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        illustration of a boy with symbols of the birds and bees floating above his head

        Ask Dr. Bronwyn

        Let’s Talk About Sex

        Sure, nobody is really looking forward to talking to kids about sex, but child development expert Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup makes a case for why it can't wait–and shares what to say to kids in every age group.
        Written By
        Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
        Illustration
        Loris Lora

        The best time to begin talking to kids about sex is early, very early, which might feel hard to wrap your head around. Obviously, pretty much no one feels comfortable talking about the birds and the bees with a preschooler, but the tremendous positives hopefully outweigh the discomfort. Basically, even if talking to your child about ‘sex stuff’ makes you feel desperately uncomfortable, do it anyway, and here’s why.

        Why You Should Talk To Kids About Sex

        Talking about sex is protective. Children who grow up with parents who talk to them about sex, dating, relationships, and love in an open and honest manner – albeit in developmentally appropriate ways are:

        Less likely to:

        • experience a teen pregnancy

        • contract a sexually transmitted disease

        • experience sexual violence

        • engage in sexual risk behaviors as a teenager

        • be victimized by a sexual predator

        • be influenced by peer behavior regarding drugs, alcohol, and sex

        • report increased levels of depression and anxiety

        • experience shame and insecurity around sexuality

        More likely to:

        • be self-reliant and have higher self-esteem

        • be successful in school

        • develop meaningful relationships

        • put off engaging in sexual relations

        • be able to identify unwanted touch and report it

        How To Talk To Kids About Sex

        Fake it till you make it. How comfortable you are talking about sex with your child has a lot to do with the ease with which your parents talked about it with you or didn’t (e.g., maybe they just handed over the book, Where Did I Come From and called it a day), your cultural/religious beliefs and comfort with talking about tough topics in general. For sure, these are much harder conversations for some of us than others, but the protective benefits to your child hopefully will be convincing enough to force you to feign comfort if you must and just do it. 

        Keep talking over time. Parents often talk about dreading having “the sex talk,” but the truth is, one long, embarrassing talk isn’t near enough. There’s so much that children need to know, from the correct names of their body parts to privacy and consent to sexual intimacy. These “talks” are much better received as lots of little conversations over time that change depending on your child’s age, questions, curiosity, and experiences. Plus, the earlier you start, the more normalized and easier it becomes.

        Be approachable. Let your child know that there’s no question that’s off-limits and that nothing will make you embarrassed (or at least that you’ll admit to) or upset and angry. Make it clear they should always feel free to ask you anything. Ideally, you want to become your child’s person who is “askable” and reliable. 

        Be sure you know what they’re really asking. There’s an old psychologist joke about a young child who asks their parent, “Where did I come from?” And a parent, who thanks to their intense discomfort, launches into a long dialogue about the sperm and the egg and so on and so forth without taking even so much as a breath, only to hear their child ask, sounding very perplexed, when they finally do stop, “I thought I came from Philadelphia?” This happens a lot. So, before answering your child’s questions, be sure you understand what they’re really asking, how much they already know, and even where they heard about the word or subject in the first place.  

        Answer their questions within reason. If your child is asking you a question about how babies are made, sex, private parts, or whatever else, it means two things: 1) They want to know the answer and will look for it somewhere else if they don’t get it from you and 2) At this point, they trust you as a good source of information and feel safe enough to ask. Sure, it’s easier to dodge uncomfortable questions by saying something like, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “it’s magic that happens from love.” Still, if that happens enough, instead of you, it will become their peers and the internet that they turn to for answers to their questions. Of course, there’s a fine line between being your child’s accurate source of information and crossing over into reliable-friend, even intimate partner territory. For example, while you might be asked to provide information about what oral sex is at some point, some things (e.g., how to do it) are reliable-friend, intimate partner territory.

        Be honest and brief. Young children can only process new information in small chunks, so you don’t have to go into too much detail. 

        Take a moment if you need one. If you don’t know the answer or can’t imagine how to respond in a developmentally appropriate way, it’s fine to let your child know that you’ll get back to them by saying something like, “That’s a really good question and I want to make sure to give you a good answer, so I’m going to think about it and tell you after dinner,” or whenever else – and then make sure you do. 

