Discussing issues of sexuality with your child is one of the most important parenting responsibilities. However, many mothers and fathers feel uncomfortable with the subject of sex. The stereotype of nervous parents anxiously trying to explain the birds and the bees to their youngsters is all too real in many households. For some parents, it is easier simply to avoid talking about the subject altogether.
If that sounds familiar, you need to overcome your hesitancy about discussing sexually related issues. Perhaps you have difficulty picturing your own child as sexually curious, asking for detailed information about sexual matters, and someday having a sexual relationship. Although studies show that four of five parents believe they have an obligation to provide sex education for their offspring, fewer than half of mothers supply their daughters with any information; fathers participate in sex education even less often.
While many school systems offer sexuality education in middle school or high school, there is no better place for children to learn about sexuality than from their parents. It is one of your most important parenting responsibilities.
If you relinquish that role, your child will still learn about sex, but from other children, television, popular songs, magazines, and other sources. Much of this information will be inaccurate. At the same time, you will lose an important opportunity to discuss with your youngster the values you associate with sex. In a one-on-one conversation, you can personalize the issues with your child, discuss your child's fears and worries, and make sure sexuality education is offered before pressures for sexual behavior increase.
Even if you find it difficult to talk frankly about some aspects of sexuality children are entitled to a more factual perspective than they get from TV or from friends. Make an extra effort to become your youngster's primary source of sexual information.
Not only do children learn about sexuality from what parents say, but also from parents' behavior. A large part of children's sex education comes from observing the behaviors and interactions of those they love. Keep in mind that for a child, sexual interest is not synonymous with sexual activity. When youngsters in middle childhood pose questions about sex, they are not interested in having sexual intercourse themselves but may be fascinated with the subject because they sense that it is taboo or secret. Puberty in girls starts at an average age of ten years, and in boys it begins a little later. The physical changes your child is experiencing or witnessing among friends will trigger a lot of questions. While these questions should be answered directly, proper education about sexuality also encompasses topics like sexual roles, sexual orientation, and establishing relationships in the future.
How Do I Start?
The earlier you begin the process of sex education, the better. Sex education for children does not center on the act of sex, but rather includes the broader concept of sexuality—the physical, emotional, and social aspects of being a boy or girl, man or woman in our culture, and the roles and relationships that are part of being male or female. Ideally, you have had continuing conversations about sexual issues since your youngster's earliest years. If you wait until he or she reaches puberty or adolescence to start communicating on these important matters, parent-child dialogue will be much more difficult. You need to become comfortable with these discussions as early as possible, so that you can lay a firm educational foundation and establish a pattern of openness and easy dialogue before puberty.
Many adults had very little sex education when they were growing up. They may have learned about sex from the movies or from friends and thus may not have accurate information themselves about human anatomy and the biology of sex. They may be uncertain what is appropriate and understandable during various stages of their child's development. These parents need to obtain accurate information—from books or from their pediatrician—that they can pass on to their youngster. Some schools include parents in their health-education courses for children, and some pediatricians offer family sex-education talks in the evenings. In addition to increasing their own knowledge, parents also may find a book or two they can share with their child—books that reflect their own values.
Some parents are afraid they will not know the answers to all their children's questions. If that situation arises, offer to find out the information and discuss it later. Over time, as you answer their questions, both you and your children will become more comfortable with talking about sexuality.
The information that parents give can be guided primarily by the questions a child asks. Some children, however, may not ask directly for specific information, particularly if they believe their parents are uncomfortable with the topic. Other youngsters may test their parents by asking "embarrassing" questions.
As a general rule, when your child asks questions, answer her with clear, short, straightforward explanations. Do not overwhelm your youngster with more information than she asked for; instead, follow up your responses with an inquiry of your own, such as "Does that answer your question?" A few days later you might ask your child: "Is there anything else you're wondering about related to the discussion we had last week?"
