The "birds and the bees" talk is one that parents often put off as long as possible. But learning about sexuality is a normal part of child development, and answering your child's questions in an honest, age-appropriate way is the best strategy. Read on for tips on what to say, and when.
What kids can understand, age by age
Ages 2 to 3: The right words for private body parts, such as "penis" and "vagina"
Ages 3 to 4: Where a baby comes from. But they won't understand all the details of reproduction -- so a simple "Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born" is fine.
Ages 4 to 5: How a baby is born. Stick with the literal response: "When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy's vagina."
Ages 5 to 6: A general idea of how babies are made. ("Mom and Dad made you.") Or if your child demands more details: "A tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm joined together with a tiny cell inside Mom called an egg."
Ages 6 to 7: A basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, "Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through the penis and up to the egg." Explain what you think about sex and relationships. For instance: "Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other."
Ages 8 to 9: That sex is important, which your child has probably picked up from the media and her peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic, including rape. ("Remember when we talked about sex being part of a loving relationship? Rape is when someone forces another person to have sex, and that's wrong.")
Ages 9 to 11: Which changes happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.
Age 12: By now, kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information your child's getting. But avoid overkill or you'll be tuned out.
Handling specific questions
Your child's questions about sex don't always come up at convenient times or in predictable ways. Some common scenarios that can catch you off guard, and how to respond.
Your 3-year-old is fascinated by her baby brother's diaper changes. "What's that?" she asks, pointing to his penis.
How to respond: You may be tempted to change the subject quickly, and fasten that diaper even faster, but that can give kids the idea that talking about private parts is taboo. Instead, be matter-of-fact and say, "That's how you can tell the difference between a girl and a boy. It's called a penis. You have a vagina." Don't be surprised if the question comes up again and again while your child 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." Or, if the question requires a more involved answer, you can reply with "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 it later and answer any questions your child has.
Hoping to demystify the potty for your toddler, you let her watch you pee. She asks, "Why do you have hair down there?"
How to respond: 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. You can also add that when she gets to be a big girl like her mother and her aunts, she'll have hair covering her private parts, too.
Your child tells you his classmate has two mommies. "How can that be?" he asks.
How to respond: Homosexuality may be 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. Say, "In Ginny's family, her two mommies love each other the way Daddy and I do. So they live together, and both take care of Ginny."
If your child has heard a homosexual slur -- say, a classmate calls someone else "gay" and he wants to know what that means -- you can explain that sometimes boys fall in love with boys and girls fall in love with girls, but that the boy at school probably didn't really understand what he was talking about. Then remind your child that calling people names isn't nice and might hurt someone's feelings.
You catch your child touching or rubbing her private parts.
How to respond: Kids start to explore their bodies, including their genitals, at a very early age. Babies will touch themselves during diaper changes, and toddlers will sometimes stick their hands down their pants. They do this for comfort, not to achieve an orgasm. You might say, "I know that touching your vulva [or penis] feels good, but it's something to be done in private." Don't act as though masturbation should be avoided. Taking her hands away with a swift "Let's go color" is like saying, "What you're doing is so awful that I'm going to pretend I didn't see it."
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: Your explanation 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 bodies and get into the mommies. The sperm comes out of the daddy's penis and goes right into the vagina, a special place in the 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."
If you want to introduce a moral framework, you might say, "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 information like "Babies grow inside mommies." But now he wants to know what happens next: "How does the baby get out of there?"
How to respond: Accurate but uncomplicated answers are best. Try "Most babies come out through the mommy's vagina." You can add, "The vagina is like a tube inside the mommy. It stretches really wide so the baby can get outside."
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: 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.
Condemn the pornography without judging him. Calmly say, "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.
Storybooks can help get across the concept of sex to your child or further explain what you've already discussed. Check your local library, set aside time to sit and read together, then offer to answer any questions. Don't just send your child off to read in a room by herself, though. Being involved from the get-go will show her that she can come to you when she has more complicated or sensitive questions as she gets older.