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How to Talk to Young Kids About Sex

Published on: July 29, 2011

Talking to young kids about sexYou would think we’d have it down by now. We diligently, responsibly, even meticulously educate our kids about letters, numbers, empathy and compassion. We teach them how to swim, ride a bicycle, deal with bullies and avoid strangers.

But when it comes to teaching our kids — especially our littlest kids — about their own bodies, explaining how all those parts work and where babies really come from, we seem to stumble.

It’s not that we don’t try. Most of us, thankfully enlightened since the stork-brought-home-the-baby days, manage to come up with some kind of explanation when our young children, say, ages 3 to 7, start quizzing us. But few of us approach this subject with the kind of confidence and zeal we exude when they ask us how boats float or what makes stars twinkle or why elephants can’t fly.

The truth is, when it comes to talking to our children about sex, we’re still cowards after all these years.

We get that there’s no “right way” to impart this knowledge to our kids, and that the (infinite!) approaches parents take depend on their cultures, religious beliefs and backgrounds. Few of us are happy with the way our own parents handled this topic; in fact, we’d like to collectively show them how it’s really done.

But first, we need to accept that we are not all on the same sex-ed page. “We see all kinds of parents,” says Julie Metzger, R.N., an educator at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Metzger cofounded Great Conversations, which offers classes on puberty, sexuality and parenting. “When we stand up in front of a class, one parent might say, ‘I can’t believe you said the word masturbation out loud,’ while another parent asks, ‘Can you teach my child to masturbate?’”

Research shows that what kids don’t know can hurt them. According to a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now study, the pressure to have sex is a “big problem” for kids ages 10 and 11. Yet, the study reports, many parents put off talking about puberty, sex and related issues, often waiting until their 8- to 11-year-old kids start asking questions.

Parents are very much products of their own early environments, says Maureen Healy, child development expert and author of 365 Perfect Things to Say to Your Kids. “If you were raised in the ’50s, you couldn’t even say the word ‘pregnant,’” she says. “But today’s parents realize there are more risks out there, including STDs and AIDS, and they know it’s important to begin the conversation in a healthy way.”

Finding the right words

Of course, what’s “healthy” to one parent can be distasteful, offensive or simply TMI to another, especially when it comes to talking to very young children. The way we view early sex education depends on our own comfort level with the topic.

“There’s this deep psychological thing many of us have about trying to keep kids innocent,” says Greg Smallidge, who teaches “For Boys Only,” a class offered through Great Conversations. Carolyn Pirak, a Seattle-area social worker and parent educator, says simply, “We’re afraid that if we talk about sex, our kids are going to have sex.”

That’s the kind of thinking that drives Amy Lang wild. Lang is a Seattle-based sexual health educator and founder of Birds + Bees + Kids, which offers classes and lectures for parents. “We’re all chicken,” she says. “We’re terrified we’re going to somehow damage our children. It’s nuts.”

The most common mistake parents make? Worrying that we give kids too much information, says Lang. “We actually don’t give our kids enough information — just look at our teen pregnancy rate.”

Our teen pregnancy rate is increasing. For the first time in more than a decade, the nation’s teen pregnancy rate rose 3 percent in 2006, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In that same year, 49 percent of pregnancies in Washington state were unplanned.

Lang is a big fan of full disclosure. If your kids ask, you tell. She knows that kind of candor doesn’t come easily for everyone. “Parents can’t stand the thought of talking to their kids age 7 and under,” she says. “Even when their kids are 9 or 10, parents have a hard time saying ‘penis’ and ‘vagina.’”

Not Lang. Her comments are so peppered with “penis” and “vagina,” it’s as if she’s trying to desensitize you to those words, which, admittedly, don’t just glide right out of our mouths.

She feels that curious 4- and 5-year-olds — the ones who ask questions — have a right to know just about, well, everything. “If you have a 3-year-old who is asking questions and you’re not comfortable telling him the whole deal, fine. But he’ll find out from someone else,” she says.

For parents who are uneasy using vocabulary this precise, Lang suggests enlisting the help of a good book. She recommends It’s Not the Stork!, a book about girls, boys, babies, bodies, families and friends and It’s So Amazing!, a book about eggs, sperm, birth, babies and families, both by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley.

“You want them to see sex as natural,” says Lang. “If they see it as shameful, embarrassing or secretive, they are at risk for sexual abuse. Abusers look for kids who are clueless.”

Talking the talk

Lang’s approach is not for everyone. “Kids cannot — nor should they have to — understand the whole physiological structure of how babies are made until they are developmentally older,” says Pirak.

Young children want to know about bodies, not sex, she says. “They are learning about normal bodily functions and finding places they didn’t know they had.” Parents should explain things simply and clearly, in ways kids can understand, says Pirak.

“The key is to make it about love, respect and privacy,” she says. Talk about what kind of touching is inappropriate and explain basic anatomy, says Pirak. “The facts-of-life talk is no longer a one-time discussion. The parents’ job is to lay the foundation; you don’t need to teach them everything in the very beginning.”

If they get specific and ask, “How does the baby get in mommy’s tummy?” ask them how they think it gets there, says Pirak. “Then you can say, ‘It happens when Mommy and Daddy are very close together and in private.’”

Don’t worry too much about getting “the talk” exactly right, says Smallidge. “Kids are resilient. They’ll learn about sexuality, love and relationships despite us.” His advice? “Give kids the short answer. If they want to know more, they’ll ask more. Sometimes we err on the side of telling them everything, and the child just wants to know that the baby came from inside Mom’s body.”

