Ah, sweet bedtime. The kiddos are tuckered out and tucked in. You’re (miraculously) still awake. Even better, you’ve finally stolen a moment alone with your partner.
Things get amorous, and you’re too caught up in the moment to notice the sound of little feet padding down the hall.
“Mommy? Daddy?” You glimpse your pajama-clad child standing in your bedroom doorway with a quizzical expression on her face. Meanwhile, you’re dying a thousand parental deaths as you frantically try to calculate just how big of an eyeful your little one got.
Yes, this cringe-inducing scenario is regrettable. But it may not be as bad as you think. Here’s how to handle the aftermath of an accidental peep show.
Parents can ward off this purely preventable incident by simply installing a locking bedroom doorknob. Once children are old enough to get out of their bed at night, a bedroom doorknob that locks creates safe boundaries for kids — and provides parents with welcome security and peace of mind during sex.
“Bedroom door locks are there for a reason. Parents should use them!” says Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of dozens of marriage and parenting books, including “A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey With Your Kids About Sex.”
Dial down the details
But what about when your young child has breezed through your lockless (or unlocked) bedroom door during lovemaking? Start by taking a moment to collect your thoughts (and possibly, your clothing).
As with any embarrassing situation, your first instinct may not be your best response. When you’re flustered, it’s easy to say too much or say the wrong thing, says school psychologist Melisa Shelton, M.S. “I recommend taking a short break to regain some composure before plunging into an explanation.”
Next, don’t assume that your child saw everything — or much of anything. A preschool-age child is probably not aware of what’s happening under those sheets, says Leman, so giving too much detail or long, clinical explanations will just confuse them.
“Most 3- and 4-year-olds won’t have a clue, even if they do see something,” he adds. Thankfully, that means parents usually can let themselves off the hook with a simple “Mommy and Daddy were hugging, because we love each other” response for tots and very young children.
The birds and the bees
Don’t try the glossing-over tactic once kids are out of preschool, though. For children older than 5, an age-appropriate explanation is in order. “Kids of this age probably know and think more about sex than parents realize,” says Leman. “So parents should approach the topic honestly.”
As with any parent-child dialogue about sex, a parent’s ultimate goal should be to answer questions honestly (without oversharing) and leave the door open — so to speak — for future talks. Do this with a short, reassuring conversation that occurs soon after the walk-in (ideally, the following day). Bring it up yourself; waiting for a child to raise the topic puts the responsibility on the child’s shoulders, instead of on yours. And though some forthright children may spit out questions rapid-fire, others may feel too ashamed or nervous to broach the topic and will instead wait for a parent to take the lead.
Now is not the time to introduce new terminology or confusing concepts.
“Put yourself in your child’s shoes,” advises Shelton. “Remember how differently and simply a child perceives any situation.” Instead, draw on the information you know your child already knows about sex, by saying something like, “Remember when we talked about how babies are made?”
Indeed, the entire situation is easier to handle if a child has already listened to the “birds and bees” talk — which should happen in early elementary school, says Leman. “If your child is older than 8 and you’ve never talked about sex with him or her, you’ve waited too long.”
The morning after
Ready to broach the big topic? The morning after the “incident,” steal a quiet moment with your child, away from siblings, friends, the television and other distractions. Start with “Hey, you know when you walked into our room last night? I’m sorry. We have a lock on our bedroom door for that reason, and we should have used it.”
Leading with an apology lets the child know that they did nothing wrong by walking in, says Leman.
Because a child might be frightened by what they saw, it can be helpful to portray sex as a completely normal, even universal, part of marriage and adulthood.
“Saying, ‘This is what mommies and daddies do — all mommies and daddies’ makes it more universal and less threatening or scary,” says Leman. Use factual, plain language, and answer any questions a child asks, without supplying additional information or answering questions the child isn’t asking.
The best post-walk-in talk is one in which the parent feels comfortable and relaxed, notes Leman. “Speak to kids in language that’s comfortable for you. If you’re nervous, that lets kids know that this is a bad subject, something we don’t talk about.”
“It’s not a topic most of us want to embrace,” says Leman. “But it’s a teachable moment for kids and parents both.”
Tips for parents
What to do — and not to do — when kids get an eyeful:
- Do invest in a lock for your bedroom door.
- Don't feel overly guilty — your child may sense your embarrassment and conclude that sex is shameful.
- Do take a moment to collect your thoughts.
- Don't fumble through a full-on explanation immediately.
- Do use simple, age-appropriate language.
- Don't overexplain or give too many details, especially if the child is younger than 5.
- Do discuss the matter factually and comfortably with children ages 5 and older.
- Don't avoid the topic or wait for children to bring it up.
- Do let the child know they did nothing wrong by walking in.
Editor's note: This article was originally published a number of years ago and has updated for 2023.