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Talking to Your Kids About Sex

Truth in Love 471

Biblical wisdom on shepherding your child on the topic of sex.

Jun 24, 2024

Dale Johnson:  This week on the podcast I have with me. Dr. Scott Mehl. Scott pastors Cornerstone Church of West LA. He’s the managing director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship, he’s a fellow with ACBC. He speaks and writes regularly on topics related to counseling and discipleship and he’s the author of Loving Messy People and his newest book Redeeming Sex in Marriage. Scott, I am grateful for you, brother, and looking forward to our conversation today.

Scott Mehl: Grateful for you too Dale. Thanks so much for having me. 

Dale Johnson: Thanks for writing this book, Redeeming Sex in Marriage. We’ve had a previous conversation on the book specifically and some of its contents but included in that you give an important piece on talking to our kids about sexuality. I want to explore that a little bit today. I’m thinking even personally to be transparent. I can remember with my oldest son being nervous as a dad and you know having six kids knowing my turn in all of this was coming and he’s 11. We’re thinking, my wife and I are contemplating like, okay like, you know, how are we going to engage this as the topics come up and so on and so forth and I remember like our context was a little bit different in that I just felt very compelled to go ahead and have conversations with him very early on.  Part of it was the impetus of the Obergerfell decision that happened in 2015 because I knew that was a moment that would change the landscape of sexuality in our country for a long time. And so I remember we took that afternoon when that decision went down and I started to explain to him some of the aspects of God’s design and how that in our country we were divorcing ourselves from those realities and trying to give him perspective on what the Bible says versus secular ideology, but we don’t need to go into all that, just a personal experience about what was an impetus for me with our oldest and now we have three kids at that age where we’re constantly engaging on that level.

So, I’m intrigued to hear how you’re going to describe some of this and there is always a question. When do we start? Is there a magic age, right? that we start talking to our kids about sex and listen, I’ll just say I teach about these realities publicly, and yet still, Scott, you can attest to this, it’s no less awkward than when your one-on-one with your child and you’re talking about some of these issues. Even though they’re very prevalent in the culture. So, okay, magic question: when should we start talking to our kids about sex? 

Scott Mehl: Oh man. I’ll tell you and I’ll confess as well, it’s easier to write a book on sex than it is to talk to your kids about sex, from personal experience. It comes with that tension and that difficulty. But the reality is, and this is where you spoke exactly to it, we need to take advantage of the opportunities that come up and there will be countless opportunities because the world is teaching our kids about sex. This is actually I think really important for us, it doesn’t matter how they are schooled it doesn’t matter if they go to public school or if they go to a Christian private school. It doesn’t even matter if they’re homeschooled. Our society’s fundamental secular worldview is so shaped by the sexual revolution that it is impacting how our kids view and think about sex. But not only that, but our kid’s fallen hearts are also shaping how they view sex, right? when a fallen heart that is bent in on itself discovers any source of pleasure. It instinctively uses it selfishly, right? And so even when they just discover sexual desire for the first time, their flesh instinctively uses it selfishly and they don’t need to be exposed to anything for that to happen.

I think as parents it’s our responsibility then to raise our kids with an understanding that is appropriate for each different age and stage of their development. That is why I love talking with people in our church about not having the talk, but about having the talks —plural—because it is inevitable. Part of what I think the pressure comes from us feeling the need to have “a talk” as if one conversation is going to be able to encapsulate all of it, but what we get then is just opportunities to instruct them at different stages in ways that are appropriate to their different stages to the different things they’re dealing with. What a six-year-old needs to know about sex is very different than what a sixteen-year-old needs to know.

