Can Sex Educators Make “The Talk” Less Scary?

When an inquisitive first grader asks where babies come from, are parents comfortable answering the question? When a teen enters his first serious dating relationship, can parents provide accurate information?


Parents are a child’s first sex educators. They teach by modeling behavior and communicating the family’s values (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). An open dialogue yields benefits through adolescence. Communication between parents and teens delays first sexual intercourse, increases contraceptive use, and strengthens boundary-setting skills (Weekes, Haas, & Gosselin, 2014). Parents are also a valuable ally for the school-based sex educator; including them in curriculum development gives them a stake in the program’s success (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).

Open dialogue yields benefits through adolescence

The literature offers numerous reasons why “the talk” is challenging. El-Shaieb & Wurtele (2009) documented hesitation about certain topics. They found some issues – like masturbation and nocturnal emissions- parents simply did not want to touch. Some parents cited a lack of role models; their parents did not talk to them about sexuality so they are not comfortable doing it themselves (Wilson, Dalberth, Koo, & Gard, 2010). Finally, parents wondered how to initiate the conversations and answer questions (Kesterton & Coleman, 2010; Weekes et al., 2014).

Interventions increase self-efficacy

To address these concerns, there are educational interventions designed to improve parent-child communication. For example, Detroit-area researchers Weekes, et al., (2014) gave parents of African American sons aged 8-13 a multimedia kit including three at-home lessons with activities. One included naming the parts of male and female reproductive anatomy using the correct terminology. Another activity used flash card prompts to generate discussion. Used over a three week period, this intervention increased parents’ self-efficacy.

Use teachable moments as conversation starters

Kesterton & Coleman (2010) evaluated a classroom-based parent education program in the United Kingdom called Speakeasy. A series of weekly two-hour courses spread out over two months, the program increased parents’ comfort with their own sexuality and discussing sexuality-related topics with their children. Taught by trained facilitators, sessions included activities like role play, collage, and timeline exercises. After taking the course, parents found it easier to use teachable moments as conversation starters. They also gained confidence in their ability to answer sexuality-related questions.

Developing Interventions

As demonstrated above, parents benefit from interventions. How can we, as educators, craft effective and engaging lessons to give parents the confidence to seize teachable moments? Knowles, Holton, & Swanson (2012) suggest adults learn best in experiential environments. Experiential learning engages participants in the areas of affect, skills, and knowledge. The authors also stress the importance of incorporating learners’ lived experiences into educational interventions. Below are examples of what this might look like in practice.

Affective Learning

Affective learning encourages participants to explore their attitudes (Knowles et al., 2012). Parents should explore their feelings about sexuality, clarifying what makes them uncomfortable and how their values shape parent-child communication (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).

What lessons did they learn the hard way?

This population could brainstorm about what they wish they had been told about sexuality when they were young. What lessons did they learn the hard way? What information could they have used as adolescents? If the instructor writes these on a board at the front of the room, the parents will have a visual aid when discussing the similarities and differences between their responses. By bringing lived experiences into the classroom, this sort of brainstorming could drive home the importance of sex education.

Knowledge Acquisition

Despite the importance of affective learning, sexuality education requires understanding a good deal of factual information, everything from reproductive anatomy to contraceptive techniques. According to Silberman & Auerbach (2006), lecture may be easy for the instructor, but it is the least effective technique for the adult learner.

Make learning facts interactive

An experiential technique similar to what Silberman & Auerbach (2006) call a jigsaw can make learning facts interactive. As an example, parents could be divided up into small groups. Each group would be asked to develop expertise on, say, one contraceptive technique. They would also be instructed to devise a set of circumstances where their assigned contraceptive is the best choice. Each small group then presents its results to the class. Since lack of information is a hindrance to parent-child communication (Kesterton & Coleman, 2010; Weekes et al., 2014), this activity helps remove one more barrier.

Skills Development

After the previous lessons, parents should understand the importance of sexuality education and have command of the facts. Now, parents can learn how to use these components in the real world. A semiprescribed role play is a good option (Silberman & Auerbach, 2006).

Practicing difficult conversations may make the real thing a little less intimidating

Continuing the above example, parents could be divided into pairs and given a prompt. The prompt would be a question about birth control from the perspective of an adolescent. One participant would play the parent, the other a curious teen. This exercise could to generate embarrassment or discomfort. Role plays allow the learner to work through those feelings in a safe environment (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). After the role plays, the group would reconvene to process their experiences. Practicing difficult conversations may make the real thing a little less intimidating.

Parents avoid difficult conversations for many reasons. Experiential learning exercises like the ones cited above may increase parents’ willingness to discuss sexuality with their children. Given these conversations’ positive impact, sexuality education professionals should do all they can to encourage them.

Sex Education For Parents:

Speakeasy – United Kingdom

Parents Sex Ed Center – Advocates for Youth



El-Shaieb, M., & Wurtele, S. (2009). Parents’ plans to discuss sexuality with their young children. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 4(2), 103-115. doi:10.1080/15546120903001357

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Kesterton, D., & Coleman, L. (2010). Speakeasy: A UK-wide initiative raising parents’ confidence and ability to talk about sex and relationships with their children. Sex Education, 10(4), 437-448. doi:10.1080/14681811.2010.515100

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (2012). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resources development. (7th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Silberman, M., & Auerbach, C. (2006). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Weekes, C., Haas, B., & Gosselin, K. (2014). Expectations and self-efficacy of African American parents who discuss sexuality with their adolescent sons: An intervention study. Public Health Nursing, 31(3), 253-261. doi:10.1111/phn.12084

Wilson, E., Dalberth, B., Koo, H., & Gard, J. (2010). Parents’ perspectives on talking to preteenage children about sex. Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health, 42(1), 56-63. doi:10.1363/4205610

5 responses to “Can Sex Educators Make “The Talk” Less Scary?

  1. This is such an important topic to tackle and I think the ideas you lay out here are incredibly useful. I had not thought about the cyclical nature of teaching sex ed – that if you didn’t have that modeled for you by a parent, you are less likely to provide the education *as* a parent.

    I wonder what the success rate is for programs that trained parents to teach about sex that they can study and implement at home – such as the Detroit intervention that you cite – vs. a program that would require parents to attend workshops or classes outside of their home.

  2. I think the role-playing exercises are a great way for parents to become more comfortable with hearing certain questions being asked so that they won’t be as shocked when the questions do come out of their children’s mouths. I wonder if it would be possible to implement the UK’s Speakeasy program in the U.S. because I think it would be beneficial to parents here too in becoming more comfortable with their own sexualities and talking about sexuality-related questions. Great post!

  3. Wonderful post! I could not agree with you more about the need for parental involvement in the sexual education of youth. In fact, the reason many parents want an increase in sex education in the public schools is because they do not know how to effectively guide their children in and around this topic (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). While the role of the professional educator is important, parents are the first step in developing a child’s values and their perception of the world (Bruess & Schroeder, 2014). If we begin to educate parents about educating their children, imagine what a sexually healthy world we could have in just a few short generations. Meaningful conversations about sexuality would be the status quo if everyone grew up in a household where parents and children were comfortable with these discussions. Well done!

  4. I loved some of the samples that you gave of successful education for parents, like the Speakeasy. I know problems like a parent not being able to talk to a child about sex is big, and teaching them the tools to have a conversation is also big, I am among the people that believe that there should be more than one conversation. Instead, there should be numerous small conversations instead of one big conversation that might come too late. Like you said, use those teachable moments to have lots of little talks instead of one big one.

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