Many parents worry about having “The Talk” with their children. They wonder about the age to start, they stress about what to say, they panic in case their child asks them a question that they are unwilling or unable to answer. There are many schools of thought about the ‘best time’ to talk to children about sex and reproduction, with some people believing it best to wait until the child is a certain age (perhaps around the time the puberty years are starting), others take a ‘wait until asked’ stance, and many parents are even outsourcing the whole topic to school or a book placed casually on the bed.
The birds and the bees: Bodies and babies for preschoolers.
The very best time to start the sex education process with your child is from the earliest months and years. When you bathe, dry and massage creams into your new baby’s body you are teaching them about touch and body awareness. As they learn to speak and name their body parts it’s important to include the names of their genitals, not just their tummy or nose or hand. If you always use ‘proper names’ such as penis and vagina (and vulva, PLEASE) you will hopefully be over your own embarrassment by the time your child is speaking and you’ll feel confident that you are also raising children who will be better protected in terms of body safety and comfort. We all talk to our babies constantly: as you wash and dry them and change their nappies you can say “first I’m going to tickle your feet, then I’m going to blow raspberries on your knees and now I’m going to wash or dry your penis/vagina.” By 18 months your child will understand these words and where these body parts are located. You might say “Some bodies have a vagina, and other bodies have a penis.”
Age 2-3 is an excellent time to also start the discussion about ‘private body parts’. “No other person, even people you know and like, should touch the parts of your body which are usually covered by your nappy or underwear.” Of course this excludes parents/carers bathing the child and changing nappies etc. As the child gets slightly older you can remind them that it’s also OK for a doctor or nurse to touch or ask to see their body with your child’s permission, and one of their trusted adults in the room. Helping touch by any other person is NEVER a secret! Ages 2-3 are a time of natural curiosity, many toddlers will touch their own genitals either out of curiosity or because it feels good. Your reactions to this may well shape their adolescent and adult interactions so think carefully about how you might deal with this situation. Many parents will ignore this early exploration, or just distract the child by redirecting their attention. Others might acknowledge that they know it feels good, or it’s interesting or funny for their child to touch their penis or vagina but suggest that it’s something that should only happen in private.
By the ages of 3-4 the natural curiosity children feel towards their own body may extend to the bodies of others. Children this age might notice the difference between male and female genitals – particularly if they shower or bath with a parent or sibling. It’s a common age for young children to play ‘doctor’ or ask to examine another child’s sex organs. Some children will ask “why does daddy/brother have a penis?” You can explain that bodies are made differently. There are different body parts. Another child may notice that their parent has hair around their genitals; answer their questions as simply as you’re able, you might say “this is what a grown up body looks like – grownups have hair around their penis or on their vulva”.
An excellent sex education tool for parents is what I call TEACHABLE MOMENTS. As I said, sex education should never be just one talk. From a very young age it’s important to take advantage of all those opportunities that arise daily to talk about bodies and babies and privacy and safety. You may be watching a TV show or reading a story together, it may be bath time or change time, you could be visiting a pregnant friend, or see a pregnant person at the shops, maybe your pet is pregnant or giving birth. Your child may ask a question or you can raise a topic yourself. “Remember how we saw Elli’s mum today, and she had a really big tummy? Why do you think her tummy has grown so much?” or “Mum, how come Elli’s mummy has such a fat tummy?”
Remember to answer simply, and answer just the question asked. Children will come back for more information if they are not satisfied with your answer. “Elli’s mum has a baby growing inside her, that’s why her tummy has grown bigger.”
Most children will begin to ask about babies at around age 4-5 (and perhaps earlier if a baby or pregnancy is a part of their life). Try to answer these questions using correct terminology. Common questions from preschoolers include
- How did I get in your tummy?
- Where was I before I got in your tummy?
- How did I get out?
- Where do babies come from?
Treat these questions about reproduction in the same way as you would any other requests for information. Remain calm, honest and factual. Give basic, age appropriate information which you can add to as a child matures and/or asks for more information. Give small amounts of information, too many words or pictures at once might confuse the issue. Some children might ask the same question many times.
At 4-5 your child is ready to learn some new body words; you could introduce the word uterus or womb if you’re answering a question about pregnancy, or mention egg and sperm if it’s time for the conception talk. If the information is presented in the same matter-of-fact manner that you talk about how to make a cake or how to get to ‘granny’s’ house, your child will accept it as a very normal, everyday conversation. If you wait until your child is older, perhaps starting to mature sexually or becoming more influenced by school friends and the media, the same conversation will be much more difficult for both of you. If you have been having open and frank discussions about bodies and privacy up to this age, the ‘sex story’ is just an extension of an ongoing conversation.
How does the baby get out? Interestingly, most young children will ask how a baby comes out before they think to ask how it got into the mother. Ideally your answer will simply be “the baby usually comes out of the mum’s body through her vagina”. Many 4-5 year olds will be satisfied with this answer. If they require a bit more detail you might add that “the uterus is really strong and stretchy, the baby grows bigger inside the uterus for a long time and when it’s time for it to be born the uterus helps to push it out”. (Of course, if you want or need to explain caesarean birth you might say that a doctor helped the baby out of an opening that was made in the front of mum’s body.)
But how did the baby get inside the mum? Explaining conception can be tricky for some adults. You will need to decide how much information you want to give and how much information your child is ready to hear. Again, remember that this information is just another fact to a young child. They have no concept of adult sexuality – just an innocent curiosity. You might start with saying “a baby starts when two tiny cells called an egg and a sperm join together. They start a baby that grows in the uterus inside the mum’s body.” But how do the cells join together? Depending upon the method of conception you wish to discuss, your answer might be “You know how your jigsaw puzzle pieces join together? Well male and female bodies are made to join together in sort of the same way. The sperm are in daddy, he puts his penis in mummy’s vagina and the sperm come out and join up with an egg inside mummy.”
Feeling uncomfortable? Remember that your child should not be embarrassed or grossed out or anything but interested. This is also why, unfortunately, children have a knack for asking these questions at some seriously inopportune times; at the supermarket maybe, or when grandpa is reading a story; how about in the middle of church (perhaps triggered by the Christmas story). Your response might be “what a good question, we’re going to talk about it as soon as we get home/back to the car/grandpa leaves. I promise. If I forget can you remind me?” At this stage of a child’s life you are explaining basic biology of conception – the mechanics. Of course you can talk about love and joy and intimacy – as well as privacy. Later discussions will include both the ‘dangers’ and, naturally, the pleasures of sex.
Obviously every talk you have with your child will reflect your own situation and your personal values. You might use the words ‘mummy and daddy’ or ‘male and female’ or even ‘the partners’. You might say “within a marriage’ if that is your belief. You are taking advantage of your child’s natural curiosity and innocence to share the story of life before someone else does – and they will.
The birds and the bees for first timers:
When your child begins to ask questions, the following might make it easier for both of you:
- Don’t laugh or giggle, even if the question is cute. Your child shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for her curiosity.
- Try not to appear overly embarrassed or serious about the matter.
- Be brief. Don’t go into a long explanation. Answer in simple terms. Your 4-year old doesn’t need to know ALL the details about intercourse.
- Be honest. Use proper names for all body parts.
- See if your child wants or needs to know more. Follow up your answers with, “Does that answer your question?”
- Listen to your child’s responses and reactions.
- Be prepared to repeat yourself.