How Do You Explain “Sexy” To Your Kids?

Psy Gangnam Style

With pop culture infusing sexy into his first-grade daughter, Tom Burns tries to explain what he can’t.


When I became a dad, I tried to prepare myself for all of the stereotypically “difficult” questions that are supposed to arise when you have a kid. I researched “Why is the sky blue?” I lurked in parent forums where they debated how best to respond to “Am I going to die one day?” I even practiced, what I thought was, a refreshingly honest (and physiologically accurate) response to “Where do babies come from?” But, of course, as any parent can tell you, children are ninja masters at knowing exactly how to knock even the most confident of parents off-balance, which is exactly how I felt when my six-year-old daughter casually asked me one day, “Dad, do you think I’m sexy?”

The speed with which I blurted out “NO!” was pretty staggering, as if I was being timed on my response time. Even though we were sitting in our own kitchen, I frantically looked around for incriminating witnesses and fought a strong urge to ask my daughter if she was wearing a wire.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked as nonchalantly as I could. “Do you know what it means?”

“I dunno,” she shrugged. “Like ‘Am I sexy?’”

“But what do you think that word means?”

She paused. “Maybe like ‘hot.’ Like ‘good-looking’. Never mind.”

And with that – she walked away. Like any good bomber pilot, she didn’t need to see her payload detonate to instinctively know that she’d hit her target.

The sad thing was I didn’t even need to ask her where she’d heard the word “sexy.” Oddly enough, “sexy,” as a term, gets thrown around first graders WAY more often than you’d think.

As a veteran of a few grade-school sock-hops and at least one daddy-daughter dance, I can tell you that songs like LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” are definitely dance mix favorites in almost every elementary school around the world.  And, I speak from experience, kids go NUTS for those songs. They can’t get enough of them. “Sexy and I Know It” gets the kids’ blood pumping, lets them swagger a bit. They get to say crazy words like “Lefreak” and, eventually, they get to “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.” It’s like an infinitely hipper version of the “Chicken Dance.”

“Gangnam Style” taps into that same dance music craziness vibe, but it distinguishes itself by making “sexy” one of the only five or so English words in the entire song. Thus, with the help of a wacky video and the power of pure repetition, “Gangnam Style” just burns the word “SEXY” into the brain of every kid who hears it. It’s definitely a little creepy. (Believe me, you haven’t properly contemplated the downfall of Western civilization until you’ve witnessed a gym full of grade-schoolers doing The Pony in unison as they all moan out “Heeeyy, sexy lady” over and over again.)

I don’t find the ubiquitousness of the word “sexy” with young children creepy because I’m a prude. (Again, my kid has a solid scientific understanding of where babies come from.) But it’s just such a loaded, abstract word to throw at a child. I’m not thrilled that my six-year-old uses the word “hot,” but that’s a fairly easy term to explain. While “hot” might imply a level of erotic passion that I’m not going to get into with a first grader, saying that the word “hot” is roughly equivalent to “really good-looking” isn’t that much of a reduction. It might omit some details, but it’s still accurate.

“Sexy” is, unfortunately, now a vocabulary word for first-graders. Do I lie about what the word means or do I bludgeon my kid with a level of context that I simply don’t think she’s ready for?

However, saying that “sexy” equals “good-looking” – that’s not accurate at all. If something is sexy, it implies a certain level of arousal or excitement on the part of whoever’s using that word. And, while I’ll concede that first-graders can have definite opinions about whether they find a person handsome or pretty, I’m fairly certain that they’re not becoming physically aroused by that “sexy lady” twirling her hand in perfect sync with everyone else in the school gym.

“Sexy” is a great word, a powerful word. When you understand the emotions and drives behind that word, you can totally understand why it can be used to describe everything from sports cars to Marvin Gaye songs to people whom you don’t find particularly attractive, but whom definitely seem to push the right buttons for someone else. But it is, at its core, an achingly complex word, which is why I rankle when it’s used so casually around children.

That said, most societal attempts to keep the word away from kids are fairly pathetic. Kidz Bop offers cleaned-up, re-recorded versions of most popular songs, but most are so offensively bad on an aesthetic level, if given a choice, I’d probably rather just let my kid hear the naughty words. My kid’s elementary school actually has a school policy regarding Psy’s “Gangnam Style” – which is bizarre in and of itself – a policy that dictates that, if a kid is singing the song at school, the teachers require the child to change the lyrics from “Heeey, sexy lady” to “Heeey, it’s the latest.” (Honestly.)

I was laughing about that while talking to a good friend who lives in Sheffield, England, when he informed me that his daughter’s school has the kids change the lyric to “Heeey, sausage lady,” which is apparently British slang for “lunch lady.” The “Heeey, sausage lady” revision should win some kind of award for being both a million times more surreal than Psy’s original lyrics and for trying to fight the pervasiveness of the word “sexy” by bludgeoning it to death with an even worse unintentional double entendre.

So, as a parent, what are my options? “Sexy” is, unfortunately, now a vocabulary word for first-graders. Do I lie about what the word means or do I bludgeon my kid with a level of context that I simply don’t think she’s ready for?


