Any eldest child will tell you it’s true: it’s older children who have to sit through “the talk” with parents, while younger siblings are spared that mortifying moment, instead relying on their older brothers and sisters to tell them about sex. And now, experts have found actual proof.
New research published in the journal Sex Education has found that birth order plays a major role in how children learn about sex – and that’s especially the case when it comes to boys.
[Read more: How to talk to your children about sex]
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) used data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), one of the largest scientific studies of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain.
They looked at 5,000 people aged 17 to 29 who were a mixture of oldest, middle and youngest children, and analysed their responses to questions about the involvement of their parents and siblings in sex education.
They found 48% of female and 37% of male eldest siblings said they had learned about sex from a parent – by comparison, 40% of female middle children and 29% of male middle children said they’d had “the talk”.
Youngest siblings, regardless of gender, were significantly less likely to say that a parent had been their main source of sex education. Instead, they were more likely to learn about sex from siblings.
Dr Lotte Elton, who led the research, told HuffPost UK: “It is possible that receiving sex education from a sibling, as opposed to a parent or another source [school] may have some effect that isn’t captured in this data. For example, it may make a child feel more close to an older sibling, or improve their self-esteem around sexual matters. These are questions for further qualitative research.”
Justine Roberts, Mumsnet CEO, previously told HuffPost UK that ideally parents should be telling their kids about the mechanics of sex by the age of 10 or 11. Meanwhile the NHS says: “If your child is asking questions about sex, they’re ready for truthful answers. It’s never too early to start talking about it.”
In September 2020, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) will be rolled out across schools in England. Wendy Macdowall, senior investigator from LSHTM, said the move will hopefully “eliminate the current RSE lottery” so that all young people can expect good quality sex education.
“But that doesn’t let us parents off the hook,” she added. “Young people tell us they want information from school and parents; schools need the support of parents and issues raised at school can be a useful starting point for discussions at home. It is important that we find ways that schools and parents can work together.”