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School Starters Out into the World : The Birds and the Bees When to address sex

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Q: My parents told my son that if he touched his private parts, they would drop off. What should I do?
A: The difference between generations in handling sexual development can be wide; it is now more clearly understood that curiosity about the body is a normal stage of development, and old anxieties and taboos have been relaxed.

Your first priority is to let your son know that touching himself is not wrong, and will not result in anything bad happening to his body. Explicitly tell him that his penis will not fall off so he is absolutely clear about this. Now may be the opportunity to talk about privacy and when it is okay to touch himself. You could explain that his genitals are sometimes called his private parts because they are a special private area of his body just for him. Go on to emphasize that exploring his body is fine, but is something to do when he’s at home, rather than around other people. You could say, “It’s okay to touch yourself, but this is something to do in private, in your bedroom.” It is up to you how you explain his grandparents’ warning. You could say that this is an old myth, but now we know it’s not true. Try to avoid saying that your parents told an untruth, since this could get in the way of his future relationship with them. The only way to avoid a repeat of the situation is to talk to your parents about how you handle this issue, and try to get them to back you up by doing the same. Remind them that your child probably had no idea they found this behavior offensive.

Q: My child asked me what sex was. What should I tell him?
A: There is wide variation in when children ask specific questions about sex, and also in when parents think it is appropriate to talk about it. However, sometime between ages four and seven, the questions will come, since he’s likely to have heard the word in songs or on television and may even have picked up some misinformation from older children. When you speak calmly about this subject and are open in answering his questions, you’re teaching him a valuable lesson that sex and love go together and are not secretive or bad.

You’ll need to keep it simple, though, so you might say, “Sex is something grown-ups do when they love each other very much. The man and the woman get their bodies very close together and show they love each other by kissing and cuddling. Sometimes when a man and a woman have sex they make a baby start to grow inside the mummy.” If you prefer to use the word “make love” then explain clearly that this means the same as “sex” so he doesn’t think these are two different things.

You may wonder if talking about sex could make your child so comfortable with the idea that he’s more likely to act on it earlier than children who haven’t been so well-informed. The opposite is true: Children in families where sex education and discussion is commonplace are less likely to take part in underage sex and, when they do begin sexual relationships, are more apt to take precautions.

Q: How early should I tell my children about good and bad touching and secrets?
A: You can begin teaching your child about the difference between good and bad touching as early as three years of age, then build on her basic understanding as she grows. She will benefit from being taught that her body belongs to her, and that she can say “no” when she doesn’t want to be touched. Have fun explaining and practicing good touching, such as tickles and hugs from Mommy and Daddy. As she reaches four or five, you can talk about when touching is bad, for example if her genitals are touched when she does not want them to be or she’s asked to touch the genitals of an adult or a child who is a more grown up than she is. Let her know that she can tell you or other adults, such as her teacher, when she has felt uncomfortable about being touched. Introduce the idea of bad and good secrets; those who abuse children will often tell them to keep it a secret, and threaten them or their family if they tell.

Explain to your child that good secrets are things like not telling Mommy about the birthday present she and Daddy bought, or keeping it a secret that a party is planned so it is a nice surprise. A bad secret is one where she feels uncomfortable or scared rather than excited. If she’s not certain about a secret, make sure she knows she should tell an adult—and keep telling until someone listens to her. However, even if you explain all of this clearly, there is only so much your child can do to keep herself safe, so your own vigilance about where she is and who she’s with plays a large role in protecting her. Be choosy about who looks after her, notice if she is uncomfortable or upset, and remember—children are much more often abused by people they know than by strangers.

Q: My son asked me what “gay” means, because the children at school say it. Is he too young to know?
A: It is up to you when you introduce the idea of same-sex relationships. However, the fact that he may be hearing the word “gay” being used to tease or bully means he’ll benefit from some education to ensure he does not copy this negative attitude. Your explanation can be straightforward, for example, “Gay means someone who loves a person of the same sex. That could be a boy in love with another boy or a girl in love with a girl.” With older children you could expand on the subject and let them know about the meaning of other words such as “lesbian” and “homosexual.” This is also a chance to give a lesson about bullying. You could talk about how words can be used to hurt other people, and ask him to imagine how it might feel to be called names. Ensure he gets the message that name-calling is not acceptable because it can make other people feel sad or left out. If you do not feel comfortable speaking about same-sex relationships, perhaps another trusted adult could cover the subject for you. If you feel it is inappropriate to speak about it at all, then concentrate on the name-calling aspect and go into more detail about why this is unacceptable.
Q: I found my son and a friend from his class naked and giggling in his room. Should I be worried?
A: Looking at and touching another child’s body, including their genitals, is common among children aged four to seven. If the children were around the same age, usually with no more than two years’ difference between them, appeared comfortable in their play, and were not acting out or describing explicit sexual behavior, then it should not be cause for concern. This is just another aspect of your child’s exploration of his body and the similarities and differences between himself and others. Role-playing moms and dads, teachers and pupils, or doctors and patients is also common at this age. It is worth considering whether to let the parents of the other child know about the play so they, too, can consider how to react. They may hold a different view about whether this is acceptable.

