In nearly every parent workshop, a parent confesses, “This all sounds good, and I know I should want them to come to me with questions, but I don’t want them asking about my sex life!” In some workshops, we generate a list of questions parents are afraid their kids will ask, and high on the list are:
- Have YOU had sex?
- How old were you the first time you had sex?
- How many people have you slept with?
- You and [other parent] don’t do that, do you?
Some participants hear this concern and announce, “Well, I would just tell my kid, ‘You can’t ask that!’” Others shrug and offer, “Well, I would just answer it.” Neither of these responses is wrong. It may be a value in your family that it’s not acceptable to ask people questions like those listed above; or it may be that your family regularly discusses topics like these. However, there is another option: ask for more information about why they are asking and what they really want to know.
What many parents don’t realize in the moment is that, in most cases, their child is not actually asking a personal question. When a kid asks their parent, “Have YOU had sex?” they are often not asking for a “yes” or “no” (or an “Um, uh, let’s talk about it later…”). Instead, they are asking a completely different question. This “question behind the question” could be any number of things, depending on your child and what is happening in their life. Some possibilities include:
- Is it normal to have sex?
- Does everyone have sex?
- Should I have sex?
- Do all parents have sex?
- Is it true, what my friend said, that all adults have sex?
- Is what my friend said true, that everyone has sex by the time they are 15 (or 18, or 25, etc.)?
We don’t know what our kids are hearing from their friends, what misinformation is being spun as truth, and what youthful expectations are being sold as requirements. And our kids often don’t know how to start these conversations – so they ask you, their caregiver, to help them find the answers. The thing is that kids also don’t always know how to ask – so it comes out as a personal, and potentially intrusive, question.
When they ask, “How old were you the first time you had sex?” they might be seeking verification about a rumor that “Everyone has done it by the time they start high school,” or maybe they are looking for information to back up what a friend said: “It’s okay to wait until you’re ready.” There are so many possibilities behind each question – but most of these questions are not looking for the actual truth of your life and experience.
If you get a question like this, the first thing to do is validate the question
(“Thanks for asking.” or “I’m glad you came to me with that.” or even just, “Oh, interesting.”). It may be true that you are, in fact, not
pleased that they are asking you that specific question – but maybe you are pleased that they see you as a resource. This is your chance to tell them that you value that they are turning to you. Then, ask what it is they are asking
. There are a lot of ways this can sound. Some options are: “What brings that up for you?” or “What made you think of that?” or “Tell me more about why you’re asking.” Or “It sounds like this has been on your mind. What’s going on?”
Next, once you have more information, it’s time to answer the question. Maybe the fact that you provide in response to “How old were you the first time you had sex?” is “People are a lot of different ages when they have sex for the first time.” Lastly, share whatever your value is around this topic: tell them what is important to you when they are considering this question for themselves.
If you Google “how to answer intrusive questions,” several sites come up with suggestions about “staying graceful,” “minding manners,” and generally responding to someone in your life who would “dare to ask such a thing.” But this is not the same way to respond to your child, who is turning to you to learn how the world works. Instead of “repaying the offense with a curt response” or “caving in,” as some of these resources suggest, take a deep breath and, using the steps outlined above, answer the question your child is really asking.