Parents truly are the primary sexuality educators for their children. We often aren’t aware that in the course of our daily lives, we are teaching children a great deal about sexuality. Our children learn from us as we love them, care for them, guide them and comfort them. They observe us with our partner, our own parents, in our roles at home, at work, and in our communities. Family life is where “sexuality education” begins!
Getting started: Tips for parents on teaching sexuality
Clarify your own values about sexuality. It’s important that you know where you stand, so that you can be clear with your child. Think about what you’d like your child to know about sex and sexuality. Sometimes we get so caught up in our concern about the negative consequences of sexual activity, that we forget to talk about love, relationships, communication and intimacy.
Consider your child’s stage of development. Make sure that you talk about things in a way that is sensitive to your child’s level of intellectual development. It is also a good idea to consider what your child is going through socially and emotionally at the time. You will find examples of his or her understanding in some of the questions asked-follow your child’s cues. For example, preschool children are very interested in factual information, but not necessarily long explanations. The everyday situations your child experiences will also help guide your discussions. Your preteen will be very concerned about having friends, ‘fitting in’, and ‘feeling normal’, while your older adolescent may be concerned with dating relationships and different social pressures.
Share your values, don’t lecture or preach. Children need to know your point of view. It is important, though, to remember not to impose your beliefs, and to really listen to what your child has to say. Adolescents, especially, want to make up their own minds about things. Trying to force your values and beliefs on them could backfire, and they may choose to reject your opinion in an effort to be independent thinkers. Let your child know what you believe, and why. You can try starting with “I feel/believe that……..… Because………”. You do have a great deal of influence with your child, but they will resist if you engage them in a battle of wills. The goal here is to keep the lines of communication open. If you make it easy for your children to approach you, they will. If they anticipate a lecture or an argument, they won’t. Let your child know that you love them and that you always want to help, even if they do things you do not like.
It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. You don’t need to be a ‘sex expert’ to help your child. The most important thing is probably the process of opening up and being willing to talk. Admit your discomfort. Your child will appreciate your honesty, and your willingness to deal with a little discomfort to discuss an important subject. If you can’t answer a question, suggest that you and your child find the answer together. You also don’t have to answer a question right away. You can acknowledge that the question is an important one, and you’d like a little more time to think about your answer. Be sure to go back to your child to continue the discussion, though, once you have had a chance to think.
Reward questions. Always let your child know that you’re glad that they came to you with their question (e.g. “That is a great question-I’m so glad that you came to me for an answer”). Make sure that you understand what they’re really asking (“Where did I come from?” may actually mean “What city was I born in?”). Many questions that children and adolescents ask are really “Am I normal?” questions in disguise. Make sure that you answer these ‘hidden’ questions as well. It’s a good idea to find out what they already know about the topic, so that your answer will meet their needs.
Don’t always wait until they ask the question. Some children will never ask, but they need the same information as everyone else. Use situations that come up in everyday life to raise the issue e.g. “Mrs. X is going to have a baby, did you ever wonder how that baby got started?”. Television programs that you are watching together may be another way to introduce a topic for discussion.
Keep your sense of humor! You can mortify your kids when they are older by repeating some of the questions they asked, or some of the amusing things they have said. One of the many joys of parenting!
Talking With Preschool and School Aged Children About Sexuality (3 to 8 years)
Good Reasons to Start Early!
- You’ll have some time to think about the values and beliefs you have around sexuality, so you’ll have a clear idea of what you’d like to share with your children.
- It’s easier! You can talk about things a bit at a time, and gradually build on topics you’ve already discussed.
- You’ll establish a level of comfort with your child on sexuality related topics (you’ll appreciate this when your child is older, and the issues become more complex!)
A Few Basics!
Use ‘dictionary’ words for body parts, in a matter of fact way (e.g., “OK, now it’s time to wash your penis”). Along with learning correct terms, your child will also learn that breasts, vulvas and penises are not ‘dirty’, and that they have ‘permission’ to talk about them.
