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 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 will often touch their own genitals when they are naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty. Such behaviors are not adult sexual activities but signs of normal curiosity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), who says that this type of behavior doesn't warrant scolding or punishment.
So, what should you do when your toddler begins touching him 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 tell him or her 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 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 bees" talk?
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 it yourself.
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 values.
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.
Reviewed by: Neil Izenberg, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011