Sex Ed and the four-year-old

Guest post by Katie

Don't let the face and the halo fool you!
Don’t let the face and the halo fool you!
One summer evening, I piled the kids into the car for a pre-bed ice cream run. As we’re waiting in an impossibly long drive thru line, my 4 year old pipes up from the backseat, “Mommy, turn this music down. I need to talk about things.”

I cooperate and turn the radio off, asking what she wants to talk about.

“Let’s talk about babies.”

“How do the babies get out of their mommy’s belly?”

“Well, remember we talked about this before? The baby grows in the mama’s belly, and when it’s ready to be born the mama pushes with her tummy.”

“And then she goes to a hospital?”

“Sometimes sweetie. But sometimes, like when your brother was born, the mommy decides to stay at home.”

“Oh.” She pauses for a minute to think. “But how does the mommy push the baby out?”

“Um, she uses her tummy muscles. Kind of like when you go potty.”

“But where does she push?”

“Um, well….she pushes with her tummy (here, I take a rolled up tube of fabric I have in my car and place it in my palms, then web my fingers together around one side of it) and the baby moves. Pretend this (gesturing to fabric tube) is the baby and my hands are the tummy muscles. They tighten and push and the baby moves down (I mimic this with my hands and the fabric). See?”

“That’s cool!”

“Yeah, it is pretty cool.”

“So then the baby comes out through her tummy?”

“Sort of.”

I interrupt this story to explain how we feel about having these kinds of conversations with kids. My husband and I decided long ago that we would always tell the truth about these types of issues, but that we would try not to over-explain (see Parenting 101: Don’t Overthink It). In other words, the last time Luca and I had this conversation, I was able to avoid directly explaining the anatomy and physiology of giving birth and making babies because she wasn’t really asking about that. She was happy with a vague explanation that matched the reality of images she’s seen of birth. If she’s not asking the question, I don’t need to try to answer it just yet.

But when she does ask the question? I owe it to her and I’m only being true to myself and my husband and how we choose to raise our kids, if I answer her in an honest but age-appropriate way.

“Actually, the baby doesn’t come out through the mommy’s tummy, Luca. It lives there while she’s pregnant but when it’s ready to be born she pushes it and it comes out her vagina.”



And then, from both of us, a moment of silence. I turn the radio back on.

“Mama? Turn the radio down again. How does the baby get in the mommy’s tummy? I wanna know the WHOLE story mama. Don’t skip any parts.”

By: Hey Paul StudiosCC BY 2.0

The way I figure if we talk about it all along she not only will feel more comfortable talking and asking questions as she gets older, but we’ll also have time to ease into being comfortable with these conversations.

For a second I considered not really answering. I mean… the girl is FOUR. Does she really need to have that much information? But then I thought about it a different way. She doesn’t need to know it all at four, but I also don’t want to be having this conversation when she’s 11 or 13 and wishing we’d been talking about it all along. The way I figure if we talk about it all along she not only will feel more comfortable talking and asking questions as she gets older, but we’ll also have time to ease into being comfortable with these conversations. Plus, at four she has no idea that her questions might make people uncomfortable — and I’d rather she get the answer from me than ask others who might not know the right way to answer.

“The daddy’s body makes something called sperm and the mommy’s body makes little eggs. When they want to make a baby, the daddy puts some sperm in the mommy and it meets the egg and then grows into a baby.”

“Oh. That’s really neat, mama. I want to see how that happens someday.”

“I hope you will, sweetie,” I answer, silently saying to myself “When you are at least 25.”

I know it’s not the most eloquent explanation, and it definitely glosses over the finer details. But she was satisfied with the answer to that one as well. I really never knew a kid her age could be so observant of her world and so inquisitive. I love it, especially how she warns us not to bullshit her and to be sure to give her “the whole story.” Here’s hoping our approach doesn’t mess her up forever!

Comments on Sex Ed and the four-year-old

  1. Straight and simple. It’s just some bodies, right? I got the “talk” when I was 9 or 10 and my mom had a book that was really out of date and horrified me. I wish I had known how it happened before that. Telling me about these things on the cusp of puberty freaked me out, it was like too much totally new information all at once. Good job getting your chica comfortable with it early 😀

  2. Perfect! We also approach it on a ‘need to know’ type basis. Just last night our 5 year old overheard hubby talking about a coworker’s vasectomy that got infected and they had to remove one of his testicles so, naturally, she asked what testicles were. She’s seen hubby and her brothers naked (though hubby’s become more self-aware around her since she started asking questions) so we just told her that the penis and testicles are part of the boys privates and she was satisfied. Thankfully she didn’t ask what a vasectomy was though because I’m sure that would have led to more pointed questions.

