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Educating Your Child About S e x

Answering children's questions about sex is one of the responsibilities many mothers/fathers dread most. Otherwise confident parents often feel tongue-tied and awkward when it comes to conversations about sex. But the subject shouldn't be avoided. By answering children's questions as they arise, parents can help foster healthy feelings about sex.

Q & A: Educating Your Child About Sex

1. At what age should females be told about menstruation?

Females (and males!) should have information about menstruation by about age 8, some of which may be provided in school. Instructional books are helpful, but moms should also share their own personal experiences with their daughters, including when their periods first started and what it felt like, and how, like many things, it wasn't such a big deal after a while.

2. At what age should nudity in the home be curtailed?

Families set their own standards for nudity, modesty, and privacy. Although every family's values are different, privacy is an important concept for all children to learn. Moms and dads should explain limits regarding privacy the same way that other house rules are explained — matter-of-factly — so that children don't come to associate privacy with guilt or secrecy. Generally, they'll learn from the limits you establish for them.

3. Is it OK to use nicknames for private parts?

By the time a youngster is 3 years of age, mothers/fathers may choose to use the correct anatomical words. They may sound clinical, but there is no reason why the proper label shouldn't be used when the youngster is capable of saying it. These words — penis, vagina, etc. — should be stated matter-of-factly, with no implied silliness. That way, the youngster learns to use them in a direct manner, without embarrassment. In fact, this is what most parents do. A Gallup Poll showed that 67% of parents use actual names to refer to male and female body parts.

4. To what extent can mothers/fathers depend on schools to teach sex education?

Moms and dads should begin the sex education process long before it starts in school. The introduction of formal sex education in the classroom varies; many schools start it in the fifth or sixth grade. Some of the topics addressed in sex-ed class may include anatomy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Parents should be open to continuing the dialogue and answering questions at home. Schools tend to teach mechanics and science more than values. This is an area where parents can and should have something to teach.

5. What do you tell a very young child who asks where babies come from?

Depending on the youngster's age, you can say that the baby grows from an egg in the mommy's womb, pointing to your stomach, and comes out of a special place, called the vagina. There is no need to explain the act of lovemaking because very young children will not understand the concept. However, you can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to be close to one another. Tell them that the man's sperm joins the woman's egg and then the baby begins to grow. Most children under the age of 6 will accept this answer. Age-appropriate books on the subject are also helpful. Answer the question in a straightforward manner, and you will probably find that your youngster is satisfied with a little information at a time.

6. What should you do if you catch children "playing doctor" (i.e., showing private parts to each other)?

Children 3 to 6 years old are most likely to "play doctor." Many mothers/fathers overreact when they witness or hear of such behavior. Heavy-handed scolding is not the way to deal with it. Nor should parents feel this is or will lead to promiscuous behavior. Often, the presence of a parent is enough to interrupt the play. You may wish to direct your youngster's attention to another activity without making a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your youngster for a talk. Explain that although you understand the interest in his or her friend's body, but that people are generally expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having made the youngster feel guilty. This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good and bad touch. Tell children that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to privacy. No one should touch children if they don't like it or want it. Tell them that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels strange or bad, they should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that you want to know about anything that makes your children feel bad or uncomfortable.

7. What sort of "sexual" behavior do young children exhibit?

Toddlers will often touch themselves when they are naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty. Their mothers/fathers' reaction will tell them whether their actions are acceptable. Toddlers should not be scolded or made to feel ashamed of being interested in their bodies. It is natural for kids to be interested in their own bodies. Some moms and dads may choose to casually ignore self-touching. Others may want to acknowledge that, while they know it feels good, it is a private matter. Moms and dads can make it clear that they expect the youngster to keep that activity private. Parents should only be concerned about masturbation if a youngster seems preoccupied with it to the exclusion of other activities. Victims of sexual abuse sometimes become preoccupied with self-stimulation.

8. When do children start becoming curious about sex?

Kids are human beings and therefore sexual beings. It's hard for mothers/fathers to acknowledge this, just as it's hard for children to think of their parents as sexually active. But even infants have curiosity about their own bodies, which is healthy and normal.

9. When should mothers/fathers sit children down for that all-important "birds and bees" talk?

Actually, never! Learning about sex should not occur in one all-or-nothing session. It should be more of an unfolding process, one in which children learn, over time, what they need to know. Questions should be answered as they arise so that children' natural curiosity is satisfied as they mature. If your youngster doesn't ask questions about sex, don't just ignore the subject. At about age 5, you can begin to introduce books that approach sexuality on a developmentally appropriate level. Moms and dads often have trouble finding the right words, but many excellent books are available to help.

