How many times do I read questions from parents/carers wanting to know the best age to have THE TALK with their children? I always want to reply, What Talk? Seriously! What talk? Even more fun is reading the comments below articles about child rearing and child development. There are so many ideas and opinions and schools of thought when it comes to talking to your child about bodies and babies and everything that happens in between.
If you’re at all interested in my point of view, let me start be saying that I’m a huge fan of the ongoing, open, honest conversation model rather than the single, sit down sex talk method. Honestly; could you make it any more uncomfortable? Children are basically little sponges; from the time they are old enough to understand they are observing and absorbing all you say and do. You can discuss body part names, body part functions, body autonomy, body changes and yes, even consent and reproduction with two or three year olds and up and never need to have an awkward, stumbling, stuttering sex talk at all.
Parents begin their child’s sexuality education from the earliest days after birth. We stroke their soft baby skin, blow raspberries on their naked tummies, and massage their chubby limbs (smiling and talking to them all the time) – and of course we bathe our babies, change their nappies and wash and clean their genitals. We play games with our toddlers; “Where’s your tummy? Where are your toes? Where is baby’s nose?” From this age, as we care for our children, we can practice using ‘correct’ body part names. “I’m washing your face, I’m washing your hands, and I’m washing your vulva (or penis)”.
Little children are naturally curious about bodies; they might notice the differences between a woman’s body and a man’s body; or their own and that of a sibling. Use these and other teachable moments, as a wonderful opportunity to talk about the anatomical differences between bodies or how bodies change with age, pregnancy and so on. From this age it’s also crucial to start conversations with your child about body safety; pointing out that some body parts (the ones covered by a swimsuit or their underwear) are private body parts; no-one should touch or look at these parts without your child’s permission, and no-one should ask the child to touch or look at other people’s body parts. If your child ever feels uncomfortable or unsure about ‘private touching‘ they should know that they can always talk to you or another trusted adult. Please also use these discussions to remind your child that no-one should ever ask them to keep a secret – any secret. Share your family’s body safety rules with every person in your child’s ‘circle’.
As parents we start teaching decision making and consent even in the earliest years. “Is it ok if I clean your bottom now?” “Do you want to give granddad a hug or a hi-five?” “Will daddy wash your penis or would you like to do it?” Body awareness and protective behaviours can be taught all throughout your child’s early years; there are wonderful books you can read together that reinforce the messages you are giving your child.
Books, online videos and child friendly websites are also a great idea when the time comes to start talking about the physical and emotional changes that occur during the puberty years. You can discuss the information you have learned together, and be available to answer questions. Between the ages of about seven and nine most children are ready to find out about some of the body changes they might notice over the next few years. If questions about babies haven’t started earlier, this is also a great time to explain the details of conception, pregnancy and birth. Puberty is the time when children’s bodies become adult bodies, capable of reproduction – as you talk about menstruation (periods) and sperm production (including wet dreams) you can also investigate the amazing story of the sperm and the egg.
By introducing age appropriate details all throughout the childhood years, it’s easy to ‘add on’ as your child gets older, and maybe becomes more curious. For 4-6 year olds you can explain that a baby starts when two tiny cells join together – one cell comes from a male and one from a female (or from a mummy and a daddy – depending upon the family make-up); by 8-10 you might wish to explain the ‘mechanics’ of conception – again, perhaps with the help of a book or a child friendly video. You can explain that babies grow in a special place called the uterus/womb and after nine long months (or thereabouts) they emerge from the mum’s body either through the vagina or with the help of a special doctor during a caesarean operation.
If these conversations take place on a regular basis, embarrassment or awkwardness are less likely for either adult or child – and more importantly, as your child gets older, and the conversations get more difficult, you have set the precedent for honest, open communication.
By generally discussing bodies and babies from the earliest years, in an age and stage appropriate manner, parents/carers can avoid the discomfort of having THE TALK and worrying about too much information too early or leaving conversations too late. Children are prepared, protected, and know that they can continue discussions with their adults throughout puberty, the teen years and beyond – and not a bird or a bee in sight.
Margie Buttriss is an internationally recognized sexuality educator based in Melbourne Australia, she is also a teacher and the mother of four adult children. Through her business HUSHeducation she teaches Body Safety Education, Sexuality Education and Adolescent Health to children, young people, parents and teachers. You can find out more at www.husheducation.com.au and www.facebook.com/husheducation.