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.