  3. This is really sweet and I think you explained it very well. My daughter is 8 and I wish we had conversations like this to ease her into the concept of reproduction.

  4. I guess it’s not as unusual as we think for children at 4 to ask about these things. We had this discussion with our 4-yr-old daughter a couple of weeks ago at dinner. We weren’t quite as honest as you … I think we said something about the mommy and daddy getting really close. Not exactly the perfect answer, but also not the dinner conversation I was expecting!

  5. You’re braver than I am. I just told my daughter at 3 that the mama goes the hospital and the doctors help her get it out. This was when I was pregnant with her sister so she was curious, but I figured 3 years old was too young to comprehend even the 4 year old explanation you gave.

  6. My son is the same way as I am so he has a MILLION questions about everything. He is six years old and knows more than most 11 year old’s. They just keep asking questions and I learned from my step mother to just be open and not to be nervous. They sense fear… And to use the correct names of the body parts. They are medical terms not bad words. So kudos to the author!

  7. My son is 3 and the questions he has makes my head spin sometimes. I try to be open and honest but I also want to know what conclusions he can come to on his own. After learning to pee standing up he walked in on me in the bathroom and asked where my naked went. He then decided Captain Hook stole it. lol it was so funny I had to let him tell his Dad before I could explain that boys and girls are just different.
    I do like how you explained conception. Super simple.

  8. I try the tactic of “defer once” and if the questioning persists, then answer in an age appropriate way. One of my favorite stories is when my then 4-year-old daughter asked why our girl dog didn’t have any puppies (we also have a boy dog, so it wasn’t as easy as saying that it takes two) and I panicked and said, “It’s because she’s not married.” At another point she did ask how her baby brother got out of my tummy and I said, “magic,” and she was ok with that too. But you know, she was fine with those answers, and I was glad I didn’t have to explain the ins and outs of canine or human reproduction. But this year, at 6, she was asking the baby stuff again, and the questions persisted, and then I tried to give some real straightforward answers.

    While honesty is the best policy, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not ready for the talk at the exact moment they are. You can buy yourself some time sometimes.

  9. I love this! My four year old daughter and I have visited several new babies in the last week or two. I had a cesarean with her, and as she got older I realized she was over hearing me say negative things about her birth.

    She told me she didn’t want to go to the hospital if she had a baby, because she didn’t want the doctors to cut her belly open.

    We hashed it out and I started telling her a happy story about her birth. She picked up last night that my friend is recovering from a c-section. On the way home,

    “Mom? What’s the knife called they use to get the baby out?”

    “A scalpel.”

    “What does it look like?”

    “It’s very clean, and small. And very sharp. But you know, some babies come out of their Mom’s vaginas.”

    “How do they come out of there?”

    We had a car conversation almost identical to the one above.

    • I was born via emergency cesarean, and assumed like your daughter that it was just the way you have a baby. I told all the other kids in the neighbourhood that their mothers had been cut open, because I thought it was pretty cool. Even though I was only four I remember extremely well the morning that my mama heard about this and took me aside and said ‘okay, so we need to chat about babies.’

      • My son was born via c-section, and I have always planned to tell him the normal, vaginal story about how babies are born. If he asks how he was born, then I can get into the details of the c-section. But, I also was fairly unhappy with my birth experience with him, so I am hoping to post-pone that until I can tell it with authenticity, but also not regret.

  10. Great job!! My daughter is going on 5 and that’s about the same answer I gave her now that I am pregnant. I imagine once it comes closer to me giving birth she’ll ask more specific questions. Especially during my healing time.

  11. I’ve got to share what is possibly the loveliest book in the world for explaining the facts of life to children, even when very young. The ‘Ways mummies and daddies fit together’ page is stunning and hilarious, we all love it. I always wanted to be open about reproduction with my children because my mother never did the talk with me and as a result I felt I could never talk to her about sex or relationships when I was growing up. I want to be able to be there for my children when they get to that point in their lives should they need advice or help, so it has been really important to me to make sure I didn’t fob them off or scare them! This book set the tone in our house and now they are coming up to their teens the children are both still quite open and unembarrassed about questions concerning sex and their bodies, which is especially handy as my poor old 12 year old son is having to be circumcised in the rather near future.