Let your child know what the term ‘private parts’ means (generally, the body parts that are covered by a bathing suit). Children need to know that only they can touch their private parts, although parents or caregivers may need to help them sometimes with washing or after using the toilet. Let them know they can always talk to you about this.
Many books and Web sites are available to assist you. Reading a book with your child can be a wonderful way to begin discussions.
Some children may never ask questions, but they still need to know this stuff. If your child hasn’t asked about where babies come from by the age of six or seven or so, start thinking of ways to bring the subject up (talk about a television show where someone is pregnant, or a friend who is about to have a baby).
Talk about masturbation as it comes up (don’t worry, it is very normal for children to masturbate, touch or hold their genitals for comfort or pleasure). Acknowledge that it feels very nice, but that it is a private activity (one’s bedroom would be appropriate).
Some girls begin to menstruate as early as eight or nine years old. Menstruation usually begins about two years after breasts begin to develop, so young girls who are experiencing breast development will need to be prepared for their first period.
Where Did I Come From?
Every parent’s heart flutters a bit when they hear this. Here are some ideas for approaching the big question!
Reward the question (“That’s a very good question, I’m so glad you came to ask me.”)
Your child may already have given the question some thought. You can find out what she already knows by saying “That is a very good question. Where do you think you came from?” If your child says that her friend came from Thunder Bay, and she wants to know where she came from, you can exhale slowly and relax, because you’re off the hook for a little while. You could also use this as an opportunity to begin talking about when your child was born.
You don’t necessarily have to explain everything at once. You may say something like, “You grew from a tiny egg inside my (or your mother’s) uterus. The uterus is a special place inside each woman where babies grow and develop, until they are ready to be born.” Let your child know that the uterus is an organ in a woman’s lower abdomen. Always pause after an explanation to allow your child to absorb what you’ve just said, and to think about other questions (e.g. “How does the baby get out?” or “How does the baby get started?”). If your child is satisfied with your answer, you can leave it at that, or you can take the opportunity to discuss sexual intercourse if you feel the time is right. Remember that you may have to explain things over again, as your child may not take in everything you say initially (really they are not just trying to torture you!).
A Few Words About Development…
A child’s ability to think and understand is strongly influenced by his or her level of development. For example, preschoolers may invent explanations for things if they don’t have the correct information (also known as ‘magical thinking’). Slightly older children understand what is real and what is make believe, but their thinking is very much in the ‘here and now’ (‘concrete thinking’). You can help children to understand by making connections with something they have experienced (e.g. “Remember how big Aunt Julie’s belly got before Simon was born? He was growing inside her uterus.”) Children also love to hear about when their mom was pregnant with them, and the stories surrounding their birth. Children who are adopted will also enjoy hearing about how they came into their parent’s lives (although when adoptive parents choose to do this is a very personal decision).
Many preschool and primary aged children also love ‘bathroom’ humour, (those delightful jokes and discussions about farting and other fascinating bodily functions). This too shall pass…
How Does the Baby Get in There? How Does the Baby Get Started?…. (or: How to Make Your Parents Very Uncomfortable?)
Here is one suggestion for tackling such questions: (there are many others!) “To make a baby, you need sperm from the man, and an ovum (a tiny egg) from the woman. The sperm (a special kind of seed) is made in the man’s testicles, and it comes out of his penis (the sperm uses the same tube as urine does to get out). The ova (plural for ovum) are made in the woman’s ovaries, which are inside her body, in her lower abdomen. For the sperm and the egg to get together, the man puts his penis inside the woman’s vagina. When the sperm comes out of his penis, it swims up through the uterus and into a special tube where it meets the ovum. One sperm joins with the ovum, and, a new baby has begun! You may want to include a few other points, for example: (please include your own personal/cultural values here) that this is a grown up activity that feels really nice for both partners, and that it is one way that grown ups who love each other show their love for one another.
Although talking about sexuality with children can cause a little anxiety for parents, it is well worth the effort. You may find that the discussions that you have with your child will bring the two of you closer together. You will also show your children that they can come to you when they need to talk.
For you and your child, this a gift that lasts a lifetime.