What is the best way to induce sweaty palms and shaky voices in parents? Just ask them to respond to their young child’s question: “where do babies come from?”
Despite the fact that adults have a good working knowledge of reproduction, many parents find transmitting this information to their kids an overwhelming task. This is unfortunate because it is an important topic and one most kids are curious about. And if children don’t learn about sex at home, they will pick up ideas and attitudes from other sources, such as friends, movies, music and the Internet.
When it comes to teaching children about sex, it’s never too early — or too late. The goal is to create a home environment where sexuality can be talked about openly and willingly, says Isabelle Andrews, a sexologist who offers workshops to parents. “It’s not effective to have just one conversation; it has be to an ongoing dialogue,” she says. And don’t wait to have the big talk with your child when he or she is nearing puberty. Instead, start early and talk often.
Begin by using correct terms for body parts (no “pee-pee” for penis, for example), even with babies, says Andrews. Using incorrect terms sends the message that something is wrong or shameful about our bodies. As well, children will eventually hear these terms from others, so they should know what they mean and feel comfortable using them.
Toddlers and preschoolers tend to be unabashed in their interest — and possible exploration — of their bodies. They may ask pointed questions about a friend’s genitals, but a simple, factual answer like “Yes, Bobby has a penis while you have a vulva” will satisfy their curiosity.
You might discover your child “playing doctor” with a friend. It’s best to gently redirect children to other activities and then, in a quiet moment, explain to your child that we keep our genitals and other body parts clothed in public.
This is the age where children need guidance on what is and is not acceptable in public, says Stephanie Mitelman, a Montreal-based certified sexuality educator who also offers workshops. Parents shouldn’t make their children feel ashamed of exploring their bodies, but should be told: “yes, it may feel good but it is something you do in private.”
At the same time, preschoolers should be introduced to the idea of personal safety — certain areas of the body (those covered by a swimsuit) are private and other people shouldn’t look at them or touch them except in certain cases (for example, by a doctor when a parent is present). As well, Mitelman suggests parents talk about “secret touching” and make it clear that a child should talk to a parent immediately if someone wants to touch their private areas and keep it a secret.
As children move into the school years, they are likely to ask more pointed or specific questions about sex. And this is where parents must take the time to really think through and clarify their own values surrounding sexuality. “As a parent, you need to give your child guidelines,” Andrews says. “You have to think about the messages you are sending them.” It’s not uncommon for children to have friends whose parents are openly gay or who may have started a family via surrogacy or fertility treatments, so you need to be ready for questions that move beyond “where do babies come from.”
However, Andrews adds that parents shouldn’t have to feel like experts. “It’s OK to say ‘I don’t have the answer but I’ll think about it and get back to you,” she says.
Before puberty starts, young people need information about how their bodies will change and should be told that these transformations (while confusing and difficult at times) are normal. Many 8- to 10-year-olds are reluctant to talk about anything to do with sex or private body parts but parents need to persevere despite the “ewwws” and “oh I know that…stop talking about it.” Giving your child a book about the changes that happen during puberty can also be helpful. A child can read it in private and then parents can talk about issues like handling your menstrual period at school, having a crush on someone, dating, etc.
During puberty, it is common for young people to seek out information about their bodies and sex. However, Mitelman says that they may be embarrassed if a parent raises the topic of sex. But parents should have the conversations nevertheless because preteens and teens need reliable sources of information.
Andrews suggests parents take advantage of car rides, when no-one has to be face-to-face, to bring up the topic of sex. Your kids may roll their eyes but they will be listening to what you have to say
So no matter how hard it can seem to even say things like oral sex, masturbation and wet dreams, Mitelman urges parents to follow the Nike slogan and “just do it.” When children grow up with honest answers regarding sex, they are likely to make healthy, safe decisions about their own sexuality.
Resources on sex education
Montreal sexologist Isabelle Andrews hosts a website where parents can find many resources, including a list of books about sexuality for children and pamphlets to download for preteens and teens that tackle these issues.
Stephanie Mitelman, a certified sexuality educator, offers books and videos on discussing sex.
Books about sex
Parents who would like more help on how to bring up sexual issues can check out these books, which offer not only factual information but also examples of conversations between parents and children:
Talking Sex With Your Kids
by Amber Madison.
The author has worked extensivly with teens and brings a fresh perspective to the topic.
What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When)
by Dr. Fred Kaeser.
The former director of health for the New York City Department of Education, Kaeser helps parents clarify their values and then put them into words to be shared with their children.
Let’s talk diversity
Families whose children were born thanks to in-vitro feritlization or surrogacy face additional challenges when the question “where do babies come from” is raised. To help parents, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has put together a comprehensive list of books, appropriate for a variety of ages, that explore donor conception, including from the perspective of gay and lesbian parents. To download the list, visit www.asrm.org.
Websites for teens
Teens often turn to the Internet for information about sexual health. Here are two sites offering accurate information in a non-judgmental way:
Run by the Society of Obsetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the site has sections for young people as well as parents and educators.
This teen-friendly website contains more than 200 comprehensive sexuality, health and relationship articles, guides and factsheets, over 1,000 answers to commonly asked questions, resource lists and a blog. Content is written by both adult and teen/young adult educators.