©The classic picture of mothers and fathers sitting their children down for “the big talk” is losing its appeal with parents and psychologists alike. At the same time, heated debates about sexual education, and what we should and shouldn’t teach our children, are going on across the country.

Educating children on sex is a touchy topic, and it is not surprising parents can be stumped for words when it is time to sit the kids down for a conversation. This is why many professionals are recommending against the one ‘big talk’.

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Instead, “parents should be proactive (not aggressive) in teaching about sexuality, and approach it as an ongoing educational process,” says Dr. David McKenzie, a marriage and sex therapist in Vancouver, Canada and Washington State.

Not only how parents can best educate their children, but also when they should start is a common source of doubt, said McKenzie. This largely depends on the parent’s own comfort level and personal preferences, but current theories favor as young an age as possible.

“There is good literature, such as story books, out there for parents to read to their children at a very early age (as young a four or five years) where human sexuality is explored in very simple, child-like ways,” said McKenzie.

Sex education can really start at any time, he said. Parents with toddlers think they are off the hook for a few more years, but that hope may be squashed when junior comes up with some provocative questions. The key is to allow the child to set the pace, by answering their questions in an age appropriate manner.

“Don’t ignore questions from your child about sex, but do not give more information than the specific information they are asking for, unless of course that in order to answer their question another bit of info needs to be shared,” said McKenzie.

Parents often subconsciously close the door to open and honest discussion early on, he said. They do so with the best intentions by using “birds and bees” terminology, instead of using the correct words for each body part. Children will not be as comfortable asking questions about their bodies as they grow up, if parents do not give them the vocabulary to voice their concerns with. It is easy to assume using words such as “vagina” and “penis” equals complexity, but that is not necessarily true. Concepts can still be simplified and accessible to children while naming body parts by their real name, said MacKenzie.

An even worse strategy is not answering a child’s questions at all, he said. Every question is an opportunity to teach, and by passing up that chance, for whatever reason, will only teach the child that parents cannot be approached with questions or concerns regarding sexuality.

“The best educators of our children are their parents,” said McKenzie. “However, many parents themselves are ashamed or embarrassed about their own sexuality and at levels unaware to them are passing their shame onto their children.”

Parents can use the receptiveness and curiosity of pre-teens to their advantage by educating them then. Waiting until the child has grown into a teenager may leave parents with an unreceptive child who is trying to juggle peer pressure and parental guidance.