Talking with your kids about sex can be uncomfortable, but it's not something you can afford to neglect. Yes, they can pick up pieces of information during sex-ed class at school or during a church youth pastor's talk on abstinence. They'll likely hear more from their peers and try to make sense of it all themselves.

But no one can replace you as the greatest influence in their lives. Only you, as an involved and loving parent, can give them the best guidance to successfully navigate the maze of information. Making the effort to talk openly with them about sex is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids. Otherwise, they may easily join the majority of kids in today's society who have sex before age 21 and have to deal with disease, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and heartbreak.

Here's how you can effectively talk with your kids about sex:

Remember how you felt when you first learned about sex. Think back to what it was like for you to learn about sex for the first time. If your parents answered your questions honestly and often, how did that help you? If your parents left you with unanswered questions, how did that stress and uncertainty harm you? Decide that you want to do what's best for your own kids.

Realize that sex education is more than just a one-time talk. Forget about sitting them down for a major "birds and bees" talk with an anatomy book in hand. To be effective, you need to nurture a close, ongoing relationship with your kids that motivates them to talk with you about sex whenever they have questions. As they ask questions over the years (likely beginning way before puberty), you should be prepared to answer them in age-appropriate ways and engage in meaningful discussions with them.

Don't make a great thing seem bad. Remember that sex itself isn't sinful; it's only the misuse of sex that's sin. Emphasize that sex was God's idea, and that He created it to bring great joy to people who use the gift the way He intended - within marriage between a man and a woman. Understand that your children are sexual beings from the day they're born, and that the changes they go through during puberty as they mature are normal and positive changes. Help them accept and embrace the wonderful way God created them.

Develop confidence. Do research to get accurate facts on sexuality. Practice how you plan to answer your kids' questions when they come up. Know that you can overcome your lack of skills and knowledge to successfully help your kids in this crucial area of their lives. Ask God to give you the confidence you need.

Set your kids up for success. Help your kids develop the character traits they'll need to be good stewards of their sexuality. Work with them to build patience, self-control, integrity, and responsibility in all aspects of their lives. Help them develop foresight, gain mastery over their feelings, and respect God's authority. Then when they encounter sexual temptation, they'll be equipped to respond in the right way.

Use proper anatomical terms. Don't use euphemisms to describe body parts like a penis and a vagina. Understand that refusing to use the proper terms will only convey that you're embarrassed about the bodies God has created. Pray for the peace to be able to overcome whatever embarrassment you have. When appropriate, use humor to defuse embarrassment when you're talking with your kids.

If you engaged in sex before marriage, don't avoid the subject with your kids. Don't neglect discussing the importance of waiting until after marriage to have sex, even if you didn't follow that advice yourself. If you were a virgin on your wedding night, explain why you're glad you waited and how God blessed you and your spouse as a result. But if you weren't, explain (without divulging extensive details) that your mistakes caused you unnecessary pain that you want your own kids to avoid.

Help them feel close to you and connected to your family. Realize that kids need to feel loved, and to have a strong sense of belonging. Don't leave your kids trying to fill those needs through sexual relationships. Affirm your love for them on a regular basis, and let them know their place in the family is valuable. Make the time and space in your life that you need to build close relationships with each of your kids.

Eliminate unnecessary activities from your family's schedule. Take them on dates to do fun things together regularly. Talk with them in the morning before your day begins and in the evening just before bedtime.

Show your kids that you're open. Let your kids know that you are always open to answering any question from them. Show them your interest and transparency through your facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and body language.

Model sexual purity for your kids. Recognize that the way you live your life is the most powerful sex education lesson your kids will ever receive. If you're a dad, show how you remain faithful in marriage and treat women lovingly and respectfully. If you're a mom, demonstrate your marital faithfulness and treat your husband well.

Don't forget your opposite-sex children. Understand that daughters need their dads to give them the male perspective on sex, and sons need their moms to give them the female perspective. Give your opposite-sex children just as much attention as you do the ones who share your gender.

Teach them to resist peer pressure. Help each of your kids learn how to become his or her own person rather than defining themselves by their peer's reactions to them. Encourage your kids that they are each one-of-a-kind originals who are deeply valued by God. Motivate them to stand up for their convictions.

