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How To Talk To Your Child About Sex

From the time my daughter was a toddler, I dreaded the Big Talk. You know, the one about sex. I'm no prude, but I feared that I'd say the wrong thing at the wrong time, embarrassing myself and her, and damaging her nascent sexual psyche. Whenever my husband and I discussed how to handle it, he'd gleefully remind me that since we had a girl, the actual talking would be my responsibility. So I continued to debate what to say and how to say it.

But a funny thing happened. Sex started to come up in lots of little ways, and it had to be handled by both me and my husband. There was the time, when my child was 2, that she noticed her friend was anatomically different from her. After I explained that boys had penises, she proudly announced this to the entire nursery school class. At age 5 she wanted to know how babies are born, though she refused to believe the basics of vaginal birth ("No way! That's too weird!") And not long after that, I caught her having her way with a pillow on the living-room sofa. Once I got over my initial shock, I told her that while this was a perfectly acceptable activity, she and her pillow belonged in the privacy of her room.

I've yet to have the Big Talk with her, and she's 9 now. But we've had lots of little chats about sex over the years. According to experts, that's a smart approach. "Kids can't grasp the concept of sex in one big discussion," says Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-area family therapist. It's best to convey information in little nuggets and when specific situations arise. Besides, he says, "children will tune out if you drone on about anything for too long, even sex."

When to Talk The Talk

"The best time to start is when kids pose the first innocent questions," says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in Washington DC. "How you respond will not only teach them the facts of life, but the values that you'd like them to live by."

While some parents worry that explaining the birds and the bees at a young age will encourage kids to have sex later on, research shows just the opposite.

So whether you'd like to preach no petting until 16, total abstinence until marriage, or "no sex until we're dead," you should answer your child's sex questions matter-of-factly.

Of course, no one said it was easy. "I'm screaming 'Oh no!' on the inside whenever they ask about sex," says Derina Burrough, the mother of three children under age 6, in Peoria, AZ. "But I always answer their questions."

If you don't maintain this grin-and-answer-it attitude, experts warn that even a toddler can pick up on your discomfort. "And you don't want him to think sex is a shameful topic," say s Brown. "If he feels that you're unapproachable, he'll be less willing to talk to you when he's older and sex is more of an issue."

Keeping It Simple

When your child asks a specific question, keep your answer short and to the point. "My 3-year-old son, Jacob, once wanted to know if I had a penis," recalls Suzi Prokell, of Richardson, TX. "All I said was, 'Women have vaginas instead.' That was enough to satisfy his curiosity, because he then changed the subject." If you're not sure of what to say, offer to discuss the matter later—after you've had time to talk through your answer with your spouse or other parents, or to look up facts in a book.

Also keep in mind that some questions may sound sex- related, but aren't. When your 2-year-old asks, "Where do I come from, Mommy?" the answer could be as simple as "Englewood, New Jersey," rather than a discourse on the human reproductive cycle. By keeping your answers simple, and filling in more details only as your child asks for them, there's a greater likelihood that you'll both stay on the same wavelength.

Here, common tricky situations and how to handle them:

Your toddler wants to know the names of all his body parts.

Starting at around age 2, kids become fascinated with their body, and eventually they'll ask what that thing between their legs is called. Saying "penis" and "vulva" to a toddler may feel weird, but "wee-wee" and "pee-pee" aren't any more kid-appropriate. In fact, experts say that using made-up words rather than anatomically correct ones may only confuse children. "They need access to a vocabulary that others will understand," says Anne Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) About Sex and Family Building. And these nicknames are often associated with excretion, which could make human sexuality seem dirty.

"Toddlers also want to make sure that they have the same equipment as others of the same gender," says Kendrick. "It's one of the earliest ways they start identifying with their own sex. Using the right vocabulary makes it a lot easier for them to do this."

What to do: When you're going over the names of body parts, put genitals on the list. "When my sons were toddlers, I'd tell them, 'This is your nose, these are your legs, this is your penis,' giving it no more emphasis than anything else," says Burrough. "That way, they didn't think it was something to be ashamed of, but just another part of their body."

Potential pitfall: Sometimes parents don't discuss with each other how they want to educate their kids about sex. So when a young child suddenly fires off a question, each adult may offer a different explanation or use a different terminology, which muddies the issue. Agree on a general approach while your kids are still toddlers. "It's okay if one of you is more comfortable addressing your child's questions," says Kendrick. "But he should know he can talk to either parent and receive consistent information."

Even if your spouse is the designated hitter, be prepared and willing to discuss sex as well. One way to raise your comfort level: role-play together. "Just saying the words 'penis' and 'vulva' out loud a few times can help prevent stumbling," says Bernstein.

Your child wants to know how babies are made.

This could come up as early as at age 2 or 3, especially if you or someone close to the family is pregnant. But some kids don't express any curiosity until age 5 or so. If the topic hasn't been raised by then, you may consider bringing it up yourself, says Kendrick. Say something like, "When I was your age, I wanted to know how babies are made. Do you want to know too?" Your child may have heard disturbing tales from her pals and be relieved that you've volunteered to give her the real scoop.

