Sex Education at Home
While it may be difficult for many parents to believe that they need to talk with their grade school child about sexuality, it is true. In fact, parents should discuss sex with their child before he enters puberty (becoming an adult), typically by age 8 or 9.
Your child's "sex education" actually began years ago. Curious infants discover their genitals in the same way that they discover their fingers and toes. Toddlers reach down into the genital region during diaper changes and when they are undressed for a bath. While touching their genitals, children often feel pleasure and may continue to touch themselves (masturbate) for pleasure or self-comfort. Preschool-age children are curious about the differences between boys and girls, want to know names for the parts of the body, and may ask, "Where do babies come from?" By the time they start school, children play "house" or "doctor" to learn more about the body. It is important to remember that this curiosity is natural and part of normal, healthy development.
Although you may not realize it, you have been teaching your child about sexuality all along. For example, you helped him learn the correct terms for the parts of the body, including genitalia, and you did your best to answer all his questions when he asked how babies are made. It is critical that you continue to help your child with this process, providing accurate information and emotional support.
At school, your child now will be talking about sex with classmates. He will learn new, colorful words for body parts and will be exposed to values that may be different from your own. He also will see advertisements in the media that deal with sexuality. In the face of these outside influences, you are the best person to help prepare your child now and for the years ahead. Children who talk about sex with their parents are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior as adolescents.
Many parents are not sure how to talk about sex with their child at any age, but especially when the child is young. You may feel that you'll say the wrong thing, teach your child to do the wrong thing, or even spoil your young child's innocence. Although these concerns are common and understandable, they should not stand in the way of speaking with your child about this important topic. You are the best person for the job and you can do it!
Don't be afraid to tell your child that you are uncomfortable talking about sex. Reassure him that he can ask you any questions he wants, and if you don't know the answer, you'll look it up and get back to him. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex or not sure how to deliver the message, read some books on the subject (for suggestions, see Reading List) or talk with your child's pediatrician. You may want to practice talking about these issues with another adult before talking with your child. This will give you a chance to think about the questions that may come up and how you will answer them. It may also give you a chance to explore your own attitudes about sex.
When and where do you start? Often you do not have to start. Your child will most likely come to you with questions. For instance, he may ask again, "Where do babies come from?" Try to answer the question at your child's level, with short, clear explanations. You don't need to discuss every related subject from intercourse to sexually transmitted diseases. No doubt he will ask more questions to understand things better.
If your child does not come to you with questions about sex or puberty, then you may need to bring up the subjects. You could start by asking how much he knows about something and see where the conversation goes; for example, "What do you know about how babies are made?" Another good opportunity to bring up the subject is when a family member or friend's mother is pregnant. Asking, "Do you know how the baby got inside her tummy?" is an excellent way to start a conversation. Look for other everyday opportunities that are also "teachable moments." For example, you can discuss sexual issues when they are raised on the television, radio or in other media. This is especially important when your child sees a message that is contrary to your family’s morals and values. It is essential that you explain to your child why you feel differently from the person on television.
Once you have opened the conversation, it will get easier as you go along. Over time, you'll want to cover a lot of different subjects with your child. Remember to do it little by little; don't overwhelm him with too many facts all at once. However, it is important that you try to think about the next stage in your child's development. You shouldn't wait until puberty starts to talk with your child about body changes or menstruation.
The following is a list of topics that your child needs to know as he moves toward puberty:
- Puberty — Discuss the body changes your child should expect. Parents of girls and boys should discuss menstruation.
- Human reproduction — Discuss the body parts related to sexuality, including their actual names and functions. Discuss sexual intercourse, how babies are made and how babies are born.
- Masturbation — Teach your child that masturbation and self-exploration are normal parts of sexual development.
- Birth control — Discuss the purpose of birth control, explain the basic types of birth control methods and how each one prevents pregnancy.
- Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS — Teach your child how these diseases are spread and can be prevented.
- Homosexuality — Teach your child about different sexual orientations and explain that nobody knows why some people are gay. Make sure your child understands that same-sex friendships are different from homosexual relationships. Teach your child that criticizing or making fun of anyone because of sexual orientation is wrong.
Talking with kids about sex is important, but not always easy. Although you may not feel like you are doing a good job at first, keep at it, and with time it will get easier. This is your best chance to teach the values you want your child to hold throughout his life. You will keep him healthier, and you will be closer to him as a result.
The following is a short list of references for parents who want to read more about this subject:
- "Raising a Child Conservatively in a Sexually Permissive World" By S. Gordon and J. Gordon
- "It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health" by R. Harris
- "What's Happening to My Body? A Book for Girls" and "What's Happening to My Body: A Book for Boys" by L. Maderas
- "Growing and Changing: A Handbook for Preteens" by K. McCoy et al.
- SIECUS — This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sex education. There are many links to pamphlets and books covering topics for interested parents.