning plan and discuss how risks can be minimised.

Peer-group pressure

Q. Simic: How can parents work against peer-group pressure on teenagers to get into a sexual relationship as early as possible? How can parents help teenagers realise that there is the option of waiting with sex - and support teenagers to make their own choice?

A. DavidKesterton: Peer pressure and fear of being the only one in a group who hasn't had sex is a very powerful factor in leading some young people to experiment sexually before they are ready. In reality, most young people do wait until their older. Most young people don't lose their virginity until they're 16 and over.

"Most young people don't lose their virginity until they're 16 and over."

Any parent of a teenager (I'm a parent and step parent to four teenagers myself) will know that just telling them not to do something isn't a strategy that gets results. Good, honest, open communication and trust that's gradually built up will prove more successful over time.

Your children need to know why its best to wait and what sex and relationships are all about. Help them build self-esteem, self worth and ambition so they're less likely to be railroaded into something they don't want to do.

It's illegal to have sex under the age of 16. But if your child does, it's not the end of the world. Remember, they'll need you more than ever to talk about it and how they feel.

Internet and pornography issues

Q. innocentuntil: About a year ago I found my 12 year old was engaging in what can only be described as role-play sex on the internet. It is clear to me that abusers have bypassed legal restrictions by luring children into writing stories and then turning them into sexual encounters. They do this subtly and slowly and it happens on what might be described as educational websites.

We now have open passwords and keep a much closer eye on what is happening, but she has never had a chance to discuss this with anyone. I think she has been sexually abused but the authorities think that because it's not 'engaging' in a sexual act there is nothing they can do - we are not talking pictures or actions, it just happened with words. Even CEOP looked into it. But now the damage is done and she has lost her innocence. I wonder what you think about this? What can she do to restore her faith in adults? Is there anything I can do? How does this affect children in general?

A. DavidKesterton: Obviously I don't know the details, but that's a very unpleasant thing to happen. I do think it's essential your daughter gets the opportunity to talk about it. Your school or GP will be able to direct you to local counselling. And as it has been so upsetting, you might want to look at some support for yourself.

Children do surprise us with how resilient they are. Don't assume that she's lost her innocence. And try not to let this overwhelm everything else. What's important is that she rebuilds her trust and faith in people. She needs to have positive and healthy interaction and relationships with trusted adults. You can encourage this to happen by organising family activities with friends, and days out to start this off and make her realise most adults want the best for her. I wish you all the best.

Q. WhereamI: Prompted by a recent, somewhat shocked discovery that the history on a work laptop listed 'kissing willies', (turns out that our 10-year-old daughter was trying to further knowledge picked up from the playground), I went through the search myself to see what she would have accessed. TalkTalk offered a warning, then a choice of 'view non-adult content' or 'view adult content'. I clicked on the non-adult box, and up came a list of sites, one of which, having further clicked on it, showed a graphic photograph of a woman giving a man oral sex. Was surprised this was labelled 'non-adult' content.

Anyway, given the relatively free access kids seem to have to pornography from other children's mobile phones, I was wondering what your position is on the whole age/pornography issue is.

A. DavidKesterton: I can understand how you feel. Anxieties about internet safety and the misuse of social networking sites is one of the top concerns of parents today. For Mumsnetters just finding out about this, there's lots of advice about parental control settings, filters etc, along with reporting buttons online. As you've discovered though, this is a far-from-perfect solution.

"Many youngsters learn about sex, positions and anatomy from pornography. This is one of the reasons why fpa believes sex and relationships education should be statutory."

Many youngsters do learn about sex, positions and anatomy from pornography. This is one of the reasons why fpa believes sex and relationships education should be statutory. Kids want to know how things work. And if they're not given the correct information through traditional routes, they'll find it out for themselves.

Pornography gives very distorted messages about the reality of relationships, sex and the body. Most women don't have silicone breasts and most men don't have large penises.

I'd advise every parent to talk about things like consent, sexual pleasure and body image with their older children or teenagers. You can't control them 24/7, but you can help them understand that pornography is an industry. And it's not what sex and relationships are like in the real world.

The Speakeasy name

Q. everyspring: I'm a bit confused about the name. "A speakeasy is an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages. Such establishments came into prominence in the United States during the period known as Prohibition (1920–1933, longer in some states). During this time, the sale, manufacture, and transportation (bootlegging) of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States." (from: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speakeasy)

Q. Tee2072: I was also wondering about the name, due to it's Prohibition connection. I do understand that the point is to make it easy to speak to your kids, but the name may need a rethink.

A. DavidKesterton:  A quick PS: the Speakeasy name was actually chosen by parents when we first started the course in the 1990s.

Really interesting questions from Mumsnetters - thank you for taking part. 

Last updated: 7 months ago