Conversations about sex and sexuality are nearly always avoided by parents for as long as possible. They often seem to wait for the ‘right time’ or in the hope that their child’s school will teach them and they won’t have to. Some parents may try to protect their children from finding out details about sex, or how babies are made, which can often be to their detriment because they end up finding out the details from elsewhere.
Many children find out about sex or sex related behaviours from their friends, who have found out from their older brothers or sisters. Just like a game of broken telephone, this information is often skewed and leaves children feeling a variety of feelings about sex. Parents need to be available to correct misinformation, or ideally to provide accurate information prior to their child getting the ‘low down’ from their 11 year old classmate. Explanations such as ‘the stork dropped you off’ are unhelpful at any age, and in some ways detract from the meaning in carrying and giving birth to a baby. For a child to think they came from the stork can take away the personal aspects of what it means to be somebody’s baby. Misconceptions about a dad ‘weeing’ into mom need to be avoided too. Your child may end up wondering how many babies they’re going to be making by weeing on the plants or near girls in the swimming pool.
The right time
There is no set age that the ‘birds and the bees’ talk should be had. If conversations about sex and sexuality are had from early on, the birds and the bees talk becomes more of a series of conversations, rather than one big lecture or discussion. My general rule of thumb is that if your child is asking questions it’s time to provide some answers. That doesn’t mean that you have to get into the ‘nitty gritty’ but your child requires age appropriate details and answers to the questions they’re asking. Do not go into detail that is not asked for – if your child asks how a baby comes out of mommy, tell them that, and only that. You don’t have to go into detail about how the baby got there in the first place (although it’s bound to be asked at some stage) – unless you feel they’re old enough to know this too.
A child’s age and developmental stage needs to be taken into account when discussing sex and sexuality with them. At some ages it is acceptable that a child only knows of a ‘special cuddle’ (as most ‘Where do babies come from?’ books word it) between their parents that results in a baby. However, later on your child will want to know what the difference is between a mom and dad’s special cuddle and the hugs they freely distribute to their siblings or parents. It is acceptable to explain to a 3 year old that mommy has a baby in her tummy, but later on questions may arise about how the baby fits in with food that is also in the tummy, or how it got there in the first place. By 5 or 6 a discussion of a sperm and egg can be had, but details on how the two came to meet up can be left for a later age. By about 7 children will be able to gain a basic understanding of intercourse. The penis and vagina fitting together, with a description of sperm swimming to meet the egg is an acceptable explanation. Discussing your feelings about sex, such as ‘sex is one of the ways that people show love for each other’ can also create a healthy atmosphere about sex.
Where possible use the correct terms for private parts – such as penis, vagina and testicles. For a number of reasons this is important – it ensures your child will not be teased later on for using other words to describe their genitalia, and they will also be better able to understand what is being discussed when they receive ‘sex-ed’ lessons at school, or if they need to talk to an adult about something related. Using correct names also makes sex a serious and genuine topic, and not something that can be laughed off or assigned ‘nicknames.’ By calling a penis a penis and a vagina a vagina the taboo about sex is taken away – it doesn’t have to be a topic that requires euphemisms.
Help your child set boundaries
It is important to have regular discussions with your child from early on about their body, and what people can and cannot do to them. Some parents will explain to their child that nobody is allowed to touch them in their ‘costume area’ – the places that their bathing costume would cover. Parents need to create a healthy attitude toward sex, but also giving children the ability to differentiate between what feels good and what feels uncomfortable and bad. When children gain a greater understanding of the concept of sex, and when they’re able to read, they may begin to ask questions about what they see in the media. Topics such as rape may also come up and need to be handled with care. After discussing how sex is part of a loving relationship, rape can be explained as somebody forcing another to have sex which is not ok. This can be followed with further reiteration of not allowing others to make you feel uncomfortable, and what to do if they are made to feel uncomfortable by others. Children need to know that their bodies belong to them, and nobody else has a right to do something to them that they do not want to happen. If sex is not a taboo topic in a household or school children will be more readily able to talk about rape or if somebody has sexually abused or mistreated them. If they think sex has to be kept a secret or is something that children should not talk about they may not be open to talking about abuse.
Don’t dismiss curiosity
A curiosity about a peer of the opposite sex’s body should not be dismissed and your child should be able to talk to you about their curiosities. When children become more aware of their own bodies they become aware that there are differences between them and their opposite sex counterparts. From very early on your child may explore their body and touch their genitals – either during nappy changes, or while watching television. This behaviour is generally self-soothing in nature and not sexual. However, your child needs to be aware that these behaviours are ok at home, but may not be as readily accepted in public. Dismissing their behaviour or punishing them can send a negative message about masturbation which needs to be avoided in order for a child to develop a healthy self-image and sexuality.
What if talking about sex is awkward?
As is true with any ‘difficult’ topic to broach with your children, books are helpful. As mentioned, ‘Where do babies come from’ or ‘My body’ books can be useful conversation starters or tools in order to deal with these topics with your child. Books seem to separate the ‘issue’ from you and your child, and reading about a fictional character can often make these difficult topics easier to engage with. Books are also less threatening, and allow your child to read and learn about a certain topic without having to have an awkward conversation with you about it.
If your child asks questions that are either not age appropriate, or are asked at appropriate times (like in the queue at the store), find a way to give them an answer in some form. If you feel their question is not age appropriate, tell them that you’ll get back to them on their answer (if you’re not sure how to respond at the time), but make sure you do go back with an answer – simplified if necessary. If they ask you something that is difficult or awkward for you to discuss in front of others, make a point of answering them when you get home. As a parent you need to model a healthy relationship and attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex should not be taboo; it should not be uncomfortable for your child to talk about with you.
If you find as a parent that it is difficult to engage with your child about these topics, or answer their questions it may be necessary to explore your attitude towards sex and sexuality, or why these topics are difficult for you. If your ‘stuff’ is impacting on your child’s age appropriate understanding you may need to encourage your spouse or another close family member to assist in ‘teaching’ your child about sex, while also exploring (either personally or through therapy) your own difficulties or challenges.
Sex and sexuality are notorious for being awkward conversations that parents loathe to have with their child. However, as with any difficult topic, it is a parents’ duty to ensure that their child obtains correct information. It is of utmost importance for parents to model a healthy attitude about sex and sexuality, and children need to be encouraged to talk about their feelings, and not to have any feelings or behaviours dismissed. Children’s questions need to be answered with care and attention to their age and developmental stage and where parents feel unable, it is important that help is sought – for the sake of the parent and the child.