  12. I should issue the immediate disclaimer that my child is 2.5 and barely asking questions. So, I have no real experience with this. Also, I make the following statement in a truly neutral way — I am not trying to criticize anybody. In fact, I wonder if I am a bit odd!

    What I want to say is that I am just sort of curious as to why these discussions are perceived as so hard. Again, I haven’t had it yet, so I really don’t know, but when I look ahead, I don’t feel particularly weirded out by having this discussion — but is that just because I haven’t yet and will be surprised by the awkwardness to come?!

    I think there are discussions that make me nervous to contemplate, especially about evil in the world, religion, etc. But for some reason, the sex stuff — so far — doesn’t phase me too much. But I wonder if it will end up phasing me more than I think when it finally happens!

    • My daughter’s 8, so we’ve had a lot of these kinds of conversations over the past 5 years or so. They’re not really awkward, but they do often take you by surprise. I’m not embarrassed or anxious about discussing sex and anatomy, but I know that I looked like a deer in the headlights the time she asked loudly in the middle of a crowded grocery store aisle, “Mom, what’s ‘having your period’?”

    • I think there’s a stigma in American society and in some religions about sex and sexuality; that sex and body functions are dirty and/or shameful. If one is repeatedly told that sex and anatomy are “gross” or “dirty,” one finds it more difficult or awkward to discuss related issues. Just my two cents on why these conversations are awkward. It’s nice to read about so many posters that have positive associations with sex and anatomy.

      • I absolutely agree with this. My dad and I were both talking about how we’ve realized (through independent long stays in Europe) how different the issues of sex and alcohol consumption are. Our opinions and interactions are all tied up in strange guilt, hedonism (for alcohol) and the sense that those issues should be private and not discussed. And there’s really no point in them being private at all!

    • For me, it’s knowing how much information the kid needs and/or wants. I’ve had a few of these conversations with my four year old, and it took me a while to figure out that she wanted extremely detailed and anatomical descriptions. I don’t know why this surprised me though. When she was three, she asked for an Anatomy and Physiology cheat sheet fold-out.

    • I don’t think it’s hard, morally, but like explaining any biologic function to a small child, it can be difficult technically. I am still in the process of thrying to explain to my son how food turns into poop in the digestive system. I’m about as close to a biology nerd as you can get without actually studying it in school though, so I look at it from a different perspective. Bodily functions are kind of weird, but I’ve never had any emotional difficulty explaining them to my son. He and I watch birth videos together! I showed him the pictures of his birth the other day and he said they were good, but gross. Then he asked why there was blood on his head. He then proceeded to announce that when the next baby is born (I’m pregnant now) he is NOT going to hold it until we wash all the blood and goo off of it. However, today he told me he wants to catch the baby. Ha ha! 4 year olds …

  13. Sounds like a reasonable explanation to me.

    I will offer an aside that you may want to pick an age or point where you want to sit down with your child if they haven’t already broached the topic themselves. My Mom said she was always told to wait until the child asks, so that is what she did with me. The thing was, I tended to figure things out in my own mind as a kid and just not ask about them. Let me explain.
    Sometime before my little sister (my parent’s fourth and final child) was born I asked my mom if they were going to have more babies after this one. They told me no, and I asked them how they knew that. My mom told me that Mommies and Daddies can decide how many kids they want to have. From that very simple conversation, I decided that since you went to a hospital to have babies come out, you must also go to have them put in. So I figured if you wanted a baby, you went to the doctor, had a shot or something, and then you were pregnant. And I was happy with this answer I’d come up with myself (that my parents had no clue about), until about 3rd grade when I overheard my mom talking to a neighbor about how there were pregnant 13 year olds at our local jr high. At which point I asked, “Why would a a doctor let a 13 year old be pregnant?”

    So anyway, you may want to pick a point in time where you want to touch base and be sure your children know what you want them to know. In end no harm was done in my case, but had I overheard that conversation at say, a friends house, things might have gotten really uncomfortable really fast.