To get to your question then, I do think that what a six-year-old needs to know, though, is more than nothing, right? This is why I encourage parents to begin having conversations about simply procreation. How babies are born and where babies come from, as early as six or eight years old. Again, that’s a little bit arbitrary, but it’s going to depend on your kids because it is going to depend on their questions. I say that because I think if we wait for puberty and have the conversation in response to puberty, we’re too late, right? They’re already experiencing things without any guidance from us, or if we wait for the questions that they have on the playground or at the park or at the school, then I think the guidance that I give to parents is talk early and talk often. A dozen five-minute conversations are far more profitable than any one sixty-minute conversation. I mean, you don’t want to talk to your kids for sixty minutes straight about sex. Your kids don’t want you to talk to them for sixty minutes straight up about sex, but they are going to have questions that we can answer in five minutes. Yeah, sometimes those five-minute conversations go deeper. They have additional questions, and you follow their lead in that. The general principles are I seek to be proactive and be persistent while recognizing that it takes real intentionality as a parent. I know it takes really intentionality for me. Like I said, I mean I wrote a book on the topic and sometimes that’s an icebreaker for the kids and like “hey, you guys want to talk about you know what I’m researching?” But it’s still you know, when I get home from work on a Thursday it’s not what I’m looking forward to doing and so we have to be intentional about it. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I like that intentionality and just paying attention to the things that your kids bring up or talk about. I mean, this can happen in a thousand ways. It can be you bring a baby brother or sister home. And so, the child starts asking questions. It could be you have a pet that is expecting puppies, or you know, maybe you live out on some sort of farm. I mean, you get the idea, right? where a kid is bringing their curiosity, and I try to say, especially at a young age is where you’re addressing a kid according to his curiosity where he asked questions. You’re not going to go into the sixteen-year-old discussion or even the fifteen-year-old, you know, fourteen-year-old discussion, but you’re going to answer the child according to their curiosity to build a biblical Godward framework orientation regarding the issues that he’s curious about and that is absolutely appropriate and healthy and I’ll just tell you I agree with you that that makes the discussion much easier when they get to you know, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen those stages of puberty where we need to go into a little bit more detail —very helpful. No magic number, but earlier, often. 

All right, so categories, right? So, what are some of those things that we should be talking to our kids about or teaching our kids? Because I would say yes like situations in life are going to bring up certain topics. We’re going to cover those things, but I do have sort of some ideas that I want to make sure by the time kids leave our house or when I know they will be tempted or confronted with certain things that I want to be able to have them prepared for. So, how do you think about that in terms of general categories that we need to give to our kids?

Scott Mehl: First of all, this just starts where the foundation here is just teaching them about God and life generally. They should be used to us grounding everything we want to teach them in a biblical worldview and in the word of God and if they’re used to that then it’s not strange for us to say, “Okay, yeah, we got questions about sex.” Like let’s talk about the Bible, right? Let’s go and so when we help them on because I mean honestly our sexual ethic doesn’t make any sense without a biblical worldview, right? It starts there in that sense, and I think from there I want to encourage parents to teach their kids about the theology of sex and then I think this is one of the things we skip over because we’re like, okay you got practical questions, you know, you got ethical questions, let’s jump there. But again, without a theology that answers the ultimate why questions, sometimes we just hand them rules that actually don’t sound all that compelling and they receive them and they’re like, okay, but man the answers I’m getting over at school sound a lot more compelling to me than these rules you are giving me.

The only way that they make sense is if we understand why God created sex and sexuality in the first place. And so that’s why I put this kind of appendix in as a part of this larger book on the topic because I want to not only teach adults about the rich theology of sex but empower them to teach their kids about the blessed purpose of sex and the essential purposes of sex, right? That it is a means of covenantal union, that it’s a means of mutual pleasure, that it’s an expression of marital love and even that it’s something that points to Christ and the church. I want to both understand that and then entrust that to my kids. 

So, first of all is the theology of sex, we also need to not simply stay in the theological, but we need to be the source that teaches them about the anatomy of sex as well. These kids will inevitably have a lot of questions about the logistics and if we only give them biblical and theological information, they’re going to go somewhere else for the specifics. Discussions about the anatomy of sex I think we know they carry with them worldview assumptions about sexuality and gender and I’ve learned this both from doing it well at times and doing it poorly at times, but I think one of the best things we can do for our kids is to be a trustworthy source of information. If they know when I have questions, when I’m confused, when I hear things on the playground… my parents are a trustworthy source that will tell me it straight and can help kind of clear the confusion and I think a lot of that confidence comes from being honest with them about the anatomy and about the logistics of sex and not avoiding it because we’re squeamish about talking with them about it. And again, in age-appropriate ways and in ways that match their curiosity like you said, but also with clarity and so the theology, the anatomy, and the third category that I also want to teach them ultimately the biblical ethics of sex.