Even when questions are not posed, take the initiative and use everyday opportunities—so-called teachable moments—to discuss appropriate, sexually related topics. For example, you can bring up sexual issues when
- a pregnancy or a birth occurs in the family
- issues arise during television viewing, like news stories about AIDS, rape, sexual harassment, or homosexuality
- children mention words with sexual overtones that they have heard in the schoolyard or the playground
- your older child helps change the diaper of a brother and notices that the baby has an erection. (Describe this bodily process matter-of-factly as a natural part of life.)
- you and your child observe the sexual behavior of pets or animals in zoos or on farms, allowing you to discuss mating and reproduction
To build your own confidence, you might try talking over these issues first with another adult—perhaps your spouse or a friend. This will give you an opportunity to think about what questions may arise and help you to clarify your responses. Also, find out what your child is learning in school about sexuality so you can build upon it.
If you are finding it difficult to communicate with your child about sex, perhaps because of your own inhibitions and anxieties, ask for help from another adult in this educational process. Perhaps a relative or a close family friend or your pediatrician can convey the information about sexuality that your child needs during this important time in her life. Your clergyman might also help. In cases like this, however, you should make a special effort to convey your value system to your youngster; no one can do this better than you.
There are also books available for youngsters that you can read before giving them to your child. If there's anything in them you don't agree with, you can discuss it with your child.
- "What Are Your Child's Interests in Sexuality?
- "How are the bodies of boys and girls different?"
- "How old do girls have to be before they can have a baby?"
- "Do you have to get married to have a baby?"
- "Why do boys get erections?"
- "What is a period?"
- "How do people have sexual intercourse?"
- "Why do some men like other men?"
These are the kinds of questions that school-age children ask. Each of them deserves a straightforward answer, perhaps beginning with a question of your own ("What do you know already?") to get the dialogue flowing and give you the opportunity to correct any misinformation. If you have a sense of your child's existing level of knowledge, you will have a point of reference from which to introduce new facts. Some children, however, will play dumb and deny knowing things in an effort to get their parents to repeat and confirm what the children have heard in the past.
In the first years of life youngsters are curious primarily about anatomical differences between males and females. Later, they may also pose questions about sexually related phenomena: "Where do babies come from?" or "How are babies made?" By age eight or nine they may have acquired many of these facts but have not yet tied them together in a way that makes sense to them.
Middle childhood encompasses years in which your child will experience considerable growth and development; in your discussions with your child, take into account your youngster's age, experience, knowledge, physical development, and emotional maturity. Here are the basic facts that your child needs to know as he or she moves toward puberty:
What are the body parts related to sexuality, including their actual names and their functions? (If you use euphemisms for parts of the sexual anatomy, you will give the impression that there is something offensive about them.) Your child may already be curious about her own body, examining it and becoming familiar with her own physical sensations. You can use this natural curiosity to provide information about male and female sexual anatomy.
- How are babies conceived and born?
- What is puberty? How will your child's body change as she goes through this stage of life?
- What is menstruation? Both boys and girls can benefit from this information.
- What is sexual intercourse?
- What is masturbation? Emphasize that masturbation and self-exploration are aspects of sexuality. Help your child approach this subject (and all other parts of sexuality) without a sense of guilt. It is important to dispel the myths about masturbation.
- What is the function of birth control? Explain that if a man and a woman want to have sexual intercourse but do not want to have a baby, they need to use some type of contraceptive. You can even explain the basic types of birth control methods and how they prevent ovulation or fertilization.
- What are sexually transmitted diseases and how are they contracted? Potentially deadly sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS cannot be ignored; the more information your child has about them, the better.
- What is homosexuality? Children become increasingly aware of relationships between people of the same sex. They may sense a social unacceptability that they misconstrue as disapproval of having feelings toward a good friend. In responding to this question, use the opportunity to discuss your family's attitudes about homosexual relationships, and also to reassure your child that liking and loving people does not depend on their gender and is different from liking someone sexually.
What ethical guidelines should be part of your child's sexual behavior later in life? A value system is critical, helping youngsters place sexual issues in a context that is thoughtful, considerate, and healthy and that will encourage meaningful adult relationships.
At different stages of development your child will ask the same questions, but will be seeking different answers. For instance, questions like "Where do babies come from?" may arise several times during middle childhood, but as your child matures he or she will be able to understand more sophisticated responses.