Answering kids' questions about sex is one of the
responsibilities many parents dread most. Otherwise confident
parents often feel tongue-tied and awkward when it comes to sex.
But the subject shouldn't be avoided. By answering kids'
questions as they arise, parents can help foster healthy feelings
When do kids start becoming curious about sex?
Children are human beings and therefore sexual beings. It's
hard for parents to acknowledge this, just as it's hard for
kids to think of their parents as sexually active. But even infants
have curiosity about their own bodies, which is healthy and
What sort of "sexual" behavior do young kids
Toddlers will often touch themselves when they are naked, such
as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of
development, they have no modesty. Their parents' reaction will
tell them whether their actions are acceptable. Toddlers should not
be scolded or made to feel ashamed of being interested in their
bodies. It is natural for children to be interested in their own
bodies. Some parents may choose to casually ignore self-touching.
Others may want to acknowledge that, while they know it feels good,
it is a private matter. Parents can make it clear that they expect
the child to keep that activity private.
Parents should only be concerned about masturbation if a child
seems preoccupied with it to the exclusion of other activities.
Victims of sexual abuse sometimes become preoccupied with
Is it OK to use nicknames for private parts?
By the time a child is 3 years of age, parents may choose to use
the correct anatomical words. They may sound clinical, 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
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
What do you tell a very young child who asks where babies come
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 a little information at a
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
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, but that people are generally
expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have
set limits without having made the 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 should touch kids if they
don't like it or want it. Tell them 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
When should parents sit kids down for that all-important
"birds and bees" talk?
Actually, never! 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. At 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 nudity in the home be curtailed?
Families set their own standards for nudity, modesty, and
privacy. 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.
To what extent can parents depend on schools to teach sex
Parents should begin the sex education process long before it
starts in school. The introduction of formal sex education in the
classroom varies; many schools start it in the fifth or sixth
grade. Some of the topics addressed in sex-ed class may include
sexually transmitted diseases
, and pregnancy. Parents should be open to continuing the dialogue
and answering questions at home. Schools tend to teach mechanics
and science more than values. This is an area where parents can and
should have something to teach.
At what age should girls be told about menstruation?
Girls (and boys!) should have information about menstruation by
about age 8, some of which may be provided in school. Instructional
books are helpful, but moms should also share their own personal
experiences with their daughters, including when their periods
first started and what it felt like, and how, like many things, it
wasn't such a big deal after a while.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2008
Originally reviewed by:
Pam Bushnell, LCSW, and Lee Lucas, LCSW
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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