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At what age should I have 'the talk' with my child?

The question: At what time in my kids' life is it appropriate to have "the talk?" I want to protect them from the unwanted consequences of sex (pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections), but I don't want overload them with information too early and confuse them.

The answer: There is no perfect or single best time for "the talk." In fact, it should be a series of conversations you have with your child. I would say the ideal time to test the waters is before puberty starts. Obviously, it varies widely depending on the gender of your child or your cultural background.

Many parents assume that schools these days play a bigger part in teaching about sexual health. But it's not something you should delegate to educators, school nurses or a child's doctor. It's still your job to help your child understand.

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You're right in being concerned that a child who is not yet ready to learn about sexuality may be very uncomfortable to be "forced" into this conversation.

Modern-day society has pressed parents into dealing with this issue at an earlier age than ever. One reason has to do with media – young children now access information online in ways their parents may not even be aware of. Many TV programs geared toward early teens and tweens contain humour or drama with sexual tones. Prepubertal kids may view these shows before you've had the opportunity to fully discuss the topic. Parents may want to use these events as teaching opportunities.

The Teenage Body Book, by Charles Wibbelsman and Kathy McCoy, states how important it is to start with small steps first. Ask the child what he thinks of his own body and enquire if he knows about the risks of unprotected sex. (Some children know very well that it may lead to pregnancy. But many teen surveys show that some do not see oral sex as, in fact, sex; they also are unaware that oral sex may lead to STIs.)

A useful online resource for parents is Adolescent Sexuality: Talk the Talk Before They Walk the Walk on the healthychildren.org.

Send pediatrician Peter Nieman your questions at pediatrician@globeandmail.com. He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Peter Nieman.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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