    Right now I’m pregnant and have a two and half year old daughter, so I expect the topic will come up sooner or later. Right now I’m just trying to explain to her that she will have a new brother or sister soon, because when I tried to explain that A baby was growing in Mommy’s tummy, she just looked at me like I had two heads and demanded Cheerios. We’ll get there!

  14. Love it! Just had a similar discussion with my sister in law – my pregnancy has spurring some new questions from her children. I loved her response, which is very similar to this article: shy away from “the talk” and give them pieces of age-appropriate information over time.

  15. I Applaud you! I had a very vague talk with one of my nanny kids about this topic. She isn’t MY kid, so I didn’t want to get into a ton of detail. I knew she had been born via c-section, as my baby had, so I told her that I went to the hospital and the doctor made a little cut to help the baby out, and then sewed everything back up.
    When I told the story I made an unintentional “ziiiip” noise. Now when she repeats the story back to me, there is always that “Ziiip” noise, and it cracks me up. If only there HAD been a zipper! She seems happy with the story so far, though. Any more questions and I get to say “you need to ask your mom about that!” Ha ha!

  16. Great post!
    I want to second the “don’t over explain” bit. When I was 2 3/4 yrs old my mom had my sister. Before she was born my mom gave me some version of the “birds and bees” talk. She asked me if I had any questions. I looked around the room and asked, “How do they make glass?” So yeah, keep it simple!

  17. I teach preschool to a class of 4 year olds. One day our discussion was around reptiles, and how they come from eggs. Ian shared that his baby brother didn’t come from an egg, but instead from his mommy’s tummy, and did he. (His mom had just given birth.) Four other kids piped up that they too had come from their mommy’s bellies too! Stephen looked me straight in the eyes with a look of disgust and stated, “Well I DIDN’T come from MY mommy’s tummy.” I had no idea how to reply, so instead I told him to go home and talk to his mommy about it. I love my job:)

  18. When I was pregnant with my second, my son was four, and was satisfied with somewhat vague answers. When I was pregnant with my third, he was five, and he sat me down, demanding to know HOW the baby got in there. Well, I believe in honesty, and I know that whenever you leave stuff out, kids come up with their own- often very strange-explanations, so I made it easy on us and got a book that explains everything:

    They have one for younger kids and one for older kids, too. I kind of held my breath as we got to the whole penis/vagina part, but my son did not find that to be the most interesting part. After a quick moment of disbelief, he decided that grownups are just gross and strange, and that he wanted to know more about the cell division part. Now, it’s an ongoing conversation, and the other day he told me “you know, mom, most 7-year-olds don’t like to talk about reproduction, but I think it’s interesting!” I’m glad it’s clear to my kids that I’m there for them with honest answers about ANYTHING- If they can’t trust me/talk to me, who can they talk to?

    • Full disclosure: I am a doula and student midwife, so my kids see birth videos and were present at their siblings’ births, and they hear about cervixes at the dinner table. SO, I understand that the level of detail we have with our body talk at home is not for everyone.

  19. Good for you! As a sex therapist I know the importance of accurate, age-appropriate sex education. Research is clear the more kids know, the better decisions they make. You are communicating that it is natural and comfortable rather than something to feel shame about. Nice work!

  20. My son did not/does not have a dad. It’s too long of a story to go into in a comment box, but basically, by the time I knew I was pregnant (read: in the ambulance giving birth), his father had disappeared. Thus, no dad. I’d always been very straight forward about this with my child (who is now 23). My policy was always: answer the questions he asks and no more. He’ll ask follow-up question if it’s not enough. So, up until the fateful day I will describe, his knowledge began and ended with “no dad”.

    When he was five, he came home from school just seething. Apparently, during school that day, the teacher asked all the children to draw pictures of their families. My son’s picture was of just the two of us and he was quite proud of it. How it came up is rather murky, but essentially, the teacher either asked where his father was or flat-out told him to include his father in the picture. My son, confused by this, explained that he didn’t have a dad. The teacher responded, “Everyone has a dad. You just haven’t met him yet.”

    This revelation (backward and untrue) threw him for a loop! He was really angry by the time he arrived home. He thought I’d lied to him his whole life. He suddenly had this picture in his head that someday his dad would swoop in on a white stallion and turn his world into Disneyland. And he was even angrier that I’d kept it from him. I went into panic mode! I knew he wasn’t really ready for the whole birds-n-bees talk, but now the situation had been thrust upon us and I was caught completely off guard. I had to quickly find a way to explain the difference between biology and the nuclear family, so I went to the store with him and we bought this book: Mommy Laid An Egg.

