CONTEXT: Parents can be an important influence on their children's sexual behavior. However, relatively little research has focused on fathers’ roles in protecting children from sexual risk or on their discussions with children about sex.

METHODS: Sixteen focus groups comprising 131 parents of children aged 10–12 were conducted in three U.S. cities in 2007. Separate groups were held for mothers and fathers, and for white, black, English-speaking Hispanic and Spanish-speaking Hispanic participants. Content analysis was used to identify core themes and patterns related to fathers’ communications with their children about sex.

RESULTS: Fathers were highly invested in ensuring that their children are safe and successful in life. Although some had not talked to their children about sex, others had discussed it frequently and openly, and nearly all agreed that fathers’ perspectives are important for children to hear. Fathers reported being better suited to discussing some topics (e.g., male puberty, how young men think) than others (menstruation). Fathers also described other strategies that they use to guide their children's development, such as emphasizing future goals and monitoring children's activities and friends. Many fathers, especially Hispanic participants, reported being more protective of daughters than of sons, and some had particular difficulty talking with their daughters about sex.

CONCLUSIONS: Research and interventions concerning parent-child communication about sex should not neglect the role of fathers. However, some fathers may need support to overcome barriers to effective communication, especially with their daughters.