You never know where, when or how the topic of sex will come up for the first time with your little ones, but it is likely to be well before you are expecting it. For me, it was several years ago when my older daughter was around four, in a sand box, at the playground next to the middle school where she will be a sixth grader this fall. At that age, she loved anything made out of rubber, and had amassed a large collection of stretchy rubber frogs, lizards, snakes and other assorted creatures. So, naturally, she was delighted when she found a bright purple condom while digging around in the sand with her two-year-old sister.
“Mommy, look what I found!” she said holding it up for me to see, a big smile on her face and eyes wide with excitement.
“Oh! Drop it! Yucky! Put it down, put it down!” I barked, as though she had stumbled upon a landmine. Fortunately, it turned out to be unused, probably given out to the middle schoolers as part of a sex education class. But still, not what you want to see your four-year-old playing with.
Her smile melted into a puzzled frown, unsure of what she had done wrong.
“Why, mommy, what is it?” she asked, still holding the purple stretchy thing in her little fist.
“Ummm, it’s a . . . it’s a . . . penis cover.” I blurted out. She dropped it immediately.
I’m not really sure what prompted me to say “penis cover,” but I think it was a gut feeling that I shouldn’t outright lie. Nor did I want to instill an unreasonable fear of rubber in my rubber-loving child. But I certainly wasn’t prepared to launch into a full-fledged account of the birds and the bees with my preschool-aged daughter when she proceeded to ask why boys wear penis covers. I really hadn’t considered how I would tell her about such things, and thought I still had many years before I would need to. Hence my lame and dishonest answer: to keep them warm.
Reflecting on this incident now, I realize my response clearly was not ideal and I could use some help in navigating this tricky topic with my kids. As I do with so many kid-related issues, I turned to my childhood best friend and favorite pediatrician, Maureen, a.k.a. Dr. Mo, for advice. Here are the key takeaways from our conversation.
Use the correct words for body parts.
It’s important for kids to know the correct words for ALL of their body parts, and parents should teach their kids those words right from the start, just as they would for anything else. Using the correct names for genitals, rather than cutesy nicknames, will give kids the vocabulary needed for future discussions about their bodies and what they were made to do. So, partial credit to me for calling the stretchy purple thing a “penis” cover.
Give honest but age-appropriate answers to your kids’ sex-related questions.
Questions about sex can come up at any age, and parents should always answer them truthfully and factually; my answer about the purpose of the penis cover, not so good. That said, the general rule of thumb is the younger the kid, the vaguer and simpler the answer. Young kids, in most cases, do not want and cannot understand all the technical details. When a four-year-old asks how babies are made, for example, you can tell them that Mommy and Daddy, because they love each other a lot, can make a baby by combining an egg from Mommy and a sperm from Daddy. Most four-year olds will be satisfied with this response and move onto other topics, but if there are follow-up questions – e.g., how do the egg and sperm get together? — you should use your child’s interest as a guide and provide further information along the same lines. Again, truthfulness is key, as parents will need to build on the information they provide in future conversations.
If you don’t have your own version of a Dr. Mo to talk to, there are many helpful articles online about how to answer your kids questions in an age-appropriate way, including this one from Today’s Parent and this one from Parenting. Dr. Mo also recommends poking around on the American Academy of Pediatrics website for more information.
Seize the moment and know that this will be an ongoing conversation.
Dr. Mo’s advice is to seize any and all opportunities to talk to your kids about sex early and often, treating kids questions – whenever and however they arise — as important teaching moments. This is a conversation you should plan to have with your kids again and again at varying depths, rather than having one single marathon “birds and the bees talk” and leaving it at that. So, for example, if your kid randomly asks why you have “fur down there” or, ahem, what a condom is for, take advantage of the opportunity to impart honest and age-appropriate information, rather than deflecting the question or making something up.
Let your kids know that questions about their bodies and sex are not something to be embarrassed about and that you are happy to talk to them and provide answers. Even the shyest kid will feel comfortable asking questions if you are open with them and get the conversation started early. This approach will help them develop healthy attitudes about their bodies and sexuality as they mature into adults.
Get ahead of the game in talking to your kids about sexuality and adolescence.
Another reason to talk to your kids about sex at an early age, is to ensure that you, their parent, are the first person from whom they learn about it, and that the information they are getting is accurate. If the topic of sex hasn’t otherwise come up by the time your kid is nine, Dr. Mo recommends that you bring it up. This way they will know the truth when confronted with the misleading or false information they are likely to encounter at this stage in their lives by way of friends and the media.
Dr. Mo also points out that it is important to educate your kids on the changes to come in adolescence BEFORE adolescence begins, so they will understand and be less fearful of those changes. Given that precursors to puberty, like body odor and genital hair, can begin as early as age nine or ten, it’s a good idea to have started this conversation by the time your kids are eight or nine. Dr. Mo recommends the American Girl Doll book, The Care and Keeping of You (for girls) and The Boys Body Book (for boys) as good platforms for discussion. Her advice is to sit down and read the books aloud with your kids rather than just handing them a copy to go and read on their own. This way, you can be there to answer any questions and make sure they are understanding everything correctly.
Establish boundaries for talking about sex.
Finally, make sure your kids know that while you feel it is important to talk to them about sexuality, this is a private conversation between you and them and it’s not their job to go around telling all the kids on the playground. Young kids, in particular, need to know that there are boundaries for when and where it’s appropriate to talk about matters relating to sex.