What does God teach about how we are to please him and honor him and should live our lives sexually and so the sexual ethics flow naturally out of his God-ordained purposes, but we need to be the voice for that again, not entrusting that even to their Christian school or not just a trusting that to the church to do because you know, the Bible is going to be charged with being prudish or narrow-minded or even bigoted but that’s why if we’re a trustworthy source of information for our kids and really all those were discipling. I think that requires being equipped on controversial topics and being willing to talk with our kids about controversial topics. In fact actually, like you mentioned before, taking the rise of controversial topics in popular culture not as an opportunity to bash people or to tell people how dumb the world is which I think is sometimes our temptation to disciple our kids in our distaste or disgust for the world, but instead of kind of training them in that training to say, okay wait, let’s take this as an opportunity to look at what does God say and how is just what God say, how is that so much more beautiful and so much better and so much more glorious. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s really good. A lot of really helpful thoughts that we need to explore and what you just said as we think about this a little bit more there are always occasions that come up where our kids are exposed to things that sometimes man, I wish at that age they wouldn’t have been exposed to. When we think about that exposure to different things it could come for various reasons. It could come because somebody sins against them. It could come because they choose to go after something. It could be because someone introduced them to some idea at school or they saw some image. Maybe they were watching a film at somebody’s house or whatever, lots of different reasons why our kids could be exposed to different things and we try our best to try and sensor what they watch or what they see or what comes in but we have to remember the most dangerous thing about our kids in relation to any central temptation is themselves and not that we don’t pay attention to what impacts them —we certainly do! We have to guard against those that the Lord tells us to flee from, those types of lust, but we have to manage this appropriately.

As parents, help us to think about how we navigate when our kids are exposed to something that is sexual or even, you know, as they get older, and they fall into some sort of sexual sin. How do we navigate addressing those issues with them? 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, you said it well Dale. We start by thinking through proactively how we’re going to respond when we have to respond to sexual suffering or sexual sin in their life. Not just kind of crossing our fingers and hoping that they won’t and hoping we won’t ever have to have those conversations. It starts with expecting it, not in a way that doesn’t protect them from it and kind of leave it, but in a way that recognizes that’s the reality of our hearts and the reality of our worlds, and you know, I as I’ve thought about this and I’ve had so many I mean as a pastor, this is a question I get regularly from parents, but he’s a pastor with some older kids. Right? I just get questions all the time. What do I do? Like, what do I say? And I think there’s a lot of practical suggestions like we could give, like listening carefully before you speak or working hard not to be shocked or you’re asking follow-up questions or getting all the information. I mean, really, in a sense, kind of basic biblical counseling stuff, but I’m afraid that in that moment the last thing we need is a list of about a dozen things to do because we’re not going to remember any of them, we’re not going to pull out our notes and so to me the most helpful thing to tell parents and for me as a parent when those things have happened in my home is to just set my mind and my eyes on Jesus and asked myself, okay, if they had just confessed this or they just got caught or we just found this out, if Jesus was the one who caught them, if He was here, if Jesus was the one who exposed them. How would He talk with them? What would He say right now? And I know this is, you know; it could be trite, it can be simplistic, but man, because that moment is so charged as a parent with fear with disappointment with sadness with maybe even some shame, maybe even some regret. It’s charged with so many things that I’m tempted to respond out of my flesh and really out of a way that’s centered on me. That’s the one thing Jesus never did. He never responded in a way that was centered on Him. He responded in ways that were genuine love to people.

