My parents weren’t very comfortable discussing certain subjects as I was growing up. I’m aware kids are growing up faster than ever, and I want to be prepared to talk to mine about sex, and for them to feel comfortable asking questions. Can you give me some guidelines?
The days of having “the talk” – as in one awkward, long-anticipated conversation – are long gone. How and when we speak to our children about human sexuality has become a healthier, ongoing dialogue in which parents have given some thought to how they might handle this. While we sometimes associate the need for children to understand their sexuality with approaching puberty, the real conversation actually starts much earlier.
First, as soon as your children acquire language, it is healthy to use accurate terminology for body parts rather than euphemisms. To call their body parts names other than their accurate labels starts them off with a feeling that there is something uncomfortable or shameful about their sex organs. We would never come up with a silly name for a foot or an arm, so why do so with a penis or vagina? Once this becomes matter-of-fact, it is much easier to take the leap to more complex topics.
Around the age of three, children have an awareness of there being two kinds of anatomies in nature – male and female. With humans, you can talk about how most boys tend to stand and urinate while girls sit because we are built differently. You might discuss how boys’ genitals are visible and for girls, the genital tract is internal.
By age eight, most kids are curious and have heard things that would be best discussed at home with adults who are comfortable with the topic. A good idea is to read a book together, like Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle. Make sure you preview the book first and think about possible questions. Once you have read the book, ask your child if he has any questions. Let him know there’s a good chance he will hear things from friends about this topic. Tell him you will always make time for questions or further discussion. Have the book available in his room, and in a few days, ask if he would like to read the book again. Remember, it can take children some time to process information and form their questions. Know that the more comfortable you are with the material, the more comfortable your child will be.
As children are entering puberty earlier then ever – some by age eight – it is important to talk about the changes that are taking place in their bodies. Let her know what to expect and assure her that all feelings, emotions, and physical responses are normal. It helps to share how you felt when you were a child, and let your kids know what you worried about or what made you feel uncomfortable.
As kids head into their early teens, parents can become uncomfortable talking about expectations regarding sexual activity. Sometimes, when communication is most important, it shuts down. Remember, if you don’t talk about it, someone else will. If you feel a person should wait until marriage, share your view. But understand that your children will make these important decisions on their own, so arm them with information.
I believe it is important to talk about sex as a big step in a relationship with life-changing consequences that need to be considered. Discuss consequences like pregnancy and STDs with your children, and let them know you trust them to make good choices – and that you will always be available for them if they want to talk. This goes for the preschool years all the way through adulthood.