By Kelly Bartlett, author of Encouraging Words for Kids, certified positive discipline educator and Attachment Parenting International leader (API of Portland,Oregon USA), www.kellybartlett.net
It’s never too early to begin talking with your kids about sex. In fact, the earlier you start, the more comfortable you will feel when it’s time to talk about difficult issues. Here are some age-appropriate topics parents should bring up with their children now to pave the way for less stressful conversations about sexual health in the adolescent years.
Ages 0-2: Positive Perception
There’s no better time to start practicing the language of body talk than when kids are infants. At this age, there’s no pressure to say the “right” thing, and your baby won’t laugh, get nervous or ask any questions. It’s important to get comfortable verbalizing words or bodily functions that may cause some discomfort for you.
According to Dr. Laura Berman, a sex educator, therapist and author of Talking to Your Kids About Sex, something crucial for parents to do while their kids are infants is to adopt a positive view of bodily functions. Shift from looking at a poopy diaper as, “Oh, isn’t that stinky!” to a perspective of, “Wow, you’ve been eating well!” Dr. Berman says many parents have likely learned from their own upbringing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about bowel movements. “When really,” she says, “it’s just a part of life!” Functions involving the genitals are healthy and normal, not something negative or problematic.
Ages 2-3: Touching and Being Touched
Children will inevitably discover their genitals, and when this happens, it’s time to start the conversations about touching. Normalize self-touch by not reacting strongly to your toddler playing with his genitals. Instead, just let him know that there are appropriate times and places to do so. If it happens at an inappropriate time, Dr. Berman advises parents, “Explain that while it feels good to touch your private parts, they are your private parts, and this touching should only occur in private.”
This age is also a good time to teach children that their private parts are their own; no one else should touch them other than parents or caregivers who are helping to clean them, or a doctor who checks to see if they are healthy. This includes people they know and love. Amy Lang, MA, sex educator and author of Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love and Relationships, says, “More than 90 percent of the time, child molestation occurs by someone that child knows. Strangers very rarely molest children.” She also says to let kids know that while other people should never touch your kids’ private parts, your kids shouldn’t be touching anyone else’s either.
If you haven’t started teaching your toddlers the proper names for their private parts, now is the time to do that, too. Using nicknames sends a message that there is something shameful or illegitimate about their private parts, as opposed to something they should embrace. “When you use anatomically correct names for their private areas right from the beginning, you’ve already started the conversation,” says Lang.
Ages 3-5: First Questions
When children are old enough to ask questions about how babies are made, “Parents should buck up and tell them,” says Lang. Though, she says, it’s fine to keep the explanation simple and brief. Something like, “Babies come from inside mommy’s belly,” is enough to start. When kids ask follow-up questions like, “How does the baby get in there?” continue to keep the answers simple and direct. “Mommies have eggs, and daddies have sperm. When a sperm and an egg come together, it starts growing into a baby.” Let the child’s questions lead the conversation.
Reading books together is a great way to answer some hard questions. Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz is a perfect book for parents to read with their preschoolers. With its simple text and colorful illustrations, it is an engaging way to open the door to talking about bodies.
If there’s any confusion about what names to teach your kids about their private parts, here they are. For boys, it’s penis, testicles, and scrotum. For girls, what they see when they look down is their vulva, specifically the labia. The vagina is completely internal; it’s only the opening that is visible. Bath time provides an easy opportunity to practice using proper names for private parts. “Did you wash your penis?” or, “Your vulva looks a little red, does it feel OK?” Practice, practice, practice—using them in conversation will soon become second nature.
Age 5-8: Sex and Values
When kids reach kindergarten, and by age 7 at the latest, they need to know about intercourse. That might seem early, but according to Lang, it isn’t too much for them to handle. “Adults come to the conversation with a different perspective than kids,” she says. “We know all the good and the bad stuff about sex. They don’t. Little kids take in this information like they do everything else. We’re the ones who bring discomfort, shame or embarrassment to the sex talk party.”
The sooner the better is Lang’s rule of thumb. “Bring it up before the ‘ooh-gross!’ factor kicks in. When they are young, they are just very open and not grossed out. That being said, it’s never too late.” What’s important is that discussions about intercourse are family-oriented. Other people shouldn’t talk to them about sex.
Let your kids know what you believe to be true about sex, relationships and your spirituality. Kids need to know where you stand and what your family values are when it comes to sex. Lang tells parents, “The key to great conversations with your kids is combining the facts with your values.”
Other topics to bring up at this age are the “logistics” of what’s coming next in their development, such as different hygiene habits that accompany body changes and puberty. Talk about how to keep their bodies healthy when it comes to sexual development.
Parents should not be thinking about when they’re going to have “The Talk” with their children, but instead how they can start opening a dialogue about sex right now. No matter your child’s age, there are topics that can be broached. And the earlier you start, the easier the discussions go. Start now to turn one weighty talk into a dialogue for life. As Lang tells parents, “No one has ever died from having conversations about sex and you won’t either!”
For Further Reading
To help broach some of these topics with kids, reading books together helps. These resources are all great for starting conversations about sex and body issues:
It’s MY Body by Lory Freeman
Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman
The Right Touch: A Read-Aloud Story to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse by Sandy Kleven
Anatomy and Reproduction:
Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz
It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris
It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie H. Harris
Elementary-Age Body Books:
The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU by Kelli Dunham (for boys)
The Care and Keeping of You by Valorie Schaefer (American Girl) (for girls)
Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love and Relationships by Amy Lang, MA
Talking to Your Kids About Sex by Dr. Laura Berman