        Stay calm and carry on. Regardless of how shocking your child’s question is, and you’re liable to hear some real doozies even from the younger set, try not to let it show that you’re rattled and answer them just as you would any other question. For example, say one day in the car, out of the blue, your child asks why it feels so good to touch their penis/vagina, do your best to answer them the same way you would if they’d ask why it tingles when they hit their funny bone (e.g., “There are parts of your body that feel good when they’re touched, and your penis is one of them.”).

        Don’t let porn be their teacher. No matter your morals, values, worries, or experiences, your child will learn about sex one way or another. So, it’s important to become the person they feel comfortable coming to as their source of accurate information. Shockingly, recent research shows that many children today first learn about sex from online porn around 8-9-years of age (and not only boys!). This likelihood is dangerous for a whole slew of reasons, including that most of what they’ll encounter on the internet depicting sex and relationships won’t be loving, consensual, intimate, real, or healthy, but violent and upsetting.

        Prioritize consent. Teaching consent can begin early and naturally when your children are rough-housing or wrestling, when relatives insist on a hug or a kiss, or when you hear someone (including your child) ask someone else to stop hugging, tickling, kissing, or picking them up. It should be a priority to ensure that your child knows they never have to allow someone to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. 

        Don’t forget the emotional side. Sex isn’t just about bodies. Emotional intimacy is a crucial part of sexual relationships, yet it can feel awkward sometimes to articulate the role emotions and trust play in a healthy sexual relationship. Talk about how to trust and know when you can trust someone (e.g., with your secrets, feelings, etc.). Explain that sometimes people you think will be dependable or trustworthy aren’t, even with a secret or a friendship, and that’s normal because no one is perfect. When we begin these conversations early, they naturally evolve into bigger talks later about the significance of sharing our bodies and more intimate aspects of ourselves with another person. They are an essential aspect of raising children who will have healthy and loving sexual relationships and relationships in general. 

        Start early, in the toddler years.

        Label private parts correctly. Don’t just stop at the belly button when you’re teaching your toddler their body parts, label their “private parts” by their actual names as well. By coming up with alternative names for only certain parts of their body (e.g., “powder puff,” “wee wee”), we end up communicating to children that there’s something shameful or secret about them. Instead, be casual and refer to those parts of their body like any other, e.g., “Be sure to rinse the sand from your vagina, and your feet, please,” as you leave the beach.

        Normalize self-exploration. It’s common for some toddlers to discover that touching their penis or vagina “feels good.” In the early years, though, this is more about self-exploration than masturbation. If your toddler seems to have made this discovery, let them know that they’re right, it does “feel good,” but that their private parts are “private,” which means just for them. So, if they want to touch them, they should do so in privacy (e.g., in their bedroom or bathroom)

        Keep talking in the preschool years.

        Seize teachable moments and natural curiosity. Take the opportunity to continue the conversation during the preschool years by allowing your child’s natural curiosity to drive the topics. When they catch you putting in a tampon and want to know what it is and what you’re doing, you could tell them that most women get their period each month, which means that a little bit of blood comes out of their vagina as their body prepares to possibly have a baby someday. The tampon stops the blood from getting on your underwear or your clothes. That’s it! Simple, honest, and brief. Of course, be prepared for an onslaught of questions like, “Does it hurt?” “Is it a cut?” “Could you use a Band-Aid?” Answer them in a way that is honest, accurate, and developmentally appropriate. The same goes for questions about where babies come from, if one comes up, say, when your pregnant neighbor stops by. For three-year-olds, keep your answer simple, short, and accurate. For example, “Babies come from a place in a woman’s body called a womb.” As your child gets closer to kindergarten age, of course, they may want more information, and this is an example of how the same topics will be discussed differently over and over again. Still, keep your answers brief, fact-based, and biological by nature, meaning just sticking to how a sperm and egg combine to develop a baby. 