    It was just what we needed. It’s hilarious and lighthearted but completely truthful and factual. After reading the book together, he understood the process, but wasn’t frightened or confused by it and his mind was put at ease. I highly recommend it!

    Karma is a wonderful thing: the teacher got a little taste of her own medicine a few months later. You see, after I had “the talk” with my child, he filled the rest of kindergarten in on the scoop. For a few days, I had to handle some pretty tense phone calls from other parents, but it soon blew over. A few months later, the teacher announced to her kindergarten class that she was going to have a baby and, to her embarrassment, little Bobby W. shouted out, “Oh, Mrs____, where’d you get that sperm?” The class then began to ask her all sorts of personal questions!

  21. Just a shout out for the soon to be published book “What Makes a Baby” – Many of us build families that are not of the “mommy had an egg and daddy had sperm” variety, and kids should learn those stories, too. As the author says, parents should be able to tell not just a story about how it works for some, but a story about how it works for everyone.

    If nothing else, watch the video to hear the kids talk about where babies come from. “What else do you need to make a baby?” “Beer.” So true, little boy. So true.

  22. I was at the tail end of four years old when my mom had my little brother. They actually let me watch a PBS special on how babies grow in the womb, and as a little kid who didn’t have preconceived notions of what is “gross” or “naughty,” I was fascinated! My mom still has a big box filled to the brim of all the pictures I drew of the fetus in her tummy. (Fetuses are surprisingly easy for little kids to draw realistically!)

    • I’m the youngest of six kids, and the younger 5 of us were all home births. I’m the only one who didn’t actually witness a birth– my mum would track the fetus growing with the older sibs, and then they’d be there for the delivery. I mostly learned from science books and my siblings; I didn’t really ask questions, so it took me a while to figure out the connection between sex and babies, even though I knew what both were.

      My gentleman, however, at four, was in the car with his parents and yelled out, “Look, mummy, the cows are playing piggyback!” His mum explained that, actually, it wasn’t JUST piggyback, and he kept asking questions until he knew it all. Apparently he was pretty anxious that he wouldn’t be able to control his blood vessels well enough to have sex.

  23. My son asked me that question when we were driving also. He was almost four at the time, and it started out as a conversation about biology. Where do humans fit in the animal world? Humans are mammals, which means they grow their babies in their tummies and feed their babies with their boobies.
    I asked him “Can you think of any other animals that grow their babies in their tummies and feed their babies with their boobies?”
    He said no.
    “What about kitties?” I thought this was a good example because we had recently visited a litter of kittens, and he was very amazed to learn that cats also have boobies, and kittens drink out of them.
    “But kitties don’t make their babies in their
    “Yes they do!”
    “But how do they get them out?”
    “They push them out their yoni, just like people do.” I should mention here that I am a doula, my son has watched many birth videos and perused many of my birth and pregnancy books, so he was pretty familiar with this.
    “But who cuts the kitty’s tummy open to put the baby in?” this set me aback. Did he think someone cuts people open to put babies in?
    “Hmm, well, that’s not how the baby gets in there. The mommy and daddy work together to make the baby in there.”
    “But how?”
    I sighed. How to explain it for a four year old? “Well, the mommy uses her yoni, and the daddy uses his peepee, and they make the baby.”
    He sat silent for a minute. Then he said “That’s weird.”
    Birth and babies are a pretty regular topic in our home, so the whole conversation didn’t bother me much. Now that I’m pregnant with my second, and planning a home birth, I’m trying to prepare him for the experience, so we’ve been discussing this issue a lot more. I have a feeling my son is going to be one of those kids who just knows way more than other kids. It’s the nature of our family. He will have seen his first live birth before he even starts preschool!

    • Hilljo, that’s just a little humor from the author (me) and the idea of my daughter someday having sex. Not intended to be a commentary on people having babies before the age of 25.

    • Just to echo: I totally read this as one of those things you think, even if they don’t happen. Like, parents will talk about sex with their kids but thinking “Not that you’ll have sex until you’re 35.” The odds are that the kid is likely to have sex before 35, but it’s just something you think and isn’t mean to be taken too seriously. 🙂

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