Start early, and lay the groundwork at each age by answering kids’ questions about sex in developmentally appropriate ways.
Parents are often hesitant to answer questions that their kids ask them about sex. Often the reason for this is an effort to avoid discomfort or embarrassment on behalf of the parent. As I’ve said many times, would you rather your child learn about this important topic from you or a complete stranger? If you begin the conversation at an early age, you establish a relationship in which your child feels comfortable and safe to come to you as new questions/issues arise.
A common mistake among parents is to provide too much information when a child asks a question. Your best bet is to stick with age-appropriate, short, specific, factual answers to questions. If your 4-year-old asks, “where did I come from?” a good answer is, “You came from a very special place inside mommy called a womb or uterus.”—There is no need to go into detail about sexual intercourse, or the journey of the sperm and eggs.
These are benchmark questions that mark the beginning of conversations with your child.
Ages 2-3 “What’s this?” Questions about their bodies
Kids this age begin to notice their body (and the bodies of their siblings).
Parents are encouraged to use scientific terms with their children—penis, testicles, vulva, etc. (other terms are alright as well, as long as you use in conjunction with scientific terms so that the child understands both refer to the same body part). Be careful with confusing terms—if you teach your child to refer to their penis/vulva as their “bottom,” this can be confusing as most folks use this term to refer to the buttocks or anus.
This is also a time when children begin to touch themselves because they like the feeling. Careful not to overreact when this happens. We don’t want our children to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies. Establish boundaries so that your child understands that there are inappropriate times to touch themselves.
Ages 4-5 “Where did I come from?” Questions about babies
I recommend that you begin simply with, “You came from a very special place inside mommy called a womb or uterus.” Parents should avoid saying that baby came from mommy’s tummy, since this could become confusing for child as they learn about food/digestion.
As the conversation continues throughout the next few months, you’ll probably begin discussing childbirth—”A baby comes out of its mommy through a very special passage called her vagina.”
Ages 6-7 “How did I get there?” Questions about sex
This is where your earlier conversations can come in handy. You don’t teach a child multiplication until they learn their numbers and can add and subtract. If you have already spoken with your child about body parts and where babies come from this conversation could go very smoothly.
Your discussion could begin something like this—”You know how we talked about the special passage called the vagina that a baby comes through in a mommy? Not only do babies come out through that passage, a daddy also puts his penis through this passage in order to make a baby.”
Ages 8-9 “What do they mean by … ” Questions about the world around them
As kids reach this age, they begin to pay much more attention to the world around them—things their peers say at school, and especially things they see/hear/read in the media on topics such as AIDS, rape, abortion, and homosexuality may enter the conversation. These conversations are an excellent opportunity for you to share your personal and parental values as they relate to these topics with your child.
A perfect example comes from an incident with my own son several years ago—we were trying to find something to watch on television and I was flipping through the channels when all of the sudden on the screen appeared two women standing in a bar kissing passionately. My son immediately asked, “Dad, why are those two girls kissing?” I responded, “There are some women who are attracted to women instead of men—there are also some men who like other men. Someone who is attracted to a person of the same sex is called a homosexual. Women who are attracted to other women call themselves lesbians and men who are attracted to other men call themselves gay.”
Ages 10-11 “What is happening to me?” Questions about puberty
This is the point when most parents to come to terms with the fact that they cannot put off talking to their child about sex and their bodies any longer. No matter how much you want your children to remain your babies forever, eventually every little boy’s voice will change, he will grow pubic hair and begin to have nocturnal emissions (aka wet dreams)—and every little girl will begin to sprout breasts and have periods.
When parents wait for this point to begin the conversation, it is often well after the child has experienced much of the early stages of puberty. In my years of working with kids, I’ve known girls who have gotten their first period as early as third grade, yet many parents assume puberty begins in late 5th grade.
I encourage parents to study up for this part of the conversation—read a few books to get your information straight. The most important thing a parent can tell their child about puberty is that it’s a series of events that occurs over a span of time—it occurs earlier in some kids and later in others.
I also encourage parents to give their children books to read on this topic at this time as well. There is lots of information to cover—parents have no idea how much their child needs to know and kids don’t know enough about what is happening to them to know what questions to ask. Print resources are great to bridge that gap.
Recommended Reading: Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex, By Deborah M. Roffman
Image credit: www.audio-luci-store.it/Flickr