Sexuality is part of every person’s life, no matter what the age. As your child grows and develops, they may giggle with friends about “private parts,” share “dirty” jokes, and dig through dictionaries looking up naughty words. Their curiosity is natural, and children of all ages have questions. When they are ready to ask you, as a parent you should be ready to answer.
Everyday events will give you a multitude of chances to teach your child about topics related to sex. These are often called “teachable moments”, and it’s important to take advantage of them when you can. For example, talking about body parts during bath time will be much more effective than talking about body parts during dinner. Teachable moments can happen anywhere — while shopping, at the movies, or even at the park. Embrace these moments when they happen.
You don’t need to make a speech or turn it into a big deal. First, simply find out what your child already knows. Let your child guide the talk with their questions. Some children may not ask for information if they think you might be uneasy with it. Others might purposefully test you by asking questions they know will be embarrassing. Talk openly, and let your child know they can ask you about anything.
When your child does begin to ask questions, the following tips might make it easier for both of you:
- Try not to laugh or giggle, even if the question is cute or nonsensical. Your child shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for their curiosity, and they need to know that these are often good questions with important answers.
- Try not to appear overly embarrassed or too serious about the matter. Remember, you want to remain approachable. They need to feel safe and comfortable in talking to you about these things.
- Be brief. Don’t go into a long explanation. Answer in simple terms. Your 4 year old doesn’t need to know the intimate details of intercourse, for example.
- Keep your answers confined to what is being asked. For example, “Mom, how does the baby get out of your body?” Your answer could be simply, “Through a special opening between my legs. That’s why it’s there.” If your child did not ask at that moment how a baby got in there in the first place, don’t start there. Just answer the question asked.
- Be honest. Use proper names for all body parts.
- See if your child wants or needs to know more. Follow up your answers with, “Does that answer your question?”
- Listen to your child’s responses and reactions.
- Be prepared to repeat yourself.
If you are uneasy talking about sex or answering certain questions, be honest about that, too. Honest communication is key to any relationship, including the one with your child. There is nothing wrong with telling them that there are some things that they aren’t ready for yet, and that you will explain it to them when they are older. You can also consider asking a relative, close family friend, or your pediatrician to help talk to your child. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help.
For starters, keep your answer confined to what is asked. For example, if the question is, “Mom, how does the baby get out of your body?”, your answer might be, “Through a special opening between my legs. That’s why it’s there.” If your child did not ask at that moment how a baby got in there in the first place, for example, there is no need volunteer the information. Just answer the question asked.
The questions your child asks and the answers that are appropriate to give will depend on your child’s age and ability to understand. Remember, every child is different and they all have unique levels of maturity and comprehension. Here are some of the more common questions and issues your child may ask about and what they should know at each stage:
- “How did I get in your tummy?”
- “Where was I before I got in your tummy?”
- “How did I get out?”
- “Where do babies come from?”
- “How come girls don’t have a penis?”
At this age your child will begin to learn about their own body. It is important to teach your child the proper names for body parts. Making up names for body parts can give the idea that there is something bad about the proper name or detract from the seriousness of future conversations. Also, now is a good time to teach your child which parts are private (for example, the parts covered by a bathing suit).
Your child may begin to show an interest in basic sexuality, both their own and that of others. They may ask where babies come from. They might want to know why boys’ and girls’ bodies look or function differently. They may also touch their own genitals — and may even show an interest in the genitals of other children. These are not adult sexual activities, but signs of normal interest and curiosity. However, your child needs to learn what is OK to do and what is not. Setting limits to exploration is really a family matter that we can’t advise one way or the other in this article. You may decide, for example, to teach your child the following:
- Interest in knowing about genital organs is healthy and natural.
- Nudity and sexual play in public are not alright.
No other person, including even close friends and relatives, should touch their “private parts.” The exceptions are doctors and nurses during physical exams and their own parents when they are trying to find the cause of any pain in that area. Make sure your child understands that they should be comfortable telling you if anyone ever breaks this rule.
- “How old do girls have to be before they can have a baby?”
- “Why do boys get erections?”
- “What is a period?”
- “How do people have sex?”
- “Why do some men like other men?”
During this time, your child is becoming far more socially aware and is learning much more about how people get along with each other. They may even become curious about what takes place sexually or romantically between adults. Their questions will become more complex as they try to understand the connection between romance, sexuality, and making babies. They may come up with their own (sometimes cute) explanations about how the body works or where babies come from. They may also turn to their friends for answers.
It is important to help your child understand sexuality in a healthy way. Lessons and values they learn at this age will stay with them as an adult. It will lay the foundation for healthy and meaningful adult relationships later.
By now your child has probably already developed some kind of a sense of right and wrong. They are able to understand that sex is something that happens between two people who love each other. She may begin to become interested in how mom and dad met and fell in love. As questions about romance, love, and marriage arise, they may also ask about homosexual relationships. Use this time to discuss your family’s thoughts about homosexuality. Again, this subject is something that is up to your individual choice as a parent, but it’s usually a good idea at the very least to explain that liking or loving someone does not depend on the person’s gender and is different from liking someone sexually.
At this age, your child will likely begin going through many physical and mental changes that will prepare them for puberty. As they becomes more and more aware of their sexuality, it is important that you talk to them about delaying sexual intercourse until they are older. You should also talk about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially AIDS. Be sure they understand how these diseases can spread and how they can protect themselves from them and from pregnancy. Teaching your child to be sexually responsible is one of the most important lessons in their life and isn’t to be taken lightly.
If you talk about sexual matters from the beginning of a child’s use of language, there never needs to be the big “birds and bees talk.” Instead, the whole thing simple becomes a series of small conversations spread out over many years. This makes it easier on you as a parent and, more importantly, you become the obvious go-to person whenever there’s a question.
Talking about sex and sexuality gives you a chance to share your values and beliefs with your child. Sometimes the topic or the questions may seem embarrassing, but your child needs to know there is always a safe, reliable, and honest source they can turn to for answers: you.
A good sex education book can help you cover all the topics — and it can offer a place to send your child when you run out of words or feel your cheeks reddening too much. Here are some highly recommended books to help you with this subject matter, the first two for kids and the last one for parents:It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health
, by Robie Harris.It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
, by Robie Harris.Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex
, by Deborah Roffman.
If you have questions about your child’s sexuality or need help explaining things, please don’t hesitate to ask us for help during your next visit. While some topics should be left up to personal and family choice, we can certainly help you with questions about matter-of-fact things such as biology and puberty. Also keep in mind that MacKoul Pediatrics carries a number of informational pamphlets about your child’s health — including pamphlets specific to helping you and your child navigate the confusing world of getting older and “coming of age”. Typically these are hanging on racks on the doors in the patient rooms, so be on the lookout the next time you are in.
MacKoul Pediatrics is an amazing local pediatrics office in Cape Coral, FL where caring, compassionate doctors and nurses work with you to keep your children as healthy as possible. MacKoul cares for children from birth to college age, from Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, and beyond.
August 3, 2015