Lucy Kebbell thought she was doing everything right by her two daughters. She'd always answered their questions honestly, she'd bought some books and she'd even been to a seminar on how to talk to kids about sex. Even so, it was a huge shock when she discovered that her younger daughter had been doing some investigations on her own.
"When she was 6 she was having a playdate with her 5-year-old cousin and the two of them were under a blanket with an iPad," Kebbell says. "I thought they were watching Charlie and Lola, but the next day my older daughter went to use the iPad for something and found lots of pictures of people having sex. I burst into tears, but it was also sort of hilarious — when I went back through the search history they had Googled "giraffe potos [sic]", "is Elsa pregnant" and then "real sex potos".
Kebbell, a Wellington corporate services manager, admits she was completely blindsided by the discovery.
"I felt so awful because I was supposed to be so attuned to what was going on. I'd been focused on my older daughter and making sure she was getting the right information, but I hadn't thought the younger one would be interested too."
Kebbell's experience shows that talking to kids about sex hasn't become any easier, even if you're a liberal-minded parent who thinks they're down with the topic. The internet may have all the answers but if you want to direct its unfiltered flow of (too much) information, you're going to have to step up. But when? And how? And won't your kids know it all anyway?
Robyn Fausett, who now helps parents and schools teach sexuality education, knows what it's like to be kept in the dark.
Fausett, the director of sexuality education consultancy Nest, received very little useful information on puberty or sex from either home or school when she was growing up in the UK.
"In our biology text book the pages related to anything deemed 'sex ed' had been neatly removed in all except four of the books, so we crowded around those and listened to a very awkward teacher briefly run through how an egg and sperm meet," she remembers.
"In religious education classes we were taught by a priest who told us 'romantic behaviour' was for within a marriage only and marriage was solely for the procreation of children.
"Fortunately I had access to a library ... I think Judy Blume may have been my leading source of sex ed."
Fausett, who went on to specialise in women's health and fertility nursing, firmly believes that sexuality education should be seen as a life skill that is taught at home and school. She says there's no right or wrong way to talk to your kids about sex, but ongoing conversations are preferable to an awkward one-off chat.
"Honest, concise answers to the typical question of 'where do babies come from?' will usually suffice for young children — 'babies grow in a special place in Mummy's tummy called a womb' will normally be all that a 4-year-old wants to know," she says.
"As children get older further questions can be met with the same factual and honest approach. Answer questions on a need-to-know basis, using language that you want your children to use."
Fausett says the extent to which topics are discussed should depend upon the maturity of the child, and the presence of older siblings or cousins. "Ideally the information they receive at home will be in advance or in keeping with what may be delivered at school."
She has always told her own children, who are now in their early 20s, that no conversation is off-limits.
"One of my children is always happy to talk frankly and the other found it easier to read and ask questions after. It was quite different tackling sexuality with my special needs child — obtaining good visual resources was a must, as was repetition and simplicity."
Sexuality education is a compulsory part of the New Zealand health and physical education curriculum that schools must deliver in Years 1-10. Schools are expected to follow guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education in 2015, and consult with their communities at least every two years.
Raymond Chave, who teaches at Evans Bay Intermediate School in Wellington, says the guidelines are open to interpretation by schools depending on the needs of their community.
"With Years 7-8 it's usually done in a two-year cycle and you talk to the community about their needs, and have big discussions with the staff about the approach you'll take. In every school I've been in we have an evening for parents to talk to them about what we will be doing. About one per cent of parents decide they don't want their children to take part, for a range of reasons, and we have to respect that."
Chave, a father of two pre-teens, says the broader focus of today's sexuality education means they cover wellbeing, relationships, consent and managing stress as well as the biological processes.
"Kids used to be split into boys and girls, but now you talk about the changes that happen to both. Usually half the class will be not ready and they'll be very vocal because they're embarrassed. The other half will be really interested in learning, but they'll keep quiet because they're embarrassed about wanting to learn."
He says it's a vast improvement on the sex education he received when he was at school.
"Now it's more about influences, good choices and relationships, and I think it's working. I feel like this generation of kids is almost more responsible."
Mahia Bennett, who has two daughters aged 14 and 28, says today's kids might think they know all the answers, but still they love to make their parents uncomfortable.
"If they haven't looked it up on the internet already they just might want clarification, or to make you squirm," she laughs. "If you did try to tell them, they would say, 'You're so old-fashioned, how would even you know? You're so old those things didn't happen in your day and they certainly wouldn't be happening now, yuck!'"
Bennett, who lives in Opotiki, says she started teaching her daughters about their bodies from a young age, just as her mother did with her.
"With Maori, all body parts are tapu, especially females', so you teach them from very young so it's no big shock when they go to school. That stuff is just part of life. It's the same as teaching kids that your body parts are precious to you and whoever will be your partner later, so they understand that they're not to be taking photographs and putting them on Facebook, because there's nothing sacred about that."
Bennett says she's always been "blatantly honest", but was happy not to be the sole source of information.
"Trust me — your daughters will have a hissy fit if you try to talk to them about things like using tampons. It's better to leave that to their friends.
