Published Date: 09/11/19
Sex education and the all-too familiar sex talk are daunting topics for many parents. How do you even start? What do you say? When exactly is the right time to start? Such questions often leave many parents opting to avoid the topic entirely, letting their children learn about sex whenever and however they will.
The sex talk itself has evolved in recent years. It is no longer a single major event in the parent’s and child’s life, where everything is laid out like a band-aid being ripped off. Today, it is recommended that you do it in small, frequent, repetitive doses until your child is familiar with the topic.
Why are sex talks important?
Sex is part of life. One way or the other, your child is going to hear about it somehow. It will either be from their misinformed friends, from the internet, on TV, or directly from you. When you get in there first and introduce the topic to them, you are shaping how they think about sex. You will determine how they feel about it and they will get to know first-hand how you feel about it. Above all else, you will be feeding them the right information from an early age.
Sex talks have lasting influences. The nature of your sex talks has the potential to shape how they perceive sex in future. Kids who have all the information they need are more likely to delay having sex, and when they do start having sex, they are more likely to practice safe sex and avoid unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Kids who find out about sex through their own curiosity or otherwise are more likely to fall for all the pitfalls that early sexual experimentation comes with.
So, what is the right way to do it?
The best way to go about it is to have age appropriate sex talks with your little one until they get to a level where they have a good understanding of what this subject entails. Kids need to know different things about sex at different ages.
To help you out, here is a guide that outlines what you need to talk about and when to talk about it. Keep in mind that this is just a guide, and since every child is different, tailor it to suit your own child.
0-24 months: Babies and Toddlers
In these first months of life, children need to start familiarizing themselves with their bodies. This includes learning the names of their body parts, including the penis and the vulva. They should also understand that it is OK to touch every part of their body. At this stage, you should also point out the various functions of the body parts. Show them where poo and pee come from.
When they are old enough to understand, start pointing out the differences between boys and girls. If they enjoy being naked, start setting boundaries about nudity by pointing out where and when it is ok to be naked.
In this early stage, it is all about setting the foundations that will allow them to be comfortable with their bodies.
2-5 years: Early Childhood years
Teach them the correct names of the body parts and their functions. Show them the differences between boys and girls, and make them understand that it is ok to be different.
Around this time, you should begin to set limits around genital play. Tell them it is ok to do it, but there is a time and place for it. If they do it in public, don’t make a big fuss about it. Instead, gently remind them that they touching themselves is to be done in private.
The ages of 2 to 5 are marked by and awareness that boys and girls are different, and a curiosity to know those differences. One way or the other, they will seek out those answers. One of the most common ways of doing this is by playing doctor. If you find them looking at a friend’s genitals, understand that it is a normal thing for kids around this age. Do not punish them or isolate them, because this will only result in them believing this subject is taboo and something to be ashamed of.
Instead, if you walk in on them, act like nothing happened. The kids want to believe that you missed it. They will stop immediately of their own accord, so no need to interrupt them.
Walking in on your child playing doctor is your cue that your child has reached an age where they need accurate information on their bodies, if you haven’t already provided it. Therefore, you need to act accordingly and start providing that information.
Talk to them about their private parts and be sure to use anatomically correct words. Research tells us that knowing anatomically correct terms enhances kids’ body image, self-confidence, and openness. Almost more importantly, it decreases their susceptibility to molesters, and should they become a victim, assists with the forensic interview process.
It is for this very reason that using cute words for their private parts is a bad idea. It fosters feelings of shame around those body parts, and they will be less likely to talk about them when they find themselves in situations where they need to talk about them.
Bring up the concept of privacy, and how some body parts are ok to be seen while others are not. Let them know who they can be naked around and who they cannot. Also, teach them how they are entitled to privacy, like when they are in the bath or in the toilet or while getting dressed.
It is also important to teach them to respect other people's privacy. For example, if they find the bathroom door closed, what should they do?
Also, do not forget to make them understand when it is appropriate to have certain conversations. For instance, is it appropriate to talk about their bodies in the school yard?
Talking about babies
At this age, teach them how every living thing reproduces by pointing it out in nature.
Tell them where babies come from. Babies grow inside a woman, and you need both a man and a woman to make a baby.
By age three or four, they are capable of understanding that the father provides the sperm and the mother provides the egg. When these get together, a baby starts to grow.
The daddy keeps his sperm in his testicles, and the mommy keeps her eggs in her ovaries. Keep it simple, because at this age they are only curious about the basic concept. You will get to details later on.
Your child will also have many questions. Let them lead the discussion and determine what direction it takes with their questions. Start simple, and if they are happy with simple answers, leave it at that. If they keep asking more questions, go into more detail.
