How to answer children’s questions about sex honestly is a struggle for many parents. But there are ways to approach “the talk,” and you don’t have to wait until the day your child comes home from school and peppers you with questions. In fact, bringing up the subject early and often can make future conversations less awkward, and guide your children toward responsible choices.
Ages Birth – 3:
Babies are naturally curious, and their bodies are the most convenient objects to explore. Now is the time to start naming body parts, says Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, in her book, Beyond the Big Talk (Newmarket Press; $24.95) . While it’s tempting to use silly names, Haffner advises parents to use proper terms like “penis” and “vagina.”
“Why teach them the wrong words and then have to re’teach them the right ones?” she asks. Correctly naming private parts is the first step in keeping things comfortable ‘ and establishes trust. If your child can’t count on you to give him the right names, how can he count on you to answer the big questions that come later?
Haffner also points out that at this age, toddlers can “get” that they grew in Mommy’s belly and that Daddy played a big part in helping to make the baby, but they aren’t going to be interested in detailed answers. However, she advises that they WILL get interested if you hedge and don’t seem to want to talk!
Answer as honestly as possible with the vocabulary your child can understand, Haffner advises.
Ages 4 – 5:
This is the perfect age for asking LOTS of questions – and kids are most likely going to do it when you are least expecting it! Not to worry. Give a short answer and promise to explain more when you’ve had a chance to consider his question carefully.
Sometimes an opportunity simply presents itself. Christine, a single mom, says that her 5-year-old daughter’s father is having another baby, and her daughter wanted to know how that baby came to be. “I didn’t go too in depth,” she says, adding that she tries to keep conversations about bodies and babies light-hearted for now, so that they remain comfortable. “She’s still at that age where she doesn’t know that these conversations can be a little weird.”
Boundaries should be set up around this time, according to Ruth Westheimer, Ed.D. (best known as Dr. Ruth), in her book, Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes and What Sex is All About (Alladin; $11). Preschool children have a keen interest in body parts, Westheimer says. They will show a normal curiosity about them and will ask questions about their purpose. They may make silly jokes and talk about body parts and bodily functions, so parents need to set clear boundaries around acceptable behaviors regarding exploration and talk without punishing or scolding.
This is also a good time for your child to establish his own boundaries. Good touches and bad touches can come up here, and the importance of telling Mom and Dad if someone touched him in a way that made him uncomfortable or scared.
The key is to establish yourself as THE resource for questions and concerns. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable, books can be a big help since kids can learn a lot from storytelling.
Ages 6 – 8:
Your child might come home from school and ask you if he really came from an egg. Before you launch into an explanation, don’t assume that kids want all of the details.
“Ask him what it is that he wants to know before you answer,” says children’s author Robie H. Harris in the book, It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Families and Friends (Candlewick; $11.99). Sometimes what kids really want to know is so simple, and adults end up convoluting answers and causing more confusion than there was to begin with. But for kids who DO want the details, it’s best to provide simple facts, says Westheimer. “Handle the subject in a calm, matter’of’fact way,” she says. “This will make it easier for your child to accept and comprehend.”
Around this age, kids can grasp a basic understanding of the mechanics of sex, but don’t be surprised if their reaction is “Gross.” You can let it go at that, and reassure them that as they get older, it will seem less icky. In fact, it will even be something they really want to do, but that they will need to exercise control. Now might be a good time to start teaching kids to understand desire for a thing and how to control it. Sharon Maxwell writes in her book, The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From YOU About Sex (Penguin Group; $14.95) , “The best gift we can give our children is helping them develop the muscle to pause when their desires are activated and choose how they want to release the energy of their desires.” This “muscle of self’discipline” can be strengthened through use. Even when delaying the gratification of a new toy, they learn to stop, think and make a good choice in the face of a powerful emotion ‘ desire.
Ages 9 – 12:
Your family values will determine what you want or don’t want your children to know about sex. The easier it is for you to talk about sex with them, the easier it will be for them to understand why you feel sexual activities should only take place under certain circumstances.
Once children enter their pre’teen years, parents should discuss the consequences of sex ‘ not only pregnancy and disease, but issues of respect. Pre-teens and teens need to know that a sexual relationship involves respect, responsibility and emotional commitment. By understanding that sex is more than a physical act, you can help them to think of things that they can do to avoid peer pressure. Haffner explains that kids who plan in advance how to handle urges or pressure from others are better prepared and better able to make smart, healthy decisions.
Keep talking about love and the important role it plays in a relationship. It’s good for your kids to see you showing affection with your significant other ‘ they learn that hugs and kisses say, “I love you,” just as much as sex does.
You’ll also want to address what your kids see on TV, a big influence on a child’s perception of sex. Nanette Harris, a Nashville mom of two boys ages 9 and 11, says she finds herself grappling with what her kids see on TV and dealing with slang terms like “hittin’ it.”
“To me, that’s combining sex with violence,” she says. “How do you counter that with the message that sex goes with love? I am thankful for decent pre’teen shows like iCarly and Wizards of Waverly Place and movies like High School Musical, when the kids can fall in love, but a kiss is the only big deal.”
No doubt some of the shows on TV can make things difficult. Hendersonville mom Rachel Hofgraff found herself having a very serious conversation with her 10’year’old son about a teenage pregnancy that happened to be on TV one evening. “We talked about how if you’re going to make adult decisions about having sex, then you will have to make adult decisions about the consequences. We try not to sugar’coat anything.” Hopefully, she adds, that honesty will pay off.
“I try to encourage him to talk to me by always telling him, ‘Thank for you telling me about that,’ and instilling in him that he can always come to me,” she says. Which is probably the most important message a parent can convey.
Sherry Hang is a writer and editor.
books to read
- Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster (Three Rivers Press; $14.95)
- Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Gail Saltz and Lynne Avril Cravath (Puffin; $6.99)
- It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (Candlewick; $11.99)
- The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From YOU About Sex by Sharon Maxwell (Penguin Group; $14.95)
- The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Girls by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras (Newmarket; $12.95)
- The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Boys by Lynda Madaras ad Area Madaras (Newmarket; $12.95)