Answering their kids' questions about sex is a responsibility that many parents
dread. Otherwise confident moms and dads often feel tongue-tied and awkward when it
comes to talking about puberty and where babies come from.
But the subject shouldn't be avoided. Parents can help foster healthy feelings
about sex if they answer kids' questions in an age-appropriate way.
When do kids start becoming curious about their bodies?
From as early as infancy, kids are interested in learning about their own bodies.
They notice the differences between boys and girls and are naturally curious.
Toddlers often will touch their own genitals when they're naked, such as in the
bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty.
Such behaviors are signs of normal curiosity, not sexual activities, says the American
Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and shouldn't bring scolding or punishment.
So, what should you do when your toddler begins touching himself or herself? Each
family will approach this in their own way, based on their values, comfort level,
and style. But keep in mind that your reaction to your child's curiosity will convey
whether these actions are "acceptable" or "shameful." Toddlers who are scolded and
made to feel bad about their natural curiosity may develop an increased focus on their
private parts or feel shame.
Some parents choose to casually ignore self-touching or redirect a child's attention
toward something else. Others may want to acknowledge that, while they know it feels
good to explore, it is a private matter and not OK to do in public.
Is it OK to use nicknames for private parts?
By the time a child is 3 years old, parents may choose to use the correct anatomical
words. They may sound medical, but there is no reason why the proper label shouldn't
be used when the child is capable of saying it. These words — penis, vagina,
etc. — should be stated matter-of-factly, with no implied silliness. That way,
the child learns to use them in a direct manner, without embarrassment.
In fact, this is what most parents do. A Gallup poll showed that 67% of parents
use actual names to refer to male and female body parts.
What do you tell a very young child who asks where babies come from?
Depending on the child's age, you can say that the baby grows from an egg in the
mommy's womb, pointing to your stomach, and comes out of a special place, called the
vagina. There is no need to explain the act of lovemaking because very young kids
will not understand the concept.
However, you can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to
be close to one another. Tell them that the man's sperm joins the woman's egg and
then the baby begins to grow. Most kids under the age of 6 will accept this answer.
Age-appropriate books on the subject are also helpful. Answer the question in a straightforward
manner, and you will probably find that your child is satisfied with just a little
information at a time.
What should you do if you catch kids "playing doctor" (showing private
parts to each other)?
Kids 3 to 6 years old are most likely to "play doctor." Many parents overreact
when they witness or hear of such behavior. Heavy-handed scolding is not
the way to deal with it. Nor should parents feel this is or will lead to promiscuous
behavior. Often, the presence of a parent is enough to interrupt the play.
You may wish to direct your child's attention to another activity without making
a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your child for a talk. Explain that although you
understand the interest in his or her friend's body, people are generally expected
to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having
made your child feel guilty.
This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good and bad touch. Tell
kids that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to privacy. No one,
not even a friend or family member, has the right to touch a child's private areas.
However, the AAP notes, an exception to this rule is when a parent is trying to find
the source of pain or discomfort in the genital area, or when a doctor or nurse is
performing a physical exam.
Kids should know that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels strange or
bad, they should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that
you want to know about anything that makes your kids feel bad or uncomfortable.
When should parents sit kids down for that all-important "birds and
The "big talk" is a thing of the past. Learning about sex should not occur in one
all-or-nothing session. It should be more of an unfolding process, one in which kids
learn, over time, what they need to know. Questions should be answered as they arise
so that kids' natural curiosity is satisfied as they mature.
If your child doesn't ask questions about sex, don't just ignore the subject. When
your child is about age 5, you can begin to introduce books that approach sexuality
on a developmentally appropriate level. Parents often have trouble finding the right
words, but many excellent books are available to help.
At what age should girls be told about menstruation?
Girls (and boys!) should have information about menstruation by about age 8. This
is an area of intense interest to girls. Information about periods might be provided
in school — and instructional books can be very helpful.
Many moms share their own personal experiences with their daughters, including
when their periods first started and what it felt like, and how, as with many things,
it wasn't such a big deal after a while.
At what age should nudity in the home be curtailed?
Families set their own standards for nudity, modesty, and privacy — and these
standards do vary greatly from family to family and in different parts of the world.
Although every family's values are different, privacy is an important concept for
all kids to learn.
Parents should explain limits regarding privacy the same way that other house rules
are explained — matter-of-factly — so that kids don't come to associate
privacy with guilt or secrecy. Generally, they'll learn from the limits you establish
for them — and by your own behaviors.
To what extent can parents depend on schools to teach sex education?
Parents should begin the sex education process long before it starts in school.
The introduction of formal sexual education in the classroom varies; many schools
start it in the fifth or sixth grade — and some don't offer it at all.
Topics addressed in sex-ed class can include anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases
(STDs), and pregnancy. What teachers cover and when varies greatly from school to
school. You may want to ask questions about your school's curriculum so you can assess
Children, when learning about sexual issues in school or outside of school, are
likely to have many questions. The topic certainly can be confusing. Parents should
be open to continuing the dialogue and answering questions at home. This is especially
true if you want your kids to understand sexuality within the context of your family's
Body changes and sexual issues are an important part of human development. If you
have questions about how to talk with your child about them, ask your doctor for suggestions./p>