Here are some age-appropriate topics parents should bring up with their children now to pave the way for less-stressful conversations about sexual health in the adolescent years.
Ages 0-2: Positive Perception
There’s no better time to start practicing the language of body talk than when kids are infants. At this age, there’s no pressure to say the “right” thing, and your baby won’t laugh, get nervous, or ask any questions. It’s important to get comfortable verbalizing words or bodily functions that may cause some discomfort for you.
According to Dr. Laura Berman, a sex educator, therapist, and author of Talking to Your Kids About Sex, something crucial for parents to do while their kids are infants is to adopt a positive view of bodily functions.
Shift from looking at a poopy diaper as, “Oh, isn’t that stinky!” to a perspective of, “Wow, you’ve been eating well!” Dr. Berman says many parents have likely learned from their own upbringing to feel ashamed or embarrassed of bowel movements. “When really,” she says, “it’s just a part of life!” Functions involving the genitals are healthy and normal, not something negative or problematic.
Ages 2-3: Touching and Being Touched
Children will inevitably discover their genitals, and when this happens, it’s time to start the conversations about touching. Normalize self-touch by not reacting strongly to your toddler playing with his genitals. Instead, just let him know that there are appropriate times and places to do so. If it happens at an inappropriate time, Dr. Berman advises parents, “Explain that while it feels good to touch your private parts, they are your private parts and this touching should only occur in private.”
This age is also a good time to teach children that their private parts are their own; no one else should touch them other than parents or caregivers who are helping to clean them, or a doctor who checks to see if they are healthy. This includes people they know and love.
Amy Lang, sex educator and author of Birds + Bees + Your Kids says, “More than ninety percent of the time, child molestation occurs by someone that child knows. Strangers very rarely molest children.” She also says to let kids know that while other people should never touch their private parts, they shouldn’t be touching anyone else’s either.
If you haven’t started teaching your toddlers the proper names for their private parts, now is the time to do that, too. Using nicknames sends a message that there is something shameful or illegitimate about their private parts, as opposed to something they should embrace. “When you use anatomically correct names for their private areas right from the beginning, you’ve already started the conversation,” says Lang.
Ages 3-5: First Questions
When children are old enough to ask questions about how babies are made, “Parents should buck up and tell them,” says Lang. Though, she says it’s fine to keep the explanation simple and brief. Something like, “Babies come from inside mommy’s belly,” is enough to start.
When kids ask follow-up questions like, “How does the baby get in there?” continue to keep the answers simple and direct. “Mommies have eggs, and daddies have sperm. When a sperm and an egg come together, it starts growing into a baby.” Let the child’s questions lead the conversation.
Reading books together is a great way to answer some hard questions. Amazing You by Gail Saltz is a perfect book for parents to read with their preschoolers. With its simple text and color illustrations, it is an engaging way to open the door to talking about bodies.
Age 5-8: Sex and Values
When kids reach kindergarten, and by age 7 at the latest, kids need to know about intercourse. That might seem early, but according to Lang, it isn’t too much for them to handle. “Adults come to the conversation with a different perspective than kids,” she says. “We know all the good and the bad stuff about sex. They don’t. Little kids take in this information like they do everything else. We’re the ones who bring discomfort, shame, or embarrassment to the sex talk party.”
The sooner the better is Lang’s rule of thumb. “Bring it up before the ‘ooh-gross!’ factor kicks in. When they are young, they are just very open and not grossed out. That being said, it’s never too late.” What’s important is that discussions about intercourse are family-oriented. Other people shouldn’t talk to them about sex.
Let your kids know what you believe to be true about sex, relationships, and your spirituality. Kids need to know where you stand and what your family values are when it comes to sex. Lang tells parents, “The key to great conversations with your kids is combining the facts with your values.
Other topics to bring up at this age are the “logistics” of what’s coming next in their development, such as different hygiene habits that accompany body changes and puberty. Talk about how to keep their bodies healthy when it comes to sexual development.
Parents should not be thinking about when they’re going to have “The Talk” with their children, but instead how they can start opening a dialog about sex right now. No matter your child’s age, there are topics that can be broached. And the earlier you start, the easier the discussions go.
Start now to turn one weighty talk into a dialog for life. As Lang tells parents, “No one has ever died from having conversations about sex, and you won’t either!”
A Modern Approach to the Birds & Bees by Robin Pickering