I once believed the birds and the bees weren't my problem. My husband would expertly field all the tough questions about sex our three sons threw our way: All I'd have to do is stand beside him and nod.
No such luck. When the topic finally came up, Dad was out for the evening. I was loading the dishwasher, and the boys were in the family room watching a nature show. From my post in the kitchen, I heard this serious PBS voice say, "Sex between sharks can get quite rough." A second later our oldest, 8-year-old Sam, appeared in the doorway with a funny look on his face.
I considered distracting him—"Ready for dessert, sweetie?"—long enough for his father to get home. But we'd always tried to be open about body parts and functions in our house, and I didn't want to freeze up just when straight talk was needed most.
I told him we'd talk at bedtime, and kept my promise. After our usual songs and stories, I took a deep breath and plunged into those shark-infested waters. "So, that show made you have some questions," I said. "Want me to answer them?" I told him the whole story—about how males and females make babies together, with the male depositing his sperm in the female. My son was appalled and disgusted—but also intrigued.
Variations on "the talk" don't always come up at convenient times or in predictable ways. So be prepared: below, the best strategies for handling the kinds of scenarios that catch parents most off guard.
Your 3-year-old is fascinated by her baby brother's diaper changes. "What's that?" she asks, pointing at his penis.
How to respond: You may be tempted to change the subject quickly, and fasten that diaper even faster, but it's best to be matter-of-fact. "Some parents teach their children the names of every body part except the genitals, skipping them as if they don't exist," says Mark Schuster, M.D., a pediatrician and coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask). That can give kids the idea that talking about your private parts is taboo. So instead say, "That's how you can tell the difference between a girl and a boy. It's called a penis. You have a vagina."
Of course, just because you use the correct term doesn't mean she'll get it right on the first try. Nashville mom Laura Hileman once heard her 3-year-old son explaining to his brother, "Boys have penises, and girls have china." And don't be surprised if the question comes up again and again while your little one sorts it all out.
You're in line at the grocery store when your preschooler looks up and asks, "Why is my penis getting hard?"
How to respond: If a question arises at an inopportune moment, it's okay to give an incomplete answer, along with a promise to fill in the rest later on. In this case, you can say quietly, "Oh, that happens sometimes. It will get soft again soon."
Joan Watkins says that when her two kids ask questions in an inappropriate place, she replies, "That's a really great question. We can talk more about it in the car, if you want." But it's important to come back to the question once you do get in the car: "Remember what you asked when we were at the store? Do you still want to talk about it?"
Hoping to demystify the potty for your toddler, you let her watch you pee. Soon she asks, "Why do you have hair down there?"
How to respond: "Young children ask simple questions and don't need more than simple, partial answers," says Virginia Shiller, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of Rewards for Kids! Just say that it's natural for grown-ups to have hair in places that children don't, especially under their arms, between their legs, and, for men, on their faces. Birmingham, Alabama, mom Joan Watkins explained to her daughter Lora, 4, that when Lora gets to be a big girl like her mother and her aunts, she'll have hair covering her private parts, too.
Toddlers are big on imitation, and they're fascinated by the potty, so it's natural for them to wonder what you're up to in there. Letting your child join you in the bathroom from time to time is a good way to teach her there's nothing wrong or dirty about the human body.
Your child tells you her classmate has two mommies. "How can that be?" she asks.
How to respond: Homosexuality may seem like a confusing subject—especially for kids who haven't even gotten the concept of heterosexuality down yet. But your explanation doesn't have to be complicated: "In Ginny's family, her two mommies love each other the way that Daddy and I do. So they live together, and both take care of Ginny."
The topic may also come up after your child hears a homosexual slur. Christi Cole's daughter Caitlyn, 6, said a boy at school had been telling kids in her class, "You're gay"-so of course she wanted to know what that meant. The Augusta, Georgia, mom explained that sometimes boys fall in love with boys and girls fall in love with girls, but that the boy at Caitlyn's school probably didn't really understand what he was talking about. Then she reminded her daughter that calling people names isn't nice and might hurt someone's feelings.
You've explained that when a mommy's egg and a daddy's sperm combine, a baby begins to grow. Now your 6-year-old asks, "How does the sperm get to the egg anyway?"
How to respond: Explaining intercourse doesn't have to be a big deal. You might start by saying, "Daddies have to be close enough to mommies so the sperm can come out of their body and get into the mommy. The sperm comes out of the daddy's penis and goes right into the vagina, a special place in mommy's body made for keeping the sperm safe and helping it get to the egg." If your child asks additional questions, offer a slightly more detailed explanation: "A penis is made to fit into a vagina sort of like an arm fits into a sleeve."
Some parents use this talk as an opportunity to introduce a moral framework for sexuality. When her older child first asked the question, Watkins said, "God had a great plan for mommies and daddies to make babies. He designed them differently so they fit together like a puzzle. The sperm comes out of a daddy's penis and swims inside the mommy's body till it reaches the egg."
Your preschooler has been content so far with vague sex information like "Babies grow inside mommies." But now she wants to know what happens next: "How does the baby get out of there?"
How to respond: Again, accurate but uncomplicated answers are best. Try, "Most babies come out through the mommy's vagina." If your child asks a follow-up question, you can add, "The vagina is like a tube inside the mommy. It stretches really wide so the baby can get outside."
If that doesn't satisfy your child, there may be another question behind the first, one she's too shy to ask. At 4, Loree Bowen's daughter, Kendall, repeatedly asked how her new baby brother or sister would get out, even after learning about the vagina. Finally, the Yorba Linda, California, mom realized her child was wonder-ing whether her new little brother or sister would emerge covered with poop or pee. "So I told her there was a special opening just for babies, and we were done," she says.
Your grade-schooler's friend tells him how to get to an x-rated website. You walk into the family room later and find him staring at a naked woman on the screen.
How to respond: First, try not to get angry. Your son's interest is only natural. Still, you need to make it clear that such material isn't appropriate for kids.
Find a way to condemn the pornography nonjudgmentally without condemning him for his curiosity. Tell him calmly, "That's a website for adults; you need to stick to sites for kids." Then bookmark the sites you've approved—and be sure to download some parental controls for the family computer.