Do not let your own embarrassment influence your answer. Your child’s interest in this subject is purely scientific, so give them the knowledge they desire.
Every time you talk about it, be sure to remind them that it is something for adults, and not for kids. Also, mention that they can always talk about things that make them feel bad or funny, and that we do not keep secrets about our bodies. Make them understand that they have a right to say who can and cannot touch their body.
Basically, during these years, it is all about setting yourself up as their number one source of information. Be honest and answer their questions as best as you can. This will teach them that they can always talk to you about things that they are curious about.
Talking about Gender vs Sex
Talk about the concepts of sexuality and gender identity as concretely as possible. Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females. Gender can be used to mean gender role, or the role of a male or female in society, or gender identity, which is an individual’s concept of themselves.
It is fundamentally important for children at this age to have a clear understanding of what it means to be transgender or non-binary because otherwise it breeds confusion and misinformation which can later turn to homophobia or transphobia.
5-8 years: Middle Childhood years
By this age, they should know all the words to use when talking about body parts, for both boys and girls. They should also have some basic understanding of internal reproductive organs.
Teach them that both boys and girls have parts that may feel good when touched. Teach them that when someone touches them inappropriately, they have the right to stop them and report them.
Another concept you should bring up at around this age is the topic of puberty. Talk to them about how their bodies will change as they grow older.
Make sure to also teach them about what happens with the opposite gender. Do not simply teach boys about boys’ bodies and girls about girls’ bodies. They need all the information.
Additionally, bring up the concept of gender identity. At around this age, they will have developed a specific gender identity. Therefore, it is the perfect time to let them know that more than two genders exist, and that some people can be trans or pan.
Introduce these concepts gradually, and answer their questions as they come, because it can be a lot to take in. It is however more confusing for kids when you do not talk about it, because they will see transgender and non-gender conforming people in the world whether you do it or not.
When you start your child off with some understanding of gender fluidity, it will be easier for them to internalize concepts of gender identity later.
Talking about sex
Explain to them that sex is a natural, healthy part of an adult’s life. Babies are often made during sex, but adults can choose whether or not to have a baby.
Explain what happens during sexual intercourse. A man’s sperm leave him through his penis and go into the woman’s vagina. If the sperm joins a woman’s ovum, a baby can happen.
Talk about sexual behavior, masturbation and intercourse. Make them understand that all sexual behavior is private. You should also bring up porn, and how sometimes people look at images of people having sex on the internet. Make them understand that this is not for kids, and what they should do when they come into contact with porn.
As your kid grows older, you need to provide more information and more details. What they need to know at 5 years is different from what they need to know by the age of 8.
At around 6 years, for instance, introduce the subject of dating and when it is appropriate to do it.
As you answer their questions, ask for their opinions too. What are their thoughts on these things? Clarify where they are wrong, and give them enough information to allow them to reach the right conclusions. For example, don’t just say that babies are made when a man and a woman sleep together. Instead, go into details because otherwise they may just think that a man lying next to a woman will result in a baby.
9-12 years: Late Childhood years
By this age, they are just about to hit puberty. So, rehash everything you have taught them so far, then go into deeper detail. Teach them what they need to expect once puberty hits.
Teach both boys and girls about menstruation and teach them about ejaculation and wet dreams. You should also remind them that once they hit puberty, they will now be able to have babies.
Start conversations about sex with them and let them know that it is ok for them to come to you with questions. It is normal for some kids to be more curious about sex than others. Be sure to give them all the details they need about sexual intercourse and sexual behaviors.
Talk to them about STIs and how to avoid them, pregnancy and how to prevent it, love, dating, contraception, and when the right age is to become sexually active.
It is also important to mention that porn exaggerates sexuality, and to teach them how to be cybersmart and to use their mobile phones safely.
It is very important to be honest and provide accurate information at this stage. When they hit puberty, they will likely start relying on their friends for information and start shutting you out, so this is likely the last chance you have to get your influence in. Tell them the facts and share your values and beliefs with them, then allow them to make up their own minds about things.
13 and up: Teenage years
Some parents don’t start talking about sex until their kids hit puberty. It is never too late to start, but things will be a lot more challenging if you did not lay the foundations early enough.
Sex education at this stage is as sexual as it is ever going to get. They are old enough to understand everything that this subject entails, so do not hold back. Equip them with enough knowledge and information to have a healthy relationship with sex and to practice it safely if and when they choose to.
In as much as giving your child all the information that they need is important, what matters most is that you have taken steps to ensure that you are talking about these things. Sex education is not a single talk. It is a gradual and continuous process that every parent has the responsibility of ensuring that their child gets. And above all else, no matter what age your child may be, it is never too late to start!
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