Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: This week I was in a discussion with a bunch of other third-grade parents about what our kids know about sex. The vast majority of these parents said their children were “clueless” and they wanted to maintain their kids’ innocence. I was one of the few people who had even had conversations with my child about reproduction, consent and puberty.

Most were taking the “I’ll talk about it when my child asks” approach. I don’t go out of my way to raise this subject with my daughter, but I do look for appropriate opportunities to initiate these conversations. I don’t know that a child always knows how to bring these topics up.

We have talked about inappropriate touching and rape but also the fact that adults engage in certain activities because it feels good. We have discussed internet predators and the fact that I have an IUD and why. We’ve also talked about what she might feel when puberty begins. Have I jumped the gun?

Carolyn says: No, you did not “jump the gun.”

Kids are certainly not now and have rarely ever been “clueless” about what adults try to keep from them. Especially now that so many kids carry around the entire internet in their pockets.

And if you’re a parent who feels exempt because your kid doesn’t have a phone, or you’ve used all the parent controls, you’re not exempt. The filters are tissue paper and your phoneless kid mingles with phone-equipped kids every day.

And they rarely resist nosing into anything their parents treat as too embarrassing or taboo to talk about.

Please tell such parents their kids are absorbing information, they just aren’t asking adults. They’re learning from bus-stop Bobby with much-older siblings and checked-out parents.

Bryant Paul, an associate professor at Indiana University’s Media School, says in his research, “of those teens who report having seen porn at least once, one in three report first having seen it when they were 12 or younger.”

Denial is not the answer. Your approach is: Talk openly with kids about their world, early enough and often enough and unflinchingly enough that you set a precedent of being the safe place to bring difficult questions. It starts when they’re 2 or 3 and they ask you where babies come from — and instead of deflecting, you give facts commensurate with their ability to understand. Deborah Roffman’s books are excellent on how to do this.

Even then, kids may google more and ask less — but when parents apply diligence and openness, they can at least curtail what their kids feel they have to hide.

Another view

Re: Too Young:

Pre-internet, I was teaching first-grade Sunday school when something about sex came up from a 6-year-old. Many of his classmates had opinions before I could corral the discussion with “these are really good questions for your parents.” When I warned the parents, they were very surprised their kids had thoughts at all.

Carolyn says: Kids see the blanks and fill them in with their imaginations. Thanks.

 

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.