My son learned about where babies come from at 3 years old. He walked into the bathroom just as I was changing a tampon and after reassuring him that I wasn't hurt, I answered all his questions in an age-appropriate manner. We ended up having a frank discussion about the menstrual cycle… Well, as frank as a 3-year-old could handle. But, according to those in the know, I actually handled it fairly well.
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician who shares her expertise online at Ask Doctor G., has delved into this topic many times over and notes that talking about sex shouldn't be a dreaded, one-off conversation, but rather a long series of short conversations that can start when your child is young. "We talk to kids about sex repeatedly throughout their childhoods," explains Dr. Gilboa, reminding parents that it can even start "...when we teach them names for body parts, and that we keep certain parts private."
Kids are naturally curious and even a child as young as 3 or 4 might ask you how a baby gets in a belly or wonder why they have a penis but Mommy doesn't. Don't shy away from their questions. Instead, answer in an age-appropriate manner, neither shirking on information nor going overboard in answering the question. For some samples of preschool-age questions and responses, check out Planned Parenthood's guide to talking to kids about sex and sexuality.
Resources for talking to toddlers: It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris
Sometimes our kids might have heard something about sex or sexuality before we've had a chance to bring it up with them. This usually happens during the elementary years where it's more common for kids to talk about these things in school or on the playground. Because of this, you want to make sure that your child is getting accurate information.
Dr. Gilboa's tip: "If you have a topic you want to address, start with a 'pretest' by asking your child or teen what they know about this topic. This will help you A.) Correct misconceptions, B.) Not lose them by teaching things they already know and C.) Not shock them by giving more than they are ready for."
Planned Parenthood's guide to talking to kids about sex and sexuality also has some sample questions and responses for the elementary age set. As kids get older, their questions may get a bit more direct and require some more in-depth and detailed responses.
Resources for talking to school-age children: It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families and It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
Surveys have shown that only one in six teens have said that their parents have spoken to them about anything related to sex. Don't become a statistic. Like Dr. Gilboa says, start early and talk often. When it comes to talking with teens, it's important to make sure that you're being as clear as possible. She stresses, "Know the one message you want to give in a conversation before you start. It might be 'sex is only for married people' or it might be 'get consent and use condoms' or anything in between. Just be clear what your message is and say it a few times."
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