It’s “the talk” many of us never had. Yet it’s the talk most of us, as parents, will have to give. The topic of sexuality is a topic that often provokes uneasiness, especially when it comes to discussing it with our children. Questions arise: When do I first broach the subject? What should my five year old know? How much information is too much? Should I wait until he or she expresses an interest? These are normal concerns for parents.
It is never too early to start talking to children about sexuality. Believe it or not, your child’s sex education has already begun, whether you have initiated it or not. Although parents may be a young child’s primary teacher of sexuality, kids learn from a variety of sources including friends, the media, daycare providers, school and the silent language of our own interactions. If we don’t provide them with information, they will obtain it from other sources including their fanciful imaginations. Many times, left to their own devices, children’s notions of sexuality perpetrate fear, ignorance and misconceptions that later take much effort to mend.
Providing children with age appropriate information is not only beneficial but empowering. The key is knowing what information is suitable for a youngster to know. According to their ages, there is a foundation of knowledge that children should understand. For example, by age four or five, most children have a natural and healthy curiosity about all aspects of the world, including their bodies. They may “play doctor” with friends in an attempt to satisfy this curiosity. Children at this age should know the correct names for different body parts including their genitals. Avoid euphemisms; instead use the correct name for various body parts such as the penis and vulva. In addition, children should understand the difference between privacy and secrecy. Their bodies are private and no one should touch them (and they should not touch others) in the areas covered by their bathing suits. This is extremely important to avoid inappropriate touch and to ensure body safety. Children this age can understand that a secret is something that you don’t share, yet knowing about ones body and how it works is not a secret. It is good for a child to know this information.
As your child gets older, other basic information can be added according to his or her level of development. Youngsters between the ages of six to nine should know about the facts of life in simple terms: where do babies come from and how babies “get in” and “get out” of a mother’s body. Most children are satisfied with brief, concrete answers. For example, in response to “Where do babies come from?” you may say: “Babies come from a very special place inside a mother’ s body that is just for growing babies.” An older child may need more information, so be prepared by reviewing your answers beforehand with a spouse or friend.
If you are waiting for the right moment to initiate the topic or for your child to ask questions, beware that neither one may come up anytime soon. Many young children can sense a parent’s reluctance, or may not know what to ask about this rather nebulous topic. Therefore, use natural every day opportunities to initiate the conversation with your youngster. These are known as ‘teachable moments”. For example, seeing a pregnant friend or a family pet having offspring are perfect opportunities to review where babies come from. It is always best to begin this conversation by asking a child what he or she knows about the topic. This way you can also clarify misconceptions, expand information or confirm your child’s knowledge on the subject.
Remember, like most subjects, children learn in incremental steps. Not all the information needs to be given at once. In other words, there is no such thing as a one-time talk. Parents should be prepared to share tidbits of information along with sound values as children grow and are challenged by our sexually explicit society.
Speaking to young children about sex is simpler than you might think. When kids are young, it is a wonderful time to convey that you are available and willing to talk to them about this sensitive yet vital aspect of human life. You can set the foundation now by providing them with age-appropriate information and building upon it as they enter their pre-teens years.
Remember too, children learn the most through your own example. Your values, morals and the ways in which you convey aspects of family life are paramount in setting the grounds for healthy sexuality. Take time to have these healthy chats with your child.
Dr. de Freitas has her office at Carmel Valley Pediatrics and has a special interest in health education. You can download her FREE e-book “The Birds and the Bees with Ease!” on her web site:www.healthychats.com.