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Q. What is the best age for talking to girls about sex? My daughter is 11 years old and she's beginning to ask questions. I know I need to give her some specific answers, but I'm not sure how deeply involved I should get. For example, is now the time to discuss STDs and birth control? Or should I focus on the act itself and abstinence?
A. Yes, it's time to talk to your 11-year-old daughter about sex. In fact, since the day she was born, you have been providing her with information through your body language, attitude, and values about the topic. The minute she touched your face and then her dad's, heard your voice compared to his, she's picked up on messages about the differences between men and women. If you've had an open-door bathroom policy she's learned even more.
Even if you haven't come right out and told her how babies get started, that humans engage in recreational sex, that some people have sexual encounters casually before marriage, but for most people a sexual relationship involves a commitment and is a powerful emotional exchange between two people, she's been picking up various messages related to sex issues her entire life.
Even if you've sheltered her from blatant sexual acts in movies and TV, she knows something about procreation. Unless you've homeschooled her, she's heard or overheard schoolmates bring up the topic or watched couples display affection in public. She knows that something private goes on between couples beyond hugging, holding hands, and kissing.
When you begin to talk about sex, do so in bits and pieces. You don't need to tell it all in one sitting. Go to the library and check out a number of books on the topic that are appropriate to your child's age and maturity level. Consider also where your daughter is on her road to puberty. If her body still resembles a little girl's, you might consider one type of book. If she's beginning to develop breasts, another more advanced book might be more appropriate. Read these books yourself. Then, along with your sex talk, offer the books you think she will relate to best.
Also contact the school. They have a curriculum that they will be presenting to their fifth- or sixth-graders. Read through the information, which is often mostly about the biology of sexuality. You'll need to add to the curriculum your insights, opinions, and clarifications.
There's no perfect way to begin, and there's no exact progression. If you say something absurd or inaccurate you can always readdress the issue or correct yourself later. Opening up the discussion, no matter how clumsy or awkward you feel, is what's critical. Whatever you say, you will sift through your value and belief system. She needs to understand that you're her true source of sexual information.