“Mommy, where do babies come from?” It is the question we know full well that our child will ask us one day, yet we can never quite be prepared enough for it. Educational Psychologist Claire Maher offers some helpful insight into the when, where and how of the dreaded sex talk with your child.
It is important for parents to address where babies come from, and what sex is and means with their children. Rather than your child finding out the (often incorrect) information from the older sibling of their classmate, or something they’ve seen on television, it is your responsibility to inform your child. Schools will provide a certain level of Life Orientation and ‘Sex Ed’ but in many environments the onus is left on the parents to explain and teach their child. Parents can obtain support from online resources, other parents and their children’s teachers if necessary.
What To Share, and When
The conversation about sex is generally preceded by conversations and teachings about the body, genitalia and which behaviours are acceptable in public and which are not. The general rule of thumb is to only provide your young child with as much as they’re wanting to know. When your 4 year old child asks where babies come from they are not asking for the intricate details, but rather an understandable explanation. Many baby books describe a ‘special cuddle’ between mom and dad which leads to a baby in mom’s ‘tummy’ and 9 months later a little brother or sister arrives. For certain age groups these details are enough. Older children require more information.
The following is a guideline of what to expect, and how to approach the various developmental stages a child will go through in the process of exploring themselves, and learning about the birds and the bees.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
- Answer the question directly (age appropriately). Don’t beat around the bush.
- Tell the truth – stories about storks are not helpful, and can lead to embarrassment for your child later on.
- Keep up to date on your knowledge – the last thing you want is to feed your child misinformation.
- Remain calm – you’re not the first parent who has had to answer these questions.
- Use language your child can understand.
- Use correct terms for genitalia and physical/sexual acts.
- Use resources – books and little video clips can be exceptionally helpful in explaining.
- Be aware of the different age groups, and what types of information they may require
- Avoid your child’s question. If you don’t have an answer on the spot, tell them you’ll get back to them. And then get back to them.
- Assume they’re too young to know. If they’re asking, they’re old enough.
- Try to stop the conversation – this sends the message that your child shouldn’t be curious, which confuses them.
- Prohibit a discussion about sex or conceal the word from your child, just inform responsibly and appropriately.
- Place negative connotations on sex, or sexual urges and feelings, but discuss when these urges are appropriate and how they should be handled.
The times are a’changing
Access to information at the click of a button can influence how much your child knows about a variety of topics – including sex. Social media exposes children to images or information that could be inappropriate for their age or developmental level. It is important that parents are aware of what their children are viewing or accessing on social media and the internet, and rather provide the information themselves. If parents are reluctant to talk about sex the chances are that your child will find out from the internet or their peers – both sources that can often fail to be reliable. As parents you are able to provide the information for your child in ‘bite size’ chunks that are understandable and appropriate for them. By leaving them to their own devices the opportunity for them to enquire and ask further questions becomes limited.
When talking about sex is awkward
If your child is too shy to discuss sex, or opts not to discuss it even when you feel it may be developmentally appropriate for them to know, offer them a book to assist them. Books feel less threatening and your child can choose to read it in their own time, without what may feel like an interrogation or lecture from their parents. Remind them that you’re available for discussion should they have any questions.
Try not to make ‘the talk’ a big deal, but rather a series of conversations over time where your child learns and becomes more knowledgeable as they grow. Talking about sex earlier on (age appropriately of course) makes the more detailed discussion later on a lot less awkward. If your child already has some knowledge, and is simply building on what they know, it feels more comfortable.
Some Red Flags
Be aware of any behaviour that may suggest your child knows more about sex or sexual activity than what you have taught them about. This may be displayed in their drawings, play, conversation with their peers or inappropriate behaviours such as touching others or themselves publicly. It is important to gently enquire with your child where they may have learnt or heard about certain things, ensuring they know they are not in trouble. It may be necessary to seek further psychological or medical assistance if you are concerned that your child’s behaviour or exposure could be more serious. Earlier sexual awareness can be signs that there has been some exposure to inappropriate material or possible abuse. In a similar vein your child needs to be taught about how to respect the boundaries of others, and which behaviours are appropriate between two people. Skills such as empathy, respect and insight into ones own feelings are all important ways for children to become more in touch with themselves and therefore with others. As with most aspects of parenting, model positive behaviour and attitudes, and maintain open lines of communication with your children.
Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine