5 tips for talking to young children about sex, body exploration, and avoiding shame

August 12 | Guest post by Catherine
By: Julian BurgessCC BY 2.0

When my eldest daughter was seven, an incident at a parent/teacher evening blew my mind. In a Q&A session at her school, one of the parents asked about the school's approach to sex education because her daughter had started asking questions. We were in a Waldorf school, which is fairly granola, so I assumed the teacher's reply would be really enlightened. To my absolute dismay, the teacher told the parents in the room that she believed that six and seven-year-olds were too young to grasp the abstract concepts of human sexuality and that they should be told stories about twinkling stars coming down from the heavens, souls crossing a rainbow bridge or storks making deliveries. I had a lot to say about that — like red-faced, sputtering things to say.

The A-Z explanation of human sexuality is far too much for young children to grasp and would certainly be overwhelming, but I wholly believe that it is empowering for kids to know about their bodies — real, accurate information delivered in small doses adding layer upon layer of detail as their questions prompt further answers. I think this is one of our most important jobs as parents. It falls to us to be our children's most reliable, honest source of information because if those answers don't come from us, they will come from somewhere else and you can be sure that other sources will serve them up in ways that will anger/upset/terrify you.

Make sure you know what your kid is really asking

The teacher made one very important point though: make sure you really know which question your child is asking. A simple "What do you mean?" is an important response, and the simplest answer is the best route, until these answers lead to more questions. For example, a child asks, "Where do babies come from?" The hair on the back of you neck may start to rise in anticipation of a lengthy explanation. Instead of launching into the birds and the bees, ask what they mean.

They will likely respond with something like, "How does a baby come into the world?" Start slowly with a response such as, "Babies sometimes come into the world because their parents want to make a bigger family." Spare them terms like "husbands and wives" or "a mommy and a daddy" and keep it gender neutral and sexual orientation/preference neutral to prepare your kids for our modern age. If your child is young, such a simple answer may satisfy them for quite some time.

Teach your kids about their bodies

Kids don't know to be weirded out about their bodies, about making babies, or about concepts like sexuality unless they learn from someone that these things are potentially awkward and uncomfortable subjects. Teaching your children to name their body parts, be proud of their bodies, explore in private, and understand that they are in command of their bodies and that your kids can only be touched when they want to be sets them on a path to empowerment and self-respect.

Find books that can help

When my daughters started asking questions even I got a little nervous. It wasn't fear of the subject matter, it was fear of delivering the subject matter in a way that would set the right tone and make sure that I was their most trusted resource. My solution was to totally empower myself and the other adults who were close to the girls with LOTS of information.

I turned to Amazon, which I so often do, for highly rated titles that were age-appropriate and read all of the user reviews. I searched books on talking to kids about sex, teaching children about bodies, and also books for parents about talking to kids about sex. We got two books that were for us to share with the girls and two books (Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts and It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends) that were just for the grown-ups to read.

Don't shame your child's exploration

It's never too early to begin the talk, as long as you're providing simple answers that can build in their complexity as your child matures. If you can't say "penis" or "vulva" at least teach them that's what these parts are called and then commonly refer to these areas as "private parts" or a phrase you can handle. If you encounter your child self-stimulating (and you will) use our phrase "private parts are for private places" and teach them to explore in their bedroom when they're alone, or in the bath when they're on their own if they are old enough that self-stimulation will raise public eyebrows. Say this cheerfully or gently, even if you're freaking out.

When your kids start to experiment with other kids (and they will) reassure them that it's very normal and sometimes fun to be curious about other people's bodies, but it's very important to respect other bodies, and your own body, and to never touch someone or show them your body if they don't want to participate. Nor should other kids touch their bodies if they don't want them to, and if anyone does touch them when they don't want to be touched they should feel very safe to tell a teacher or another grown up whom they love and trust. Generally, a talk about privacy and respect will curb their enthusiasm for exploration.

Tell your children that talking about how bodies work, and how babies are made is a conversation that's private for families. Explain to them that parents want the chance to teach their children these things, and it's not your kids' job to teach their friends about babies and bodies. If their friends have questions, they can direct them to the teacher or suggest they speak to their own parents.

Remember families are different for everyone

Consider the changing world around you too. Complex families, same-sex families, adoption, fertility treatment are all things that are changing the face of the "birds and the bees" and I believe this is something to celebrate. We used phrases like "some babies" or "when we made you" so that the idea of alternate possibilities was immediately introduced.

The "talk" was one of my greatest bonding experiences with my family. We made a special story time to share the amazing books we bought, and took turns reading and pointing things out and asking questions. When we were finished there were lots of hugs and an invitation to ask any questions that might have come up.

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    • Yes! I love Cory Silverberg's new book What Makes a Baby. We just had a dinner party at our house this weekend and that book was a hit amongst the parents and the 2 – 4 year olds. Very inclusive. And Catherine thank you so much for writing this blog posting/article.

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    • I bought this book and it just arrived. It's fabulous! The book's website, what-makes-a-baby.com, has a little video describing the book. It also has a great 60-page readers guide to explain how and why it was written and illustrated as it was, and to help parents talk about the book with their kids. I read it once with my 2.5 yr old, and I know we'll read it more.

  1. I love almost everything you said. I think your advice on how to handle questions (especially "What do you mean?") is spot on and awesomesauce. I wish I'd been taught more of what you said.

    However, I will say that I think your child's teacher was spot on too. As you said, it is a parent's job to teach their child about sex and their bodies. I can tell you that if a teacher told my kid to go home and play with their private parts to find out how they work, I'd flip out on them. Unless the curriculum explicitly states that, it's not a teacher's job to have those kinds of conversations with her class. Teachers of young students have to (to keep their jobs) teach to the most conservative parents in their class unless the school has explicitly told them to do otherwise.

    Sex education is an important topic that has unfortunately been left to teachers by parents who aren't as enlightened/comfortable/present as you. I think you're not out of line to hope your child's teacher would have advice on how you, the parent, can teach your child about sex though.

    Love your post, love your advice. It's an awesome place to start for parents to teach their kids about their bodies. I could point out a dozen different things you said that make my heart sing a little. I would just recommend going a little easier on the teacher.

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    • I fully agree with your second paragraph, including that "teachers of young students have to (to keep their jobs) teach to the most conservative parents in their class." But that means it's up to teachers to direct the child to ask their parents, not to tell made-up stories in place of the truth.

      It sounds like the teacher wasn't just saying "this should be taught by parents" – according to OP, she said "they should be told stories about twinkling stars coming down from the heavens, souls crossing a rainbow bridge or storks making deliveries." That would make me feel pretty dismayed too, even if the teacher were a wonderful person/educator.

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      • My parents were all like "sex ed should happen in the home" to the extent that even though we were Catholic and I went to Catholic school, I had to sit by myself in the hallway during sex ed class. And can you guess what kind of sex ed went on in the home?

        none! nothing! there was no sex ed! I mean, I knew about babies and fetal development (they were also pro life) but nothing at all else! i was forbidden to watch the movie "my girl" even though I was like, the same age as the protaganist, because at the end, she gets her period. I was forbidden to read "are you there God, its me, Margaret" for the same reason.

        Thank god i self educated. Whenever I was near a book about sex I read it. I asked my peers what I had missed in class (they gave accurate summations, because at least they had proper, if somewhat catholic, sex ed) and then later i just "forgot" to get the permission form signed so I could actually stay in class during the (still catholic remember) sex ed classes.

        If they'd had it their way I would have got my period without knowing what was coming. good thing I bypassed their dumbness and educated myself. Declaring that the parents should teach ed in a society (ours) that basically has a tabboo about parents and children talking about sex is not so practical.

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        • That's awful >.<

          My mom had a similar experience growing up, and when she first got her period, she thought she was dying until her older sister explained it was normal. My mom was determined that that was not a healthy way to be, and when I was young, was wonderfully open and honest in explaining about the body/reproduction/everything. I feel very grateful and fortunate for that.

          In the sense that teachers need/want to keep their jobs, and don't all necessarily have the energy/personal resources to try to change what is allowed to be taught, I can understand and agree with the idea that they need to "teach to the most conservative parents in their class." It's largely outside of their control unless they fight hard to create change, and they may not be in a place to face the potential consequences.

          That said, *I* believe there should be sex-ed in schools, for exactly the reason you describe – for a lot of kids, it *doesn't* happen at home, even though it should.

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    • I don't know man, I disagree. I think teachers should be teaching the facts, including those about sex. For sure a parent shouldn't EXPECT teachers to parent for them and not also talk about sex with their kids, but there are a lot of kids out there being raised by people who will either outright not talk about it at all, just say "don't do it" or at worse, tell their kids outright lies (like condoms making you infertile or something).

      In Ontario (where I live), our government tried to introduce new legislation mandating age-appropriate sex education for kids starting in kindergarten. Note where I said 'age appropriate'. For kindergarten kids, this would have meant the basics about bodies. Conservatives got all in a tizzy (mostly because in high school, the information would have included information about homosexuality – so the conservatives rhetoric was all "teaching 4 year olds about gay people oh no!!!!") and public pressure resulted in the whole thing being scrapped.

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      • The primary school I work in starts its sex education course in Year 1 (age 6) and it works really well. First the kids learn the 'proper' names for parts of the body, albeit the more German terms (Scheide and Glied instead of the more medical Vagina and Penis) and label the terms on simple diagrams. They then learn the (what I term) the mechanics behind conception and pregnancy. Kids really do mirror their teachers, so if the teacher is very calm, factual and direct about the subject, so are the kids. They look through pregnancy books, work with the 'Babykiste Material' (Baby box material) which has little flash cards of information as well as pictures of each stage of pregnancy. For the older kids (Years 3 and 4), a midwife comes in to talk about birth and looking after a newborn.
        We don't seem to receive any negative feedback from parents but then again we're quite open about the course before the parents sign their kids up for our school. I did manage to raise a few eyebrows after covering an ethics lesson: one girl asked me if it's ok to marry a girl because she doesn't like the idea of marrying a boy and having a baby. Other than that, our parents seem to be glad that we answer the 'where do babies come from' question.

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  2. I remember being a kid and my parents renting a cartoon for us that explained basic reproductive anatomy, sex, pregnancy and childbirth. We loved it and made them rent it for us several times. And then afterwards our barbies were always having sex with each other. I think I was 8 and my sister was 5. Since showing that VHS tape is out of the question for many, many, many reasons (too heteronormative, and who owns a VHS player anymore anyway), I've bought the two books the OP mentioned as well as the book the first commenter mentioned. My 2.5 yr old hasn't asked any questions at all, not even about her baby brother's penis, so I've got time to prepare.

        • Copy 'n pasted from the site Ariel posted

          granola

          An adjective used to describe people who are environmentally aware (flower child, tree-hugger), open-minded, left-winged, socially aware and active, queer or queer-positive, anti-oppressive/discriminatory (racial, sexual, gender, class, age, etc.) with an organic and natural emphasis on living, who will usually refrain from consuming or using anything containing animals and animal by-products (for health and/or environmental reasons), as well as limit consumption of what he or she does consume, as granola people are usually concerned about wasting resources. Usually buy only fair-trade goods and refrain from buying from large corporations, as most exploit the environment as well as their workers, which goes against granola core values. The choice of not removing body hair (see amazon) and drug use are not characteristics that define granola people, and people, regardless of granola status, may or may not partake in said activities. This definition is sometimes confused with hippy.
          Jack: My best friend is vegan and only buys produce that is organically grown from local farmers. Her and her feminist, vegan boyfriend are both in Greenpeace and advocate for queer rights. She waxes her legs but she's still granola.
          Jill: So that means she's not a dyke? And she grows her own reefer?
          Jack: Just because she's granola, doesn't mean she does drugs. Also, granola status has nothing to do with sexual preference.
          Jill: Well maybe she'll know where to buy hemp and how to tie-dye?
          Jack: She's granola, not a hippy. Some granola people are hippy and vice-versa, but they're not the same thing.

          1 agrees
  3. Does anyone know a good book for kids that doesn't have the "penis=boy, vagina=girl" gendering or the compulsory heteronormativity, but still provides information on naming body parts? I have yet to find a kid's book that is queer and trans* friendly.

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    • What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg is awesomely trans and queer inclusive. They never pair a gender to the genitals and gametes they talk about. They're also very careful not to make assumptions about the family unit that baby is a part of. Plus, they don't use human colors for the people so there's no weird racial stuff to worry about either.

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  4. Hi Cassie,

    The teacher wasn't passing any sex education information on to the kids – it was a parent who was asking for advice about how she might speak to her own kid about sex.

    Granuaile, I don't know of any such book, but I'm sure a market exists! What a great idea. I've had some fantastic chats with my girls about gender identity, because my nine year old often tells us she feels more like a boy than a girl. It would be so nice to be able to present a full spectrum of possibility to them in a safe and inclusive way!

  5. I still remember my parents renting me the cartoon "Where did I come from?" As a result when my sister was born, I was in big sister class at the hospital. The nurse asked "who knows where the baby is?" and a kid answered "Mommy's Tummy!". My knowitall 5 year old self had no problem correcting with "Actually, the baby is in mommy's uterus".

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  6. I teach sexuality education at a K-12 school and I gasp at the idea of any teacher talking about storks! Is there any other subject matter where we would lie about the facts to our students? I work at a fairly "granola" school myself and I am regularly surprised to find parents who are "progressive" in so many ways but are withholding with their children about sexuality. I think mostly from feeling ill equipped on what to say and how to say it. It won't feel like "the talk" if you have always been talking about it! You wouldn't believe the misunderstandings and misconceptions I have heard in my 8th grade class.

    I highly recommend that all my parents read Debra Roffman's work. I have pretty much based my career around being as good of a sex edu teacher as her.

    Check her out
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&search-alias=books&field-author=Deborah%20Roffman&sort=relevancerank

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  7. As a child I was taught very thoroughly about my body being private and to not letting people touch me. There was that moment though when a group of kids I was playing with wanted to play doctor. As a child I understood that as a bad thing but I also wanted to be a part of the group so I did what I thought what a nice compromise and I lay down on my front and would only let my butt be exposed (there was no probing, it was only a sort of show me yours type of situation I guess). I was so proud of this compromise I told my mother, who was horrified and called the parent of the children. Now as an adult I don't think she did anything wrong but as a child I was mortified that my mom got them in trouble when I thought I handled myself well. So that guaranteed that the next time someone played doctor with me I wouldn't tell my mom. I'm not sure how far that would have extended, at some point if it really bothered me (and the doctor playing only bothered me in the sense that I knew we weren't supposed to do it) I would tell her but it was never tested again so I'll never know that. So I've always worried about being careful about how I react to my own children now so that they don't keep important things from me. I don't have any answers on that though and they are only babies so no personal experience on it, yet.

    1 agrees
  8. I'm looking for some feedback on the issue of setting rules about romantic affection with my 8 year old, who has now had what we've finally given in to calling a "boyfriend" for the past year and a half… they love each other so deeply and I've never read or heard of anything like that kind of attachment at that age before; I know kids play around with having boy/girlfriends but this is a lot deeper than the norm. My husband suddenly sternly asked her today "You're not kissing him, are you?" out of the blue while she was watching TV and he was in the kitchen. I realized we really need to get on the same page with physical affection "rules" with her, and clearly set them. In looking for guidance on this I read a couple of advice forums where it seems to be a given that you tell your young kid not to kiss a boy/girlfriend on the lips, and my honest thought is, why not? What is the harm in that? My first "romantic" kiss was when I was 4, and considering that I consciously decided to remain a virgin as a teen, that's not a slippery slope. On the other hand I don't want to give the impression that they can do whatever they want, and instinctively I think an obvious rule would be that private parts are off limits (touching or looking). So your paragraph that starts with "When your kids start to experiment" kind of has me torn, because you seem to be saying basically the equivalent of telling your kids "you can do what you want sexually, just make sure it's what you want and what the other person(s) want" because they're going to do it anyway. But I've read that when parents try to not set rules on sexual behavior in order for their kid to be honest with them, it backfires as statistically those kids are more promiscuous, and of course I don't want that. I have no problem talking about sexual issues with her, but setting sexual "rules" is a lot harder for me, particularly as an agnostic theist!

    1 agrees
    • I have no idea how long ago this was posted, but I dont know if making a 'rule' about not exploring other kids bodies will have any effect or not. Kids are super curious, and the whole "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" was a pretty prominent theme throughout my childhood. From maybe 3 til 8 or so. I also remember 'tongue-kissing' a boyfriend at 4 – we had just had a pretend marriage ceremony.
      For the record, I lost my virginity at 19, so i certainly dont think the experimentation led to any sort of promiscuity.

      1 agrees
      • Yes, I remember doing that too. And I was a virgin until 18, and even then it was out of being 'persuaded,' and something I regretted, as I really wanted to wait until marriage (not because of anything my hippie parents told me; it was just my own personal goal).

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