So how would He protect them in this moment? How would He assure them in this moment? How would He forgive them? There are so many different examples that we can meditate on, whether it’s Him with the woman at the well as He talked with her, and you come whether it’s Him with a woman caught in adultery. I mean, when somebody gets caught in their sexual sin, especially when one of our kids do, they expect us no matter how loving we’ve been, they expect us to grab a stone and pull our arm back. What does it look like to not condone their sin? That’s not what Jesus was doing with that woman but He conveyed to her in gentleness and patience the magnitude of His grace, the magnitude of His redemption, and His love and then in light of the power of His love and grace He invited her into sanctification. He invited her to sin no more, He invited her to live differently because of the grace she had received and so I wish I had a magic number for an age we could talk to our kids. I wish I had the magic script for when our kids come to us in those situations, but the thing that’s been most helpful for me in those situations in my home has been just to try to take a breath and set my mind on Jesus and live that out and manifest that towards them as well. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s very easy for us in our hurt in that situation and in our disappointment, maybe in our acceptance of our own failure in some way that we are reactionary to it, and we have to guard our heart in that way. I can’t say that that I’ve been perfect in that certainly. I wish I could, but I can’t say that. I think you hit the nail on the head and used a couple of examples that I think are really critical from a biblical perspective to show genuine Christian love, and what we mean by that is not unconditional acceptance of that failure. Right? Is I’m not condemning them for the action that’s taken place. We don’t condemn in that way, Jesus made that clear when He was dealing with the woman who was caught in adultery. Christian love is a warning that if you continue in this path, what it will lead to, and I think that’s a really critical distinction of what marks that which is pharisaical in a constant combination of the things that have happened versus an outlook biblically of okay, we can’t go back and change this we have to trust the forgiveness that the Lord gives but now there’s a warning moving forward as you mentioned go and sin no more. So, how do we help them to grow in that way to where we can guard their heart against future destruction that they may bring on themselves and recenter them back toward God, His kindness, His forgiveness. But then also the expectation of, you know, let’s walk in a way that is protective of the child in the freedom that the Lord has given us in this way.

All right, the final thing that I’ll talk about that I am curious about. This can be an awkward scenario on the other end of the spectrum, right? We were looking for this magic number at the front end. But what about on the back end of all of this? when do we say okay, my job with this child is done. When do I stop talking about these things, you know sexuality and whatnot with our kids? Is there ever a time that you just like, Man, they’re too old, this is super awkward. How do you think about that? 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, I think is such a helpful question because I do think that especially when we get we get into this like “having the talk” mentality, then maybe we have a couple of them early on, but then maybe we have a big one when they’re like 12 or 13 and then we like, you know, we wipe our brow we say “phew” I got through that now I don’t need to do that again, but that’s not reality. Like I said, it’s not parenting that’s not love and I think love never stops being a parent and so while kids in your life are undeniably going to need help and information and protection and grace in their elementary and middle school years, I don’t think there’s any graduation ceremony that promotes us beyond the need for them to have guidance and wisdom and even just somebody who’s checking in on the sexual area of their life.

Faithful parenting doesn’t neglect the topic of sex but instructs in age-appropriate and winsome ways that continue on to sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, when they’re in their 20s when they’re in their 30s. Just having a faithful parent that says, “Hey, look, I don’t know who else you’re talking with this about, but if we’ve gone on this journey together, we’ve talked about this topic dozens of times. So, in fact, I might actually be the most natural person to check in and say hey, how are you doing? You know, like, where are you struggling?” And I think that that’s just the manifestation of love that recognizes that this is a part of every human life and is an aspect of every human life; we were created as sexual beings and that just like all of us as adults, our kids don’t outgrow the need for sanctification and growth in this area for help.

Now again, as kids get older that’s not a license to be as pushy and to kind of push yourself in where they’re not interested to have you. It depends on the kid and depends on the relationship. But I guess in that sense, I just want to kind of push back against “the talk” mentality that kind of get over the hump and then I can kind of let the awkwardness determine my decisions when that’s never supposed to lead us right genuine love for our kids at any age is what leads us to care for them in the ways we do.

Dale Johnson: Scott, that has been so helpful. First of all, I appreciate your candor and your boldness to step into a topic that’s quite awkward for so many people but also recognizing a need and that many parents are asking that they want to engage your kids who just sometimes don’t know how to do this. Very helpful conversations, talking points, and issues that we need to be paying attention to. Good warning and good wisdom that you’ve given us to think about today and specifically in your book Redeeming Sex in Marriage. This is a part of the appendix, and I would encourage you guys to pick it up. Scott, thanks for helping us out today. 

Scott Mehl: Absolutely, thank you Dale.

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