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Talking to Kids About Sex

When I was in my early 20s, I used to babysit for my neighbor's two daughters. One evening as my boyfriend and I stood talking to their parents, 4-year-old Emily joined in with a conversation stopper.

"Do you have a penis?" she demanded of my boyfriend, who looked suddenly like a deer caught in the headlights. "Because," Emily continued, "my daddy has one. He says all boys have penises and all girls have vaginas."

"Uh, that's right," said my boyfriend weakly. And then all the grown-ups laughed with what could only be called relief. Later that evening, my boyfriend wondered whether it was right to teach little children such words. I shrugged. I had no idea.

Fifteen years later, with two little kids of my own, I'm still not sure I have the right answers. If you feel the way I do, take this quiz and find out what the experts suggest we say when our kids ask those embarrassing, conversation-stopping questions.

Questions: 1-3

1. Your 3-year-old wants to know where that baby in your stomach came from. You tell her:

A. The stork brought it.

B. Daddy and Mommy made it.

C. Here, have a nice, big cookie!

Answer: B. Although there's never one answer to this question, your response should be a simple version of the truth.

"Little kids are concrete thinkers," says Linda Ladd, Ph.D., chair of family sciences at Texas Woman's University, in Denton. So telling them about the stork, even in jest, will just confuse them.

Providing basic - and factual  -- answers to a young child's first questions about sex sets the stage for the ongoing dialogue to come. "It should be a conversation, instead of a lecture, so there's plenty of give-and-take," says Anne Bernstein, Ph.D., a Berkeley, California-based family psychologist and author of Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) About Sex and Family Building. When you answer your child forthrightly, she learns that she can go to you with any question she has in the future. Squirm or dodge the issue and even a preschooler gets the message: Don't ask, don't tell.

2. Your 5-year-old now wants to know how you make a baby. You tell him:

A. To ask Daddy.

B. Daddy puts his seed, called sperm, in Mommy.

C. Daddy puts his penis in Mommy's vagina. That's called having sex.

Answer: B. Your child just wants some general information to start with  -- not a technical description. (You can add details later, if he wants to know more.)

"Parents tend to take an all-or-nothing approach," says Patricia Moylan, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan, in Detroit. "When your child asks why your stomach's getting bigger, you don't need to go into the cells dividing. Just say that the baby is growing inside your uterus, so your stomach looks bigger. Don't overexplain."

What if your child demands the answer when you're at the grocery store? "Say you'll explain it when you get home," says Moylan. "Part of learning about sex is learning when and where it's an appropriate topic."

Don't let yourself off the hook at home, though, says Moylan. Bring it up yourself: "Remember you had a good question about how a baby gets into a mommy's belly?" and go from there.

3. Your 2-year-old likes to watch you change your newborn's diapers. "What's that?" she asks, pointing at his penis. You say:

A: That's what's going to pee all over you if we don't get a diaper on it!

B: It's his penis. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas.

C: That's his pee-pee.

Answer: B. Even though most of us are still struggling with our inner Puritan, the wisest policy is to use the proper names for sexual organs right from the very beginning.

Toddlers want to be sure they have the same parts as everyone else, so it helps if everyone is using the same word. "From the time they're babies, we tell them, "This is your hand and these are your toes,'" says Karen Martin, a certified sex therapist and program coordinator of the Sexuality Center, Long Island Jewish Hospital, in Lake Success, New York. "Then we get to the genitals and start using these cop-out names like "pee-pee.' It's subtle, but the first message they get is that there's something peculiar about these parts of the body. We should be using correct terms."

Questions: 4-6

4. You have an open-door bathroom policy while you potty train your almost 3-year-old. One day she asks if she can touch Daddy's penis. Dad should:

A. Scream, "Absolutely not!!"

B. Revoke the open-door policy immediately.

C. Say no, and calmly explain why she can't.

Answer: C. For a toddler, there's no difference between a foot, a neck, and a penis  -- they're all just body parts. Nor do they understand why such a request might embarrass anyone #151; especially their parents.

"When a child asks about bodies, it can be quite awkward for parents. That can make it difficult for you to deal with the question matter-of-factly," says Martin. This is a good opportunity to start teaching your child about what's private. The standard definition is that everything a bathing suit covers is private  -- and you can add that people don't usually show those private parts of their body outside the bathroom or let others touch them. (You can also add, except moms and dads when they need to clean you and doctors when they need to examine you.)

5. It's been awfully quiet upstairs. When you go up, you find your 5-year-old and his kindergarten pal with their clothes off, examining each other. You:

A. Tell them they need to have their clothes on for snacks downstairs.

B. Take the other kid home immediately, then give your son a time-out.

C. Apologize for barging in and close the door so they can have privacy.

Answer: A. If you make a big scene, you'll just scare the kids. But unless you're comfortable with the idea of your child playing these types of games until he satisfies his curiosity, you should probably step in and redirect him and his friend to another activity (snacks are always a good diversion).

