Start the process early so kids get solid, accurate information.
As most parents know, talking to your kids about sex is not a one-off chat you have with your 11-year old before puberty hits. It is a life-long process of communicating that starts when kids are very young. Toddlers are discovering their bodies, preschoolers want to know how their bodies work, and school-aged kids want to know the basics of reproduction.
But sexual communication from parent to young child is not just about transferring knowledge about the facts of life. Sexuality is tied to so many other things: touch, gender identity, values and attitudes towards our bodies and towards sex, responsibility, boundaries, privacy and respect, stereotypes, and more. So what we say, how we say it, and how we respond to our child’s sexual development, all play a role in helping him grow up to be a loving, sexually healthy adult.
Opening the lines of communication early means that kids will get solid, accurate information from you, incorporate your values, and be ready and willing to talk to you when they enter the sexually complex teen years. They will be better able to resist the messages and pressures from outside sources and media. And they will have the information they need to help protect them from sexual abuse.
This article will provide you with some basic information about child sexual development under the age of 10 and about your role as your child’s sex educator.
Nerves & Attitude
Parents often get nervous talking about sexuality with their kids because we may not want to think about our kids as sexual beings, and because our parents may not have discussed the subject with us.
The reality is sexuality is a wonderful part of who we are as humans. We are sexual even before we are born: boys have erections, and girls’ vaginas lubricate while in the womb. This is simply our bodies working the way they are supposed to, preparing us for puberty and beyond to sexual intercourse.
Awareness of your own experiences and feelings is the first step in thinking about what messages you want to give to your child, and how you want to give them. Some of us did not have great role models in our own parents; others may have been given negative messages like, “Don’t touch – that’s dirty!” You may have realized that sex was a taboo topic for your parents, so you tried to get snippets of information from your friends – information that was likely inaccurate!
If you want to give your child positive, healthy messages about sexuality, you need to take the time to identify what they are with your partner and other caregivers. The information you communicate to your child should of course be age-appropriate, based on their stage of sexual development and their readiness to learn.
Babies and Toddlers
From the first moment you hold and cuddle your baby, you are giving important messages about touch, love, and intimacy. Touch teaches your infant that she or he has a body; words teach them what you think of our bodies. It’s easier for infants who receive loving touch to be close to other people when they become adults.
As babies develop, they become more aware of their bodies, and by the end of the first year, it’s common for both boys and girls to touch their genitals. They do this because it feels good. As they become toddlers, kids often self-stimulate. This is perfectly normal and your reaction to it is important. Remain calm and don’t make fun of the situation. For babies, you could affirm that they’re noticing this part of the body that belongs to them, by giving a positive message like, “That’s _____’s penis”. For an older child who is playing with his penis or her vagina, your positive message might be, “It’s absolutely okay to touch your genitals, but it’s best to do that in private.”
Toddlers are curious about their body parts, and it’s important to give the correct names for all of them. Don’t skip the genitals or give them nicknames. Along with ‘eyes’, ‘nose’, and ‘mouth’, teach ‘vulva’ (the outside part of girls’ genitalia), ‘vagina’, ‘penis’, and ‘anus’. By using correct dictionary words, we show respect for our bodies, and that our genitals are not something to be ashamed of. When children use the correct words, they are also more easily understood by adults should a problem arise.
When toddlers also start noticing the sexual differences between boys and girls, they will begin to ask questions, like “Why don’t you have a penis, Mom?” Never scold a child for asking a question about sex, even if it is in the middle of the supermarket! Instead, use it as an opportunity to tell him what he needs to know – if not immediately, then later at home.
By age three, kids will be sorting out their gender role. Try to be free of gender stereotypes. Read stories about brave girls and gentle boys. Offer your child all sorts of toys and activities. Tea parties and hockey games can be fun for children of both sexes. Be a role model for your child; have dad do the laundry while mom repairs a cabinet or builds a tree house. Use language that is gender neutral, such as “firefighter” instead of “fireman.”
Girls and women don’t always have to be helpful and accommodating; they can be assertive, especially if someone asks them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Boys and men don’t always have to be tough or able to handle everything themselves. Children of both sexes can be vulnerable to sexual abuse, and need to know they can come to us to ask for help (see sidebar).
Let your child know that you are open to any questions about sexuality. Use the “L.A.S.T.” formula when you do get questions.
Ask her for clarification about what she wants to know, and what she thinks may be the answer;
Sort out your feelings and the message you want to give; and
Talk, at the child’s level.
For example, if a four-year old asks, “Where do babies come from?”, you could respond with “Where do you think they come from?”, or, “Do you want to know how they get started, or where they grow?” Once you’ve clarified what your child wants to know, you could give an answer like this: “Babies are made by a father and mother, and grow in a special place in the mother’s body, called a ‘uterus.” The child’s cues, such as glazed eyes or a confused look, will let you know if you are offering too much information.
If your child isn’t asking questions, it doesn’t mean that he is not wondering about things. Use teachable moments, such as: bath time, change rooms at the beach, seeing a baby breastfeeding, or a visit to the zoo. Ask him what he thinks or already knows. You can also open up conversations by reading educational books on the subject at bedtime (see resources). Afterwards, leave the book in the child’s room, so he can look at it when he wants to.
