When my eldest daughter was seven, an incident at a parent/teacher evening inspired today’s post. In a Q&A session, one of the parents asked about the school’s approach to sex education because her daughter had begun asking questions. As some of you know, we were in a Waldorf school, which is fairly granola, so I was interested to hear what the reply was. To my absolute dismay, the teacher told the parents in the room that she believed that six and seven-year-olds were too young to grasp the abstract concepts of human sexuality and that they should be told stories about twinkling stars coming down from the heavens, souls crossing a rainbow bridge or storks making deliveries. You can imagine that I had a lot to say about that – like red-faced, sputtering things to say.
The a-z explanation of human sexuality is far too much for young children to grasp and would certainly be overwhelming, but I wholly believe that it is empowering for kids to know about their bodies – real, accurate information delivered in small doses adding layer upon layer of detail as their questions prompt further answers. This is one of your most important jobs, parents. It falls to you to be your child’s most reliable, honest source of information because if those answers don’t come from you, they will come from somewhere else and you can be sure that other sources will serve them up in ways that will anger/upset/terrify you.
The teacher made one very important point though – make sure you really know which question your child is asking. A simple “What do you mean?” is an important response, and the simplest answer is the best route, until these answers lead to more questions. For example, a child asks; “Where do babies come from?” The hair on the back of you neck may start to rise in anticipation of a lengthy explanation. Instead of launching into the birds and the bees, ask what they mean.
They will likely respond with something like; “How does a baby come into the world?” Start slowly with a response such as; “Babies come into the world because their parents love each other and want to make a bigger family.” Spare them terms like ‘husbands and wives’ or ‘a mommy and a daddy’ and keep it gender neutral, sexual orientation neutral to prepare your kids for our modern age. If your child is young, such a simple answer may satisfy them for quite some time.
If you have really bright kids (like mine) you may immediately get; “No! I mean how does a baby get into it’s mama’s tummy and how does it get out?” Yeesh. My eldest was about four or five when she started asking such things. We began with “The parents plant a seed in the mama’s tummy and the seed grows into a baby. When the baby is finished growing inside the mama, then the baby comes out through the mama’s vagina.” My children learned the proper names for all of their body parts when we started teaching about toes, noses, ears etc.
Kids don’t know to be weirded out about their bodies, about making babies, or about concepts like sexuality unless they learn from someone that these things are potentially awkward and uncomfortable subjects. Teaching your children to name their parts, be proud of their bodies, explore in private, and understand that they are in command of their bodies and that your kids can only be touched when they want to be sets them on a path to empowerment and self-respect.
I’m lucky to be free of any fear of discussing these issues, but when my daughters started asking questions, even I got a little nervous. It wasn’t fear of the subject matter, it was fear of delivering the subject matter in a way that would set the right tone and make sure that I was their most trusted resource. My solution was to totally empower myself and the other adults who were close to the girls with LOTS of information.
I turned to Amazon, which I so often do, for highly rated titles that were age-appropriate and read all of the user reviews. I searched books on ‘talking to kids about sex’, ‘teaching children about bodies’, and ‘books for parents about talking to kids about sex’. We got two books that were for us to share with the girls and two books that were just for the grown-ups to read. Those titles are shared below, and they were excellent.
It’s never too early to begin the talk, as long as you’re providing simple answers that can build in their complexity as your child matures. Please don’t teach them cute names for their genitalia. If you can’t say ‘penis’ or ‘vulva’ at least teach them that’s what these parts are called and then commonly refer to these areas as ‘privates’ or ‘private parts’. If you encounter your child self-stimulating (and you will) use our phrase ‘private parts are for private places’ and teach them to explore in their bedroom when they’re alone, or in the bath when they’re on their own. Say this cheerfully or gently, even if you’re freaking out.
When your kids start to experiment with other kids (and they will) reassure them that it’s very normal and sometimes fun to be curious about other people’s bodies, but it’s very important to respect other bodies, and your own body, and to never touch someone or show them your body if they don’t want to participate. Nor should they touch yours if you don’t want them to, and if they do you should feel very safe to tell a teacher or another grown up whom you love and trust. Generally, a talk about privacy and respect will curb their enthusiasm for exploration.
Tell your children that talking about how bodies work, and how babies are made is a conversation that’s private for families. Explain to them that parents want the chance to teach their children these things, and it’s not your kids’ job to teach their friends about babies and bodies. If their friends have questions, they can direct them to the teacher or suggest they speak to their own parents.
Consider the changing world around you too. Complex families, same-sex families, adoption, fertility treatment are all things that are changing the face of the “birds and the bees” and I believe this is something to celebrate. We used phrases like “some babies” or “when we made you” so that the idea of alternate possibilities was immediately introduced.
The “talk” was one of my greatest bonding experiences with my family. We made a special story time to share the amazing books we bought, and took turns reading and pointing things out and asking questions. When we were finished there were lots of hugs and an invitation to ask any questions that might have come up. The first book ‘Amazing You’ instantly became a favourite and is still sometimes read as a bedtime story.
If you’re still stumped, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to help you out because this is one of the most important talks you’ll have with your kids.
Playboy Mommy Recommends – Talking to Kids about Sex Resources
It’s Not the Stork was shared with both our daughters when they were slightly older. This book is multi-layered so some of the more advanced concepts can be reserved until those kinds of answers are required.
My best advice – do your research BEFORE the kids start asking questions. If they ask before you know what you’d like to say, tell them they’ve asked some great questions and that you’d like to get some information and then have a talk about the answer. Keep it light and playful and fun!