        Continue talking about “private parts” as being private. Start talking about who can touch their private parts and who cannot. Meaning, if possible (which can be more difficult if your child is still in diapers and at daycare, for example), be explicit about the only people who are allowed to touch their private parts (e.g., parents, their doctor, grandparent, babysitter). Although, it’s a good idea to make it clear that even a doctor shouldn’t ask to see or touch their privates without a parent in the room. Stress that anyone else cannot, even if they ask, and your child would have otherwise given the okay (e.g., siblings in the bath).  

        Set up appropriate limits and boundaries. Just as with any other aspect of your child’s behavior and experiences, it’s important to set clear boundaries around privacy, play, and private parts too. It’s common for some children, for example, to discover masturbation early, and when they do, let’s just say that some of them don’t have any discretion. So, it’s important to let them know that although masturbation is normal and healthy, it also involves private parts, which are private, and should happen only when they are by themselves and in private. Clear boundaries and limits around private parts, in general, are also warranted. It’s not uncommon, for example, to find curious littles naked and playing “doctor” together behind closed doors on a playdate. Although innocent, it’s important to make clear (in a gentle, non-judgmental, or critical manner) that touching/examining another person’s private parts is never allowed because private parts are private. Make sure your child knows that the only private parts they should be touching are their own, which goes for everyone else.

        Gender. Although most children identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, some children express feeling different from their biologically assigned gender very early. Gender identity doesn’t always depend on body parts, and young children shouldn’t be told otherwise.

        Go deeper in the early elementary years.

        How babies are made. As your child leaves kindergarten and enters first grade, chances are, they’ll begin to want more information about babies and where they come from, and even if they don’t, remember the notion about being your child’s first source of accurate information and go for it. Sometime around then, depending on the child, it’s time to start talking about the mechanics of sex. You might say something like, “You know how I told you about how a sperm and an egg join to create a baby? Well, one way that happens is a man’s penis goes into a woman’s vagina and sends the sperm inside to meet the egg.” Cringy and uncomfortable sounding? Perhaps! Although less so, hopefully, if you’ve been having open and honest talks leading up to this point. Regardless, even if you’re dying inside, try not to let your child know since they’re taking cues from you, and to them, this is just information, albeit dumbfounding information. Instead, stay calm and present and open to questions, which in all honesty, can often be pretty funny. 

        Introduce the idea that babies can be made in different ways, and so can families. It’s important to introduce your kindergartner or young elementary-age child to the idea that families can form in various ways, and so can babies.  

        Talking to little kids about sex, privacy, consent, intimacy, and relationships might not always feel comfortable and can be easy to put off, but doing so misses important opportunities to:

        • establish yourself as a safe space to talk about tough topics

        • be open and honest

        • provide facts

        • build a closer relationship with your child

        • demonstrate that you are a reliable, safe, accurate, and non-judgmental resource

        • let your child know they can come to you about anything; nothing is off-limits or too embarrassing

        Gender identity. The majority of young children feel like the gender they were assigned at birth, but some do not. Others like to play and dress in ways that contradict stereotypes (e.g., boys who like to dress up as princesses). Most of the time, it’s too early to say whether doing so means anything about their future sexual or gender identity. Regardless, what matters is that your child feels accepted and celebrated for the unique human they are, building up their emotional well-being, which is something you can influence! 

        Sexual orientation. Talking about sexual orientation is easier than most parents imagine, especially if you live in a diverse environment with lots of different kinds of families (books are helpful if you don’t!). When we refer to sexual orientation, typically, we are talking about who a person is attracted to. For example, most people are attracted to and want to date, be with, and marry people who are of the opposite gender from them. But other people want to date, be with, and marry people who are the same gender as them. What matters about the person you’re attracted to is that you feel liked/loved in return.

        Masturbation. It’s normal for some school-age children to discover masturbation. So, just as in the earlier years, acknowledge the pleasure it derives (many children use it as a stress reliever!), along with a gentle reminder to keep it private (meaning in their own room or the bathroom).

        Puberty. A subject in and of itself. Check back for a forthcoming article!