Answering kids' questions about sex is one of the responsibilities many parents dread most. Otherwise confident parents often feel tongue-tied and awkward when it comes to sex. But the subject shouldn't be avoided. By answering kids' questions as they arise, parents can help foster healthy feelings about sex.
When do kids start becoming curious about sex?
Children are human beings and therefore sexual beings. It's hard for parents to acknowledge this, just as it's hard for kids to think of their parents as sexually active. But even infants have curiosity about their own bodies, which is healthy and normal.
What sort of "sexual" behavior do young kids exhibit?
Toddlers will often touch themselves when they are naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty. Their parents' reaction will tell them whether their actions are acceptable. Toddlers should not be scolded or made to feel ashamed of being interested in their bodies. It is natural for children to be interested in their own bodies. Some parents may choose to casually ignore self-touching. Others may want to acknowledge that, while they know it feels good, it is a private matter. Parents can make it clear that they expect the child to keep that activity private.
Parents should only be concerned about masturbation if a child seems preoccupied with it to the exclusion of other activities. Victims of sexual abuse sometimes become preoccupied with self-stimulation.
Is it OK to use nicknames for private parts?
By the time a child is 3 years of age, parents may choose to use the correct anatomical words. They may sound clinical, but there is no reason why the proper label shouldn't be used when the child is capable of saying it. These words — penis, vagina, etc. — should be stated matter-of-factly, with no implied silliness. That way, the child learns to use them in a direct manner, without embarrassment.
In fact, this is what most parents do. A Gallup Poll showed that 67% of parents use actual names to refer to male and female body parts.
What do you tell a very young child who asks where babies come from?
Depending on the child's age, you can say that the baby grows from an egg in the mommy's womb, pointing to your stomach, and comes out of a special place, called the vagina. There is no need to explain the act of lovemaking because very young kids will not understand the concept.
However, you can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to be close to one another. Tell them that the man's sperm joins the woman's egg and then the baby begins to grow. Most kids under the age of 6 will accept this answer. Age-appropriate books on the subject are also helpful. Answer the question in a straightforward manner, and you will probably find that your child is satisfied with a little information at a time.
What should you do if you catch kids "playing doctor" (showing private parts to each other)?
Kids 3 to 6 years old are most likely to "play doctor." Many parents overreact when they witness or hear of such behavior. Heavy-handed scolding is not the way to deal with it. Nor should parents feel this is or will lead to promiscuous behavior. Often, the presence of a parent is enough to interrupt the play.
You may wish to direct your child's attention to another activity without making a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your child for a talk. Explain that although you understand the interest in his or her friend's body, but that people are generally expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having made the child feel guilty.
This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good and bad touch. Tell kids that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to privacy. No one should touch kids if they don't like it or want it. Tell them that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels strange or bad, they should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that you want to know about anything that makes your kids feel bad or uncomfortable.
When should parents sit kids down for that all-important "birds and bees" talk?
Actually, never! Learning about sex should not occur in one all-or-nothing session. It should be more of an unfolding process, one in which kids learn, over time, what they need to know. Questions should be answered as they arise so that kids' natural curiosity is satisfied as they mature.
If your child doesn't ask questions about sex, don't just ignore the subject. At about age 5, you can begin to introduce books that approach sexuality on a developmentally appropriate level. Parents often have trouble finding the right words, but many excellent books are available to help.
At what age should nudity in the home be curtailed?
Families set their own standards for nudity, modesty, and privacy. Although every family's values are different, privacy is an important concept for all kids to learn. Parents should explain limits regarding privacy the same way that other house rules are explained — matter-of-factly — so that kids don't come to associate privacy with guilt or secrecy. Generally, they'll learn from the limits you establish for them.
To what extent can parents depend on schools to teach sex education?
Parents should begin the sex education process long before it starts in school. The introduction of formal sex education in the classroom varies; many schools start it in the fifth or sixth grade. Some of the topics addressed in sex-ed class may include anatomy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. Parents should be open to continuing the dialogue and answering questions at home. Schools tend to teach mechanics and science more than values. This is an area where parents can and should have something to teach.
At what age should girls be told about menstruation?
Girls (and boys!) should have information about menstruation by about age 8, some of which may be provided in school. Instructional books are helpful, but moms should also share their own personal experiences with their daughters, including when their periods first started and what it felt like, and how, like many things, it wasn't such a big deal after a while.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2008
Originally reviewed by: Pam Bushnell, LCSW, and Lee Lucas, LCSW