The real issue isn’t how you make a baby, he says. “That’s a small part of sexuality. The bigger question is, how do we feel about sexuality? About sex outside marriage? About homosexuality? How we think about the information is what matters.”

Many approaches

The way each of us learned about sex seems indelibly etched in our psyches and colors the way we view both sex and talking with our children about sex. “We don’t realize how complex our innate attitudes are,” says Metzger. No other topic, she says, generates so much emotion, controversy and fear. “We want to protect our kids and we want to explain it all to them, but it takes us a lifetime to learn about it ourselves.”

What’s more, we live in a society that fuels our anxiety. “The culture can feel like a tsunami to a lot of families,” says Metzger. “Messages from TV, movies, magazines or social networking can feel invasive. You don’t have a lot of control over Lady Gaga showing up in a dinner conversation.”

Maybe that’s why parents, whether informed by the popular culture or their own upbringing, “talk the talk” in their own way. There’s no “one size fits all” template for explaining the birds and bees to young children.

Paula Whidden, a mom from Santa Clarita, Calif., tries to address her daughter’s questions as they crop up. “I only answer what she’s asking and I don’t overshare,” says Whidden, who began a dialogue about bodies and babies when her daughter was 5. “We’ve looked at anatomy online, talked about how the body develops and where babies come from.”

Now a tween, Whidden’s daughter didn’t bother to view the obligatory facts-of-life film her school showed the rest of the girls. “We took the day off, went shopping for bras and looked at pads and tampons,” she says. “We have a plan to take another mommy/daughter day when her menstruation cycle begins.”

Krystle Campbell, a Lacey, Wash., mom, says simply telling her 5-year-old son, “Babies grow in mommies’ bellies” was enough to satisfy his curiosity about an aunt’s pregnancy. He’s yet to ask how the baby actually gets in mommy’s belly. “So far, so good,” reports Campbell in a Facebook post. “I am pretty sure we have bought some time to deal with that talk.”

What works for one mom might not play well for another. Pregnant with her second child, Nicol Walsh of Tacoma was careful to use the word “womb,” not “belly,” when explaining things to her 4-year-old son. “I didn’t want him to think I ate the baby,” says Walsh. That’s what her niece figured had happened.

How to talk to kids about sexDiverse families

Whether we’re talking “belly” or “womb,” kids also need to know that babies arrive in various ways (cesarean sections, in vitro fertilization, surrogate moms) and live in various family configurations (two dads, two moms, single parents).

Egg meets sperm has never seemed so complex.

“We’ve always tried to expose our daughter to different kinds of families,” says Seattle mom Jenny Scott Tynes, who, along with her husband, has been talking to her 3-year-old about same-sex parents and one-parent families since the tot began playing with dolls.

“When she invited my husband or me to play with her ‘pretend’ families, we would sometimes create families with two parents of the same sex or families with one parent, or with multiple children,” says Tynes. “It didn’t take long before constructing a variety of family types became part of her own play repertoire. We never tried to make it a big deal.”

Family diversity is also a big topic in Soleil Moon Frye’s house (that’s right, the actress who played Punky Brewster). “A lot of our friends are two dads or two moms,” says Frye, who has two daughters, ages 3 and 5. Frye offers parenting advice in her new book, Happy Chaos. “My brother and I have different fathers, and I have a stepdad. It’s important that our kids understand that families come in many ways.”

It’s also important that we tailor discussions — whether about families, reproduction or values —  to our kids’ specific ages, says Metzger. “Our conversations should act as building blocks,” she explains. “You might ask yourself, ‘What parts of the story do I feel that a kindergartener or first-grader needs to know?’”

If a child’s relative has had a miscarriage, for example, add another block, she says. “Now you have an opportunity to discuss a miscarriage, making sure your discussion reflects the everyday knowledge of a first-grader.”

Borrow the phrase “in our family” and use it liberally, says Metzger. For instance, let’s say you’re explaining “sexting” to an older child. “You might say, ‘In sexting, someone has shared a picture that is now public, instead of staying private. Remember how we talked about our bodies being our own? In our family, that would be private.’”

Above all, relax. “Kids pick up on your sense of ease with the topic,” says Healy. “That’s going to affect how you transmit the information. Parents should make peace with the fact that sex is a normal, healthy part of life.”

Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, is author of the book Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential and an on-air parenting expert for KING TV.

Resources for talking to your kids about sex

Children's books

Ages 4–8

Where Do Babies Come From? by Angela Royston and DK Publishing
Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Gail Saltz and Lynne Avril Cravath
It’s Not the Stork! by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley
It’s So Amazing! by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley
The Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson
What’s the Big Secret? Talking About Sex with Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

Ages 9–12

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley

Books for parents

Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex by Deborah Roffman
Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character by Pepper Schwartz and Dominic Cappello

Websites and classes

Advocates for Youth

Supports efforts to help young people make informed decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.

Birds + Bees + Kids
Provides information to help parents become informed and comfortable talking to their kids about sex, love and relationships.

Great Conversations
Offers classes for parents, preteens and teens on subjects dealing with puberty, sexuality, parenting and other topics at various locations, including Overlake Hospital in Bellevue and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

The Guttmacher Institute
Conducts research and provides public education on sexual and reproductive health.

Seattle Children’s Hospital
Holds classes for preteens and teens, plus it offers an online database of sex educational materials.

SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States)
Provides education and information about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health.

There’s No Place Like Home . . . for Sex Education
Helps parents have conversations with their children about sexuality.

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