What To Do: Start by asking her how she thinks babies are made. You want to clear up any misconceptions. When interviewing kids ages 3 and 4, Bernstein found that some think infants come from heaven or are bought at the hospital or at a baby store. One 4-year-old told Bernstein that if you want a baby, you buy a duck. "Her reasoning seemed strange until she revealed that she'd been given a book about reproduction that discussed ducks before it discussed people, and she concluded that one leads to the other," Bernstein says.

Is there any harm in letting kids think that babies come from stores or from ducks? "It's a confusing foundation upon which to build further discussions," says Bernstein. "And when your child eventually clues in that you weren't truthful, she may turn to other sources she considers more reliable—like her friends."

Make it clear—even to toddlers—that only people can create babies. Bernstein suggests: "A mother and a father make a baby from an ovum in a mommy's body and a sperm from a daddy's body. The baby then grows in a special place inside the mommy's body called the uterus." There's no need to explain how the baby actually gets out unless your child asks. But if she does, you can say that when the baby is ready, it travels through a tunnel that has an opening at the end. The baby starts at the uterus and goes out through the vagina.

Some preschoolers may also want to know how sperm get inside a woman, which could raise the issue of intercourse. While it's up to you to teach moral values regarding sex, Bernstein says even 4-year-olds can hear about sexual relations—just keep it age-appropriate: "To them, it's just another physical process—any sense of whether it's good or bad comes from you."

Kendrick suggests this simple explanation, which you can alter to suit your family's values: "When two grownups love each other, they want to be close in many ways. One way they show it is by doing something called sex. When a man and woman have sex, a man puts his penis into a woman's vagina. That's how the sperm gets into the woman's body to join with the egg and make a baby."

If you're uncomfortable discussing the subject—and many people are—a children's book can be useful. "When Jacob throws out a question that catches me off guard," says Suzi Prokell, "we'll read together. It answers the questions correctly and takes some of the pressure off me."

Potential pitfall: Your child may have absurd ideas about how babies are made, but don't shame her for her fanciful thoughts. Bernstein advises saying something like: "I can see why you might have thought babies come from a store since that's where we get lots of other things. But only a man and a woman can make a baby."

Be sure to use clear terms when explaining the human reproductive cycle. "If you say 'seed' instead of sperm, a child may wonder about the procreative abilities of apples and pumpkins. If you tell her that a baby grows in mommy's tummy, she may conclude that she's pregnant the next time she has a tummy ache," Bernstein says.

You catch your child touching her private parts in public.

Your true test as a parent is what you do after you see your child masturbating. Kids start to explore their body, including their genitals, at a very early age, experts say. 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.

That's reassuring to hear, but it's still a little shocking to witness. When I first saw my daughter masturbating while watching cartoons in the living room, I'm proud to say I kept my cool... sort of. Actually, I froze and tried to figure out what to do. After taking a moment, I was able to explain that while the activity was fine, it was only appropriate in private. Taking that extra time worked to both our benefits. "Anything that stops you from demanding, 'What are you doing down there?!!!' is a good thing," says Richard Eyre, a father of nine and the co-author of How to Talk to Your Child About Sex. "Making a child feel bad about giving herself pleasure can create lasting sexual shame."

What to do: You might say, "I know that touching your vulva (or penis) feels good, but it's something to be done in private." When he was a toddler, Jane Kirby's son Jacob, now 7, would absentmindedly touch himself while she read to him at night, making her uncomfortable. "I'd say, 'It's okay to do it, but please wait until I leave the room, 'says the Charlotte, VT, mom.

Potential pitfall: 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,"' says Eyre.

Your child sees sex on TV

As parents, we're often more concerned about the violent images that our kids are exposed to. But casual sex scenes are just as pervasive—and may affect far more children. "I'd guess that a tiny fraction of kids emulate the violence they see in movies and on TV, but a much larger number are forever influenced by the sexual mores and values conveyed through the media," says Eyre. For example, you're watching a show with the family, and then a commercial for Victoria's Secret airs. In seconds, it can convey to your daughter that it's cool to dress provocatively, and to your son that it takes big breasts and skimpy clothes for a woman to be attractive. You may think these ideas are going over their heads, say experts, but they register, even with preschoolers.

What to do: "Let your kids see you and your spouse snuggling on the couch," says Kendrick. "You'll teach them that sexuality is about tenderness and loving your partner."

Also, try to keep up with kid culture, so that if your child is listening to or watching something that you disapprove of' you can counterattack. "I didn't ban my 8-year-old daughter, Esther, from watching TLC's 'No Scrubs' video when I first saw it," says Leslie Levine, of Northbrook, IL. "But I told her that I disapproved of their sexy clothes and suggestive moves. And she agreed."

Potential pitfall: You can insulate preschoolers from media images. But restricting older kids only works to a point. "You may not be aware of everything that they're exposed to," says Eyre. "And something forbidden may only pique their interest."

The last thing you want to do is make the topic of sex taboo, Eyre says. Keeping an open atmosphere is the key to raising a sexually healthy child. As Jane Kirby says, "I was brought up to feel shame about anything sexual, but I'm determined to raise my son differently, even if it's sometimes difficult for me."

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