"Children like to check out other kids' bodies," says Ladd. "You can't fault them for being curious, but you need to explain why bodies are private."

When you're all downstairs eating pretzels, tell them it's okay to be curious but on playdates they should keep their clothes on, say experts. Later, when your child's buddy has left, you can elaborate. This would be a good opportunity to tell him what's okay touching  -- hugging your family and friends  -- and what's not #151; touching other people's genitals or letting people touch his.

If he's still interested in what bodies look like, you can get him an age-appropriate book. (For some good choices, see "Books for All Ages.")

Be sure to call the other child's parents and tell them what the kids were up to so they can have their own discussion. It's also wise for you and your mate to get in sync, says Martin. "Parents should talk to each other about how they want to talk to their kids about sex," she says. "That way, they can be consistent."

6. Your 3-year-old wants to know if he can have a baby too. You:

A: Laugh at him.

B: Assure him that if he really wants to when he grows up, he can.

C: Tell him no, only mommies can have babies.

Answer: C. It might seem like an adorably cute statement to you, but to a 3-year-old it's no joke. He won't understand why he can't have babies too unless you tell him why.

"This isn't a sex question at all, it's a reproduction question," says Meg Zweiback, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing. "He wants to know where newborns come from. You can tell him they come from mommies and that he can be a daddy and help make a baby when he's grown-up."

If your little boy feels cheated, that's a cue to sit him down and tell him all the ways a father helps take care of an infant.

Questions: 7-9

7. Your 4-year-old recently discovered he can make his penis get bigger, and he wants to show his new trick to Grandma. You:

A. Acknowledge the wonder of his anatomy  -- and explain that he should keep his new trick to himself.

B. Ask Grandma to visit when he's sound asleep.

C. Tell your spouse to deal with it.

Answer: A. It is a neat trick, so don't squelch his innocent enthusiasm by shaming him or getting angry.

"What needs to be said to both boys and girls is 'I know that's fun and feels good, but it's private and should be done in your room by yourself. It isn't okay to share that with others,'" says Sylvia Hacker, associate professor emerita at the Schools of Nursing and Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Any self-respecting 4-year-old will then promptly ask, "Why not?" You can tell him it's not polite to do it around other people, or invoke collective behavior ("The rule is you don't touch your penis in front of others"). After all, part of the discussion about sex is teaching young children about what's socially appropriate  -- ideally, without conferring any sense of shame along with it.

8. Your 7-year-old tells you she's heard kids saying, "That's so gay." What does "gay" mean? she asks. You:

A: Tell her it's an old-fashioned word for "happy" and leave it at that.

B: Rent La Cage aux Folles.

C: Explain that it's a term used for homosexuals.

Answer: C. Before you get into a discussion of why people would sometimes use that word pejoratively, this is probably the appropriate time to explain to a child this age what homosexuality is. "Tell her that some men and women fall in love with other men and other women and live together as a couple," says Bernstein.

Playground vernacular being what it is, this phrase probably isn't invoking anything to do with homosexuality. But you may want to talk about why children sometimes want to hurt one another's feelings with words they don't fully understand.

9. Your 8-year-old confides that a classmate has a magazine with photos of naked women in it. You:

A. Explain that magazines like that are for grown-ups.

B. Ground him for a week.

C. Tell him he should like looking at naked women; he's a boy!

Answer: A. But you might want to ask him what the pictures showed and find out if he has any questions about them.

If he felt uncomfortable seeing those images, tell him that's okay; he doesn't have to look at them and he can just tell his friends he's not interested. And if he liked what he saw? Be matter-of-fact: Tell him it's normal to find nudity appealing. If you find that type of magazine pornographic, now's not the time to discuss it  -- unless you know the photos showed explicit acts, say experts.

Between 8 and 10, kids can become more curious, so if you haven't already, you may want to provide some reading material that goes into more detail. Remember to thank him for confiding in you and add that he can always go to you first when issues like this come up. One benefit of talking honestly about sex during the early years is that a child will have more to go on when he gets to grade school, when friends and the media also become sources of information.

Many parents worry that the more kids know about sex, the more likely they are to try it out. The experts insist that the opposite is true: Study after study shows that children who have more information are less likely to become sexually active earlier. After all, teaching your kids about sex is teaching them about life, says Martin. "It goes on constantly. Or it should. If you're waiting to have that birds-and-bees conversation when they're thirteen, that's way too late."

Julie Tilsner is the author, most recently, of Attack of the Toddlers.

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