In the end, I picked something in the middle, which is a nice way of saying, deep-down, I probably feel like I punted it. The next time my daughter mentioned the word “sexy,” I asked her again, as non-confrontationally as I could, if she knew what it meant. When she shrugged, I told her that it meant that you thought something looked really, really good. But I stressed that it didn’t mean you were just talking about someone’s appearance. I said “sexy” meant that something was appealing, that you wanted it, that it made you excited.

I said that some people could find roller coasters “sexy.” Other people could find ice cream “sexy.” I said that, when Psy sang “Heeey, sexy lady”, that probably meant he was really excited about that lady. He really liked her and was excited to do stuff with her. (I honestly said “do stuff with her.” May the gods forgive me.) That was the only part of the conversation where I really felt like I was flat-out lying to her, but, more than anything, I didn’t want her to only connect the word “sexy” with the word “sex” in her mind. Because, even though they’re tied together, those two terms don’t always have to go hand-in-hand. Most of all, I didn’t want my daughter’s perception of what the world regards as “sexy” to influence her attitudes or opinions about her own sexual identity – her sexual identity, which will eventually emerge, YEARS FROM NOW, when she stops being a pre-sexual minor.

After a while, our conversation skidded to a halt. Wanting somehow to make more of an impact than I was making, I said, “It’s a mostly an adult word. I know kids hear it, but it’s a word for adults.” My daughter picked up on the subtext and gave me a nod, silently acknowledging that she knew I was implying that she should be careful about who heard her using that word.

It felt like a cop-out and it was. But, at the very least, through my non-sexual attempts to explain the word “sexy”, I think I conveyed to my daughter that “sexy” was a loaded word – a word that parents couldn’t explain easily. And, by confirming to my daughter that the word had such power, I ensured that both a). she would use it more carefully and b). that she would never, EVER forget it.

Ultimately, as a parent, all I could do was engage with my daughter, acknowledge that she knew the word, and attempt to place “sexy” into context, albeit as vaguely as possible. I think she probably left the conversation with a sense that a word like “sexy” was a mystery to her, an enigma that would eventually be revealed to her one day, possibly around the same time she could drive or buy her own clothes. And I’m fine with that, because that’s actually fairly accurate.

The world is a weird, confusing landscape for young kids, filled with everything from eccentric Korean pop stars to the sausage ladies of England. They’re confronted with the mysteries of the universe every day of their lives, so occasionally acknowledging that a word like “sexy” sometimes has to remain one of those mysteries isn’t the end of the world.

But, at the very least, questions like “Am I sexy?” are great reminders that, as parents, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide CONTEXT for our children. If you think “Am I sexy?” is a hard question to answer as an adult, think about how confusing that question must be for a kid. Even if you fail miserably and give the least sexy definition of the word “sexy” ever—like I did—ANY attempt to rein in the chaos and complexity of that term for a younger audience, in my opinion, is a positive step forward. It’s a step towards, one day, a long time from now, everyone involved reaching a deeper understanding of why such a powerful, loaded word is used in so many desperately catchy and painfully silly songs.

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About Tom Burns

Tom Burns is a husband, a dad, and a veteran of the educational publishing industry, living just outside of Detroit Rock City. He’s also been a writer and contributing editor for a number of web sites, including 8BitDad, and founded - a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids. You can find him on Twitter at @buildalibrary.


  1. Violeta says:

    So this happened to me a couple Saturdays ago; frankly I felt a bit traumatized. I never thought I would feel traumatized by something I encountered in kid’s literature, but I certainly did not expect to see, and explain, BOOTYLICIOUS on the spot to an 81/2 year old.

  2. Great article that addresses an issue I am particularly concerned about– the sexualization of our children. Music, TV, videos, girls clothing options– all of them are pushing our kids to be “sexy” before they even know what the word means. As a woman, daughter, teacher, and mother of a girl, I had one reaction to your conversation that I wanted to share. Your daughter asked if she was sexy and you said “No!” and when she walked away you felt like she had dropped a bomb and didn’t need to stick around to see the aftermath…my take on her question was different– she was asking for your approval. It wasn’t about causing an effect on you–she was really asking “Am I pretty?” Giving her the context of the word is great; I like the way you told her that “sexy” is a more adult word. But I think, more importantly, she needs to know that she’s beautiful, and you are the first male she will go to for that feedback.

  3. As a teacher in a preschool I come across children singing Lady Gaga et all songs all the time. They seem to instinctively know that a comment I always make in parent teacher conferences is “please allow your children to remain children and listen to age appropriate songs” and take great pleasure in doing the opposite. Starting from the fact that they are age appropriate for a reason and ending with the fact that I teach ESL so vocabulary is an issue, I don’t believe my request is unreasonable, yet parents often do. So I solve it very simply, when asked what a word like sex or the famous f word means, I send it back to the parents with a very simple “ask mum and dad and then you can come and tell me what it means”. I usually end up with red faced parents next time we run into each other as their child loudly informs me that mom and or dad say they don’t know.

