Toddlers and what? Preschoolers and what? S-E-X?
While parents and caregivers may be more prepared to give The Talk to their kids somewhere around puberty (or the age of 40), teaching your kids about sex should start at a much earlier age.
While this article is full of tips recommended by researchers and sexual health educators, it is also important to take your own situation into account. You know your child best. Modify these tips so that they fit your family and your child.
Instead of one big talk, try talking to kids through little conversations that are dropped into life here and there. Plant the seeds early in life. It’s easier than transplanting a whole tree later on.
For one, small chats take the pressure off you to have one amazing talk. Even for those of us who educate and present for a living, we always think of the best thing to say as we’re driving away.
Occasional talks also give your child think time. They can reflect on the information, then ask you questions. They simply cannot absorb everything at once. (Plus, there will always be something to make them ask new questions.)
The best learning happens over time, as we stretch our minds to accommodate new information. Sometimes, we have to change our old ideas. Sometimes, we just have to add more details.
If you aim to stretch your child’s thinking about sex, then start early with the basics.
One great place to begin?
Tell your child the names of body parts.
It will be much better for you down the road if your child knows what a penis is. Or what a vulva is. (It’s not a car.)
Proper names for genitals also protect kids. It means they can talk to you or their medical caregivers in the appropriate language. (They can tell you that their left testicle hurts. Or that their vulva is itchy.)
In the worst case scenario, it can protect them from sexual predators or allow for quicker reporting of assaults. Would you know to call Community Services or the police if a child said someone asked to touch her biscuits? That’s one reason why cute words can be harmful.
It can be hard to start calling a penis a penis or an anus an anus, but your child should understand body basics. After all, an elbow is an elbow.
Describe things as they are.
Many of us are guilty of this one—telling a toddler babies grow in tummies.
While this may dodge a few awkward questions, it is even more awkward to know that children get their reproductive and digestive systems confused. That’s why they sometimes think you poop out babies. Or eat seeds to grow babies.
The next time your child sees a pregnant woman on TV, tell them, “There’s a baby growing in the woman’s uterus.”
Your child may ask what a uterus is. Or they may ask if they can have a cup of juice. But it provides them with the right information that won’t confuse them down their road. Even though you may not need to describe how babies are made right now, they will understand that a uterus is different from a tummy. When a girl learns about menstruation, it will make much more sense if she knows that she is not shedding the lining of her stomach.
Children should be taught that condoms are like tissues.
They help spread infections and if you see a used one, you shouldn’t touch it. (You never know when your child might see one on a walking trail.)
But it’s important for your child to know that condoms protect your health. While this information isn’t relevant at four, it will be vital once they are teenagers or adults. By then, they will already know that condoms provide safety. (And that people don’t appreciate finding them at parks.)
They need to know that while touching yourself is healthy, it’s good manners to do it in private.
Anyone with small children knows that they will randomly touch their genitals in the worst places at the worst times. That sometimes means the kitchen table while people are visiting.
Children don’t think of these things in terms of sex, so don’t panic. They just know these parts are special and feel good when touched.
It’s a hard balance to teach them to love their bodies while emphasizing not to do it during breakfast—but you can do it! And you can do it without shaming them.
Remind them that although it’s healthy to touch yourself, it needs to be done in private to respect other people. This may be in their bed or bathtub. Ask them if they understand where they can do this politely.
Let them know they choose who touches their bodies. And that if anyone touches them, it’s not a secret they should keep.
Children should know about inappropriate touching. Trusted adults will never ask to touch their genitals, unless they are being washed at bath time or a doctor is providing an examination (no doubt a trusted adult will be there anyway).
This all helps to protect your child from predators. But it also teaches them to respect their bodies, which is good at every age.
Even though we preach things like stranger danger, people are sometimes assaulted by people they know or people they trust. If your child knows they have the right to say no to someone touching their genitals, they will understand how to set boundaries.
As a teen or adult, they may find themselves with a partner who doesn’t understand consent. A child who has been taught to respect their bodies, and have people respect them, will be better equipped to stand up for themselves. Although this cannot prevent everything (after all, the victim is not to blame), it can help them say no to things that make them feel uncomfortable.
Just be prepared to emphasize that bad touches are specific, and do not include getting unpleasant things like flu shots!
You may also get your family to ask your child for hugs and kisses. There may be times when a child does not want to be touched. Although Grandma may be a little hurt that she doesn’t get a hug at the end of a long visit, your child should be allowed to decline unwanted touches. (A talk with Grandma about why you allow this may help the situation, especially if you say you want to give your child the tools to protect themeslves.)
Ask your child to respect your privacy and boundaries.
Set the right example. If you dislike being disturbed at bath time, ask your child to respect your privacy. This provides a great model of how to ask for what you need assertively.
We all deserve our privacy. Eventually, when your child is old enough to bathe alone, they may ask for their privacy.
It’s okay to explain how babies are made. Really.
Children may be curious about how babies are made, especially if a new sibling is growing or they see their friends getting new brothers and sisters.
As time goes on, it’s natural to have curiosity about pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation, or nocturnal emissions. If the child has older siblings who are using tampons or pads, or washing their bedsheets after a wet dream, they may have more questions.
Give them simple answers. You may not have to go into great detail about sex—just that a woman’s egg and man’s sperm come together to grow a baby.
If they ask how these things come together, you can explain that grown ups have something called sex. Often, a penis goes into a vagina in order to put the sperm there.
A great resource for parents is Meg Hickling’s Boys, Girls & Body Science.
This short book is perfect for young children. It explains many facts about sex in an age-appropriate way. You can always go into more detail as the child grows older.
Read the book, or a similar book, to your child at night, then ask if they have questions. Bedtime is a great time to have these conversations. You may want to follow up later on, too.
Be prepared for repetition. And more repetition.
Children often need to repeat things in order to learn them. This may result in many questions. You may have to go over things a few times. Try not to get frustrated. It’s all part of the learning process.
Tell your child you’re open to questions and conversations.
In the end, it’s all about being available to your child. They may have questions about sex when they’re 30. Feel honoured if they come to you for advice or information.
Research suggests that kids DO want to hear sexual health information from their parents (even if they protest and say “ew” when you mention the word sex).
Letting your child know that you are open to talking with them will invite more conversations in the future. Even though you may not know everything (and none of us do), you will be able to investigate the answers together. Try our website links. Or read one of our pamphlets.
Help your child stay safe by knowing their body and how to respect other people’s bodies. Good sexual health education delays the start of sexual activity and increases the chances protection will be used. It reduces infections and unplanned pregnancies. These are things we want for children.
If you have any questions about talking to your children, contact us. We have story books and parent resources to help make the process easier.
Some interesting resources:
It’s Easier Than You Think! A short PDF with the basics, along with tips for generating great conversations. There are useful resources on the last page.
Parent Portal: TeachingSexualHealth.ca. This link goes to video clips. But there’s a lot of practical info on the site. I love how the father compares protection to car insurance. They also have a great resource page right here. While these videos feature older children, they give you a feel for how to talk to your child at any age.