"I did put the fear of God into them though — I did say to them, 'Don't even think about getting pregnant before you're 30 because I'm not looking after your baby.' As a mum, you have to think of everything."
Bennett says she has always told her children that they can talk to her whenever they want.
"There would be nothing worse than something bad happening and a kid being too scared to tell you."
Lesley-Ann Guild, health promotion area manager for Family Planning New Zealand, says having conversations about sex is far easier if they start early.
"We tell parents that sexuality education is a bit like the road code. You don't wait until your child is about to get behind the wheel of a car before you teach them the road code — even when they're just riding their bike on the footpath or learning to cross the road they need to understand enough to keep themselves safe."
Guild says a building block approach takes the pressure off.
"It's really good to give them little pieces of information that build up the idea that it's okay to talk and it's okay to ask questions. The other benefit of doing it like that is that if you don't say something in the way that you want them to remember it, you'll get lots of opportunity to talk about it again."
She says the "game-changing" presence of the internet means it's even more important to reassure children that they have trusted adults to talk to.
"We recommend that parents say, 'If you are curious, I'd really like you to come to me so we can talk about these things together. The stuff you might see online won't tell you the truth and some of it you might not want to see.' That's not saying sex is gross, it's acknowledging that young people can find some of those images distressing."
It's a good idea to remind your kids of offline sources too, such as the local library.
"Librarians are amazing people. Have a chat to them, then pop in and explore with kids — remind them that there are other places to find information. If you do want to use the internet, it's a good idea for parents to do some research first, then keep their Safe Search settings high."
Guild suggests being "honest, not explicit" if you're suddenly surprised by a direct question.
"If you have a child who comes to you and says, 'What's a blow job?', you have to remember that if you don't give them that information then they might go off and google it. Giving them a simple answer like 'mouth on penis' gives them the information they need without getting into too much description. For a lot of young people, especially in the younger age group, the reaction will be, 'Oh gross!' In that case, you can say, 'That's okay, you never have to do anything you don't want to do.' You get to put a lovely consent message in there but you've given them the information and shown them that they can come to you. They don't have the vulnerability of not knowing when people are talking and laughing at school, or asking them to do something when they aren't sure what it is."
If the child is very young, it's okay to give them an answer like, 'That's something adults can choose to do together and you'll learn more about that when you're older,' Guild says. You can also tell the child you're going to have a think about it so you can give them the best answer you can.
"Don't ignore it, don't sweep it under the carpet, just give yourself time to think about how you will handle it. If you find it embarrassing: talk while you're doing other things, so you're not having to sit down and look at each other."
Whenever and however you choose to tackle the topics, Guild puts in a final plea to focus on the positive.
"Sometimes when we talk to young people we're often so worried about the things that might happen that could be challenging that we forget to give them positives to shoot for. Talking about what you want for them is a fantastic thing to do. Tell them, 'I want you to be able to make decisions based on what you feel is right for you. I want you to have a healthy, respectful relationship with someone who treats you like the amazing person you are.'"
WHAT AND WHEN TO TELL YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX
Lesley-Ann Guild, health promotion area manager for Family Planning New Zealand, offers the following guidelines for families:
0-2: Teach the common names for parts of the body: "If you've got 15 different names for a penis but only one for an elbow, it can make you feel that a penis is strange. It's really important not to give them the message that certain parts of the body are shameful or dirty."
Parents can also start to role model the concept of consent, such as respecting the boundaries of a child who doesn't want to kiss someone goodbye.
3-4: Introduce the concept of keeping some parts of the body private in public: "This creates the basis that you have control of your own body, which is good for consent messages later on but it also helps them feel confident about their bodies."
If they are curious about where babies come from, Guild says it's good to share the awe that a baby is growing in someone's tummy — you may not need to go into detail about how it got there.
5-8: Teach kids about friendship, respect and communication: "Sexuality education is about how we treat other people and how we expect to be treated, not just about body parts and sex. When your kids are this age, concentrate on helping them learn how to treat others with respect, what to do when other people are not treating them with respect, and how to cope with and manage their feelings."
Some kids (and parents) may enjoy reading an age-appropriate non-fiction book about the different stages of pregnancy development.
Some families may be ready to discuss puberty at this age — it's a good idea to include what happens to both genders.
9-12: Keep up the messages about positive relationships, friendships and communication, while introducing more information about the mental, emotional and physical changes of puberty and how it links to the reproductive system and pregnancy, Guild says.
"This is a good time to start talking about peer pressure and decision-making and equipping with them with the tools they need. It's about recognising that it's not enough to tell them to 'just say no', because saying no is a skill. If they haven't been allowed to say 'no' to Gran's pumpkin soup because they don't like it, then suddenly saying no to someone you might really like for something quite personal can be quite hard."
13 and onwards: Some kids may think they know it all by now, but you can still have good conversations about consent, respect and the consequences of sex, including sexually transmitted infections, contraception, and where to go for help.
"It's never too late to start, but if you do it little and often it takes some of the embarrassment out of it and helps build trust.
"It might be helpful to include some delay messages — that sex is supposed to be a good and positive experience for everyone involved but that's not guaranteed and it's more likely to be if we wait until we're really ready and able to look after ourselves and our partners."
This article was first published on NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.