Kids this age want more detailed information about their bodies, and the processes of sex and reproduction. If you have established good communication with your child, there will be lots of questions for you – many of them prompted by hearing things from others. Again, use the L.A.S.T. formula to answer questions.
For instance, if your eight year old asks a question like, “How does the baby get into the mother?”, you could ask them what they think the answer might be, then you might respond:
“Babies are made when the egg inside the mother is fertilized by the sperm from a man. When a man and a woman love each other the man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina and his sperm comes out. The sperm joins the egg in the mother’s body and that fertilizes the egg. Then the cells start to develop into a baby which grows inside the mother’s uterus for nine months.”
Providing kids with accurate information about sex and sexuality is important, because they can’t avoid all the sexual messages they see and hear through today’s media. Music videos, television shows, advertisements and the internet often promote provocative clothing, emphasize ‘the perfect body’, and glorify sexual behaviour. It is essential that parents counteract any negative messages by sharing their values. Sit with your child during (limited) screen time, and ask them for their thoughts. Teach them that their bodies are special, and deserving of care and respect.
Kids should also be introduced to the idea that some parts of our body may not be covered, but we may consider them private – for example, the mouth: sometimes we like kisses, but we don’t have to give or get kisses if we don’t feel like it.
Around this time, many children become modest and need privacy. Parents should respect this right. For example, if the child’s door is closed, knock. Likewise, the child should learn to respect the rights of other family members to privacy, including mom and dad when they use the bathroom or are in their bedroom. Establish routines for them to follow – knock and get permission before entering.
School-aged children want to know scientific information about bodies in general. They need to know about testicles, that they make the boys’ “growing hormone,” and sperm when they become teenagers, and that they need to protect their testicles (with plastic cups in sports, and no wedgies!). Kids are interested in knowing how many openings they have and what these openings are for. The digestive and urinary systems are integrated with our sexual systems. Solid waste leaves the body from the opening behind the genital area, called the anus, and watery waste collects in the bladder and comes out through a tube called the urethra. Once again, provide books with diagrams to help explain this information.
Communication is key
When children are comfortable coming to their parents with questions about anything they’ve seen, heard, or experienced, with regard to their bodies, sexuality, touching, or secrets they have been asked to keep, they are less vulnerable to sexual abuse (see sidebar) and more likely to become loving and sexually healthy adults.
Kids ages three to five are naturally curious about their bodies and other people’s bodies. This may lead to sex play with other children. Sex play usually involves showing or touching and occurs between children of the same sex, and children of the opposite sex.
If you find your child engaging in sex play, don’t overreact. Stay calm by remembering this is normal behaviour, and it is also a teachable moment. Acknowledge their curiosity, and explain that some of our body parts are private. Let them know that we keep these parts covered, and don’t show them to other people, unless we need help from a grown-up with washing and wiping, or if they ever hurt. Books and dolls (which need to be anatomically-correct) can help children learn more about private body parts. If possible, talk with the other child’s parent about what occurred and how you responded.
Most types of sex play are harmless, but be concerned if the sex play mimics adult sexual acts, or involves bribing, coercion, or big differences in ages between children. This might indicate sexual abuse. If you are concerned, speak with childcare or school staff, a Public Health Nurse, or call the Children’s Aid Society.
Protecting Your Child Against Sexual Abuse
1. Teach your child dictionary words for all body parts, including the genitals.
2. Talk with your child about touching at a very young age. Tell your child that she or he has the right to say ‘No’. Respect that right yourself. No child should be forced into kissing, tickling, squeezing or spending private time with adults if she or he does not want to.
3. Respect your child’s ‘gut’ reactions. “I don’t like that piano teacher any more” may be an important message. Ask, “Why not?”
4. Tell your child that it’s not OK for an adult to ask a child to keep a secret unless, of course, it’s a secret that’s fun, easy to understand, and feels good – like a surprise birthday party.
5. When you talk about sexual abuse, use phrases such as: ‘touching your private parts’ or ‘asking you to look at or touch their genitals.’ Give lots of different examples of abuse like ‘hugging and kissing that makes you feel funny,’ or ‘asking you to take your clothes off.’
6. If your child tells you about an abuse, don’t panic. Take it slowly. Ask for more details. Getting angry might make the child feel guilty. Say, “I’m glad you told me,” and “It’s not your fault.” Then, get help from the Children’s Aid Society
*Adapted from Your Child’s Self Esteem, by Dorothy Corkill Briggs.
From Diapers to Dating by Debra W. Haffner, 2004
The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It by Meg Hickling, 2005
Talking to your Kids about Sex – from Toddlers to Preteens by
L. Berkenkamp, 2002
But How’d I Get in There in the First Place?: Talking to Your Young Child about Sex by Deborah M. Roffman 2002
I Openers: Parents Ask Questions About Sexuality and Children with Developmental Disabilities by Dave Hingsburger, 1993
For Young Children:
Boys, Girls, and Body Science by Meg Hickling, 2002
How Did I Begin? by Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom, 2006
It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie Harris, 2006
Where Do Babies Come From? by Angela Royston, 1996
Everybody Has a Bellybutton by Laurence Pringle, 1997
My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky , 2007
My Body Is Private by L. Walvoord Girard ,1984
Your Body Belongs to You by C. Spelman,1997