Set healthy boundaries. Set appropriate boundaries of modesty for what your kids are allowed to wear, and teach them that this is an important part of respecting their bodies. Set boundaries on the types of media your kids are allowed to watch or listen to, and explain that it's an important part of respecting their minds. As your kids show you that you can trust them to make wise decisions, give them more personal freedoms and responsibilities.

Make your home the center of your kids' activities. Whenever possible, have your kids spend time at home. Before you allow them to go out, make sure you know exactly where they will be going and who they will be with. Get to know their friends (and their friends' parents) well.

Keep puppy love in perspective. Remember that puppy love is a common part of growing up. Don't make more of it than it is, and guide your smitten kids into healthy friendships that will keep them from putting too much emphasis on a crush.

Make your kids your heroes. Let your kids know what specific talents and character traits you admire about them. Catch them doing something right as often as you can. Say, "I believe in you," "I trust you," and "I think the best of you." Then they won't be nearly as likely as some other kids to seek adulation through a sexual relationship.

Focus on each kid's emotional - not chronological - age. Realize that each child is different. Understand that each of your kids may have different paces at which they're emotionally ready to hear and absorb information about sex. Don't give them more information than they can handle at a certain age, but don't withhold information simply because you don't want them to grow up - they will, and there's no stopping it.

Use common household items to illustrate your points. Understand that kids learn best with concise information presented in a few sentences, with concrete, hands-on illustrations. Whenever possible, use an object to show what you're talking about (such as an almond when describing the female ovary).

Get feedback from your kids. Have your kids respond to what you've told them so you can know whether or not they've understood what you've said. If they haven't, clarify your points.

Use your experience to help foresee potential problems. Be on the lookout for suspicious situations and unhealthy relationships in your kids' lives. Add the benefit of your life experience to your kids' naïvete.

Wrap all conversations in the right context: marriage. Whenever you're discussing sex, emphasize that it's designed to take place only between a husband and wife. Stress how wonderful sex is between two people who have made a lifetime commitment to each other, and mention how awkward, painful, and disappointing it is between those who have not made such a commitment.

Teach your kids good physical habits. Help your kids learn how to properly care for their bodies by keeping them clean and fit. Teach hair and skin care, and proper oral hygiene to deal with the changes their bodies will go through during puberty. Encourage them to eat a healthy diet and get the right amount of sleep and exercise. If they respect their bodies, they'll be less likely to abuse them through illicit sex.

Help your kids buy the supplies they need. Go with them to the store. Explain to your daughter how to choose her first pads and bras. Help your son buy his first jockstrap and athletic cup.

Don't avoid the subject of masturbation. Understand that masturbation is a common practice among teens. Know what you and your spouse believe about it, and why. Be able to clearly explain this to your kids, but don't make it a bigger issue than it is.

Focus on biology when discussing intercourse. Keep the focus on how the male and female bodies work and how babies are formed. But also be sure to emphasize how sacred the act is.

Build the kind of marriage your kids will want to enjoy someday. Work on developing a strong marriage to provide an incentive to your kids. Motivate your kids to wait until marriage to have sex so that they can enjoy the kind of romance they see you and your spouse modeling for them.

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Adapted from A Chicken's Guide to Talking Turkey with Your Kids about Sex, copyright 2004 by Dr. Kevin Leman and Kathy Flores Bell. Published by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1-800-9-BOOK-IT, www.zondervan.com.

Dr. Kevin Leman is the founder of  MatchWise.com and the best-selling author of 25 books on marriage and family. A master communicator, Dr. Leman is a frequent guest on numerous radio and television shows such as The View, Oprah, Today, CNN, and Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. He and his wife, Sande, live in Tucson, Arizona, with their five children.

Kathy Flores Bell is the cofounder of Carondelet Health Network's Youth Sexuality Program, on of the United States' largest hospital-based charity educational programs with an abstinence focus. She is sought nationwide to address teen pregnancy and sexuality issues and has been featured on both television and national radio. She and her husband, Michael, have four children and live in Tucson, Arizona.