  4. That’s a great take on a difficult discussion. We get so hung up worry about how to answer some questions that we don’t think about how to answer others. I love the take that we have a complex world with complex language – walking our kids through that is a landmine field! I often use the go to that if you don’t understand a word and how to use it – you need to be careful about doing so. Of course this applies to adults too 😉 That sausage lady had me laughing too. I think that humor is another great way to help us deal with life and the uncomfortable moments our kids, especially, present. I also love the idea of circling back when we’re flummoxed by our kids – because I believe it’s important for them to see that things are not always neat, clean, black/white, and that they’re not the only ones that need to pause and think about language and what the world and life place at our door. And in our headphones 🙂

  5. Such a minefield. When I asked my mother what “sexy” meant, she told me it meant “obsessed with sex, like a man who attacks people and goes to jail.” Even though I learned otherwise in a few years, this first connotation has stuck with me all my life — to the point that if someone says a person or thing is sexy, my first reaction is that they don’t like it. Parenthood, argh.

  6. Walt Coogan says:

    I enjoyed this article, even as it reminds me that our society really cares little about allowing children to develop properly and as innocently as possible.

  7. I have my kids change it to pretty lady. I told them it was akin to attractive and was not appropriate for them to use, a more age appropriate word would be pretty or nice, and nice does not fit rhythmically, so pretty is what they chose.

  8. my son is a bit older, 11 now, and already knew what sexy meant, but more towards the message of the article… The way I explained “adult” words to him was that the word itself is not the problem. It is the simple fact that some words have very difficult meanings (cue Webster’s dictionary here) and that he is not yet old enough to fully understand their complete meaning. It is through maturity that that understanding will come, and until such time as he can truly define their meaning through understanding… not just looking up a definition… then he will be old enough to use that word. Basically if he doesn’t know what a word truly means, then he should not use it. If he acts mature, I will treat him mature. If he has the contextual understanding of an adult at 12, then I will treat him as such. This is my way of avoiding the infantizing of youth, whilst ensuring that he understands the words we say and the things we do only have power within the context of which they are used.

    (NOTE: so far, this has completely prevented him from swearing, being slanderous, or otherwise being crude without telling him he is not allowed to, making it his decision to treat people with respect)

  9. Kate Bartolotta says:

    When my daughter asked (at 7) I told her it was a wilder version of pretty—more for grown ups. Love your take on it!

  10. I’ve had to try and briefly explain “sexy” to my FOUR YEAR OLD, who was in love with “Sexy And I Know It”. I simply couldn’t. I think I said it was related to “pretty” but then veered into the “adult word” argument that you mentioned.

  11. Great, relatable piece, Tom.

    The way I explained it to my 7 year old is that:
    sexy = a certain kind of pretty that makes you feel like you’d want that person as a girlfriend or boyfriend.

  12. My 6-y.o. daughter thought the lyrics were, “Hey, sixty lady,” as in, a lady over the age of 60, and I didn’t bother to correct her. >__< My kids know of the term "sexy," and the way I explained it to them is "acting like a tacky adult, like how I embarrass you when I try to dance hip-hop in the supermarket." Once my son starts feeling "that way" towards kids in his class, I will redefine it, but I personally believe "sexy" is not an ideal to strive for. It's usually too over-the-top/obvious to be sincerely desirable, and takes out the emotional and mental aspects of attraction, which for people wired like me, is much more important than washboard abs and hip gyrations.

  13. Joanna Schroeder says:

    Tom, I feel ya on this one – profoundly. And I think you handled it like a champ. Great article.

    My two boys, who are both in elementary school, became obsessed with Gangnam style and started substituting everything in place of “lady” in the phrase… So, “Heyyyyyy sexy Daddy” and “Heyyyy sexy Mama” and “Heyyyyy sexy doggie.”

    It was like hell for me. It irked me so profoundly. Like you, not so much knowing that humans are sexual beings and that at some point they’re going to have sex with people, but the idea that pop culture has taken a word that is, to some degree, sacred to me. “Sexy” is a great word. It’s an important word. It expresses a certain type of desire that goes deeper than just wanting to do it with somebody.

    Anyway, like you, I said it was more than just “pretty” – but that it meant you wanted to take the person out on a date, or make them your boyfriend or girlfriend. I know it’s more than that, I realize there are sexy films and sexy songs and even sex songs, but it was enough for my kids to realize that using it about their teachers and their uncle wasn’t really accurate, without me having to tell them that explicitly.

    • Good god if I heard them say sexy doggie, etc I would be on the ground laughing. I think it’s extremely important to remember that kids have no sexual drive at that age, and it doesn’t kick in until puberty. I would be far far more worried about 10-12 year olds usage of the word than 6. Letting them know that it’s a term for adults to use for people they want to be intimate with will probably be enough to gross em out and bore them of the word I would hope? Until they have their sex drive turn on, they will not understand fully the meaning of the word so everyone should keep that in mind and realize their usage is farrrrrrrr more innocent than anything. I’m sure kids will say all kinds of crazy stuff that they don’t even know the meaning of, hell I heard of kids saying basically sex was hugging and you had babies after hugging!

      I do wish however the music videos, etc would be shown in age appropriate levels. Kids should be watching transformer music videos n stuff, or Tonka trucks, Lego’s, etc.


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