10. Why Do Kids Need to Know About Sex and Sexuality?

Understanding sexuality helps children cope with their feelings and with peer pressure. It helps them take charge of their lives and have loving relationships. It also helps protect them from sexual abuse — and from becoming sexual abusers. Home can be the most meaningful place to learn about sexuality. We can help our children feel good about their sexuality from the very beginning. Then they will be more likely to trust us enough to ask questions about sex later on in life. Young people are less likely to take sexual risks if they have:

• a connection to home, family, and other caring adults in their community, school, or religious institution
• a positive view of sexuality
• a sense that their actions affect what happens
• clarity about their own values and an understanding of their families’ values
• information that they need to take care of their sexual health
• interpersonal skills, such as assertiveness and decision-making abilities
• self-esteem and self-confidence

11. When's the Best Time to Start Talking with My Kids About Sex and Sexuality?

It's best to start as soon as kids begin getting sexual messages. And they start getting them as soon as they're born. Kids learn how to think and feel about their bodies and their sexual behavior from things we do and say — from the way we hold them, talk to them, dress them, teach them the words for their body parts, give them feedback on their behavior, and behave in their presence. But don't worry if you haven't started yet. It's never too late. Just don't try to "catch up" all at once. The most important thing is to be open and available whenever a youngster wants to talk.

12. How Do I Start a Conversation About Sex and Sexuality?

Some moms and dads look forward to talking with their kids about the wonders of human reproduction and human sexuality. But many find it difficult to talk about important topics like relationships and sex and sexuality. The good news is that, if we pay attention, we can find many everyday moments in our lives that can prompt conversations about these topics:

• Models in print ads or on billboards may make us think about and question our own bodies and body image.
• Our favorite TV show may feature a character going through puberty.
• Our neighbor or friend may be pregnant.

Some moms and dads call these “teachable moments.” Take time to recognize the teachable moments that give you opportunities to talk about sex and sexuality with your youngster. Spend a week or so noticing how topics you‘d like to discuss come up in your family’s everyday life. Think about what you might ask your youngster about them to get conversations going. And think about your own opinions and values about these topics, and how you can express them clearly to your youngster.

After you’ve thought about what you want to say on a subject, use the next teachable moment that comes up. The first few times you do this, kids may be cautious and ask, “Why do you want to know?” Or they may search for an answer they think will please you. It may take several tries before you can speak comfortably together.

13. What If I’m Uncomfortable Talking About Sex with My Children?

Don’t let fear get in the way. Being open and available about subjects such as sex and sexuality can be challenging. Some common fears that many parents have are:
  • Encouraging sexual experimentation. There is a myth that information about sex is harmful to kids and that it will lead to sexual experimentation. The fact is that our kids won’t be more likely to have sex if we talk about it. In reality, children who talk with their parents about sex are more likely to postpone having sex.
  • Feeling as though talking won’t make a difference. Kids look to their moms and dads to teach them about sexuality. Most young people prefer to hear about it from their parents than from other people. In fact, young adolescents place parents at the top of their list of influences when it comes to their sexual attitudes and behaviors.
  • Feeling embarrassed. It’s very common for parents or kids to feel embarrassed when talking about sex and sexuality. The best way to handle it is to admit how we’re feeling — we can simply say, “I might get a little tense or uncomfortable during this conversation, and you might, too. That’s okay for both of us — it’s totally normal.”
  • Looking dumb. Many of us weren’t taught about sex and sexuality, yet we may feel that we should know all the answers. But if our kids ask us about something we don’t know, we can simply say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”

14. What Should I Tell My Kids — And When?

Kids have different concerns about sex at different ages. They also have different abilities to understand concepts — and different attention spans. If your five-year-old asks, “What is birth?” you might answer, “When a baby comes out a mother’s body.” If your 10-year-old asked the same question, your answer would have more detail, and might begin, “After nine months of growing inside a woman’s uterus …” Preteens and teens often spend a great deal of time wondering if they’re “normal”. We can help them understand that it is "normal" for everyone to be different. In fact, the most important lesson we can share with our children is just that — being different is normal. When deciding how much detail to give, moms and dads can rely on what they already know about their youngster’s level of understanding. Reading about what kids need to know at different ages could help you decide what is age-appropriate. Reading tips for talking with your kids about sexuality and how to answer their questions also may be helpful.

15. What are some ways to get “the conversation” started?

Sometimes asking your youngster a question is a great way to open up a conversation. Here are a few questions you might ask:

YOUNG KIDS—

• Your aunt is pregnant. Do you know what that means?
• Do you know why girls look different than boys?
• Do you know the names of all your body parts?

PRETEENS—

• At what age do you think a person should start dating? Have any of your friends started dating?
• Do you think girls and boys are treated differently? (If yes …) How?
• People change a lot during puberty. What have you heard about the changes of puberty? How do you feel about going through puberty?

TEENS—

• At what age do you think a person is ready to be a parent?
• At what age do you think a person is ready to have sex? How should a person decide?
• How have you changed in the last two years? What do you like and what do you not like about the changes?

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