However, if your child seems to know more about sex than usual for his age, acts out clearly sexual behavior, or uses detailed sexual language, then seek advice from your pediatrician.

Q: My child used a dreadful word. How should I react?
A: Sexual swearing is common, usually copied from others when your child gets a sense of their excitement at using words that are shocking and forbidden. Between the ages of four and seven, she is unlikely to know the true meaning of the words or be aware of how offensive they are. Your reaction will be a key factor in whether she realizes her mistake or keeps this up. Try to control your initial response; she’ll be watching to see exactly what you do. If you giggle or get angry, she knows she’s onto something big!

Try a calm reaction, such as, “Using that word is not okay, please don’t say it again,” and then distract her attention right away. Remember, the more fuss you make, the more she’ll do it again. Make a point of reacting positively when your child uses pleasant and respectful language, and praise her for it to balance the attention she’s had for any bad words.

Caught in the act What are you doing?

My partner and I recently faced the embarrassment of our six-year-old walking in on us having sex. I am not sure who was more shocked, him or us, and we reacted by yelling at him to get out. After hurriedly getting dressed I went and spoke to him, and it seems he’d heard noises from our room that sounded like a fight and he’d come to help. I reassured him that nothing unkind was happening and explained in basic terms that Mommy and Daddy were being loving, not fighting. It was a real learning experience for me, and we’re now more careful about when we make love, try to keep the volume down, and have put a simple lock on the inside of the door to avoid any more surprises. We’ve now got a privacy rule too—all of us knock before we go into each other’s bedrooms.

NOTE

Talking about how babies are made gives you the opportunity to pass on your values about relationships and love

“Where do babies come from?” How to explain to your child

You may be dreading the words, “Where did I come from?” from your inquisitive child. The temptation to answer, “the hospital” (or something equally evasive) could be strong, but you probably know that it’ll be up to you to provide education about sex, gender, and reproduction. You may find his interest appears earlier than you expected, perhaps because of a greater openness about the subject in society, and the fact that there are more images of pregnancy and intimacy on television and in magazines than ever before. Avoid the surprise by taking the initiative and tell him about babies without being asked.

Plan ahead

Getting the balance of information right for your child’s age and understanding may be your first challenge. Too much detail, and you’ll end up confusing him; too little, and his curiosity won’t be satisfied. It is a good idea to plan in advance how you’ll respond so you are prepared no matter what he asks. Find your own style and words you’re comfortable with by reading books and discussing what you’ll say with your partner, so you’re both ready with a similar response. Whatever you decide to say, find a quiet, private moment to open up the subject. If you’re reacting to a question, try to stop and answer as soon as he asks, even if it’s embarrassing to you. If this isn’t convenient, address the topic at the next opportunity, and avoid talking about the human body or sex as dirty or wrong. Otherwise, your child may get the impression that the subject is secret, bad, or taboo, and be less likely to ask you again.

“Where do babies come from?” This is a typical form of the question your four to five year old is likely to ask. He is ready for some basic information. Before you start, ask him how he thinks babies are made. This makes you aware of any misconceptions he has, allowing you to correct them. It also gives a guide to his level of understanding from which to start your answer. Your young child may think the baby has always existed, and has just got bigger now. A little older, and he’s gained a more advanced concept, knowing the baby has been created and that Daddy was involved, but no realistic idea of exactly what went on. Explain with a simple statement, such as, “Babies are made when an egg from a woman and a sperm from a man are joined together. The baby grows in the woman’s tummy for almost a whole year, and then comes out into the world.” Your answers will no doubt prompt plenty of other questions about what an egg and sperm look like, how they get inside Mommy, and how the baby gets out. Be ready to reply to all these accurately, but with your child’s age in mind. If your explanation is too basic he will ask more questions and, if it’s too complicated, he’ll look away and may even wander off to do something else. Watch for signs that you’re not pitching the information quite right, and adjust your style in response.

Clearly illustrated books can help with these explanations and be shown as you talk. However, asking children to look at the books on their own is not enough—your explanation is required. Expect to come back to the subject at a later date; your child’s curiosity will lead them to want to know more.

“Why are boys different from girls?” This is a natural follow-up to finding out how babies are made. At this age, your child will be interested in obvious physical signs of difference rather than internal organs or the longer-term differences that appear at puberty. He will want to know the names for girls’ and boys’ genitals, and be intrigued as to why there is any need for the difference.

He will probably be satisfied with a simple answer, along the lines of, “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Girls’ bodies are made so they can have a baby in their belly, and boys’ bodies are made so they can help make the baby, but they don’t carry it in their belly.”

Confidences

Find a quiet moment with your child to discuss how babies are made.

Important lessons

Your child may be given some basic explanation of reproduction at school.

Myths and misconceptions Is it true that…

Q: I must use anatomically correct words when I tell my children about sex and reproduction?
A: It is recommended that you use the anatomically correct names for children’s body parts and explain some harmless nicknames, too. Knowing both allows your child to understand, no matter what terms are being used.
Q: It’s okay to say the stork leaves babies or that they’re found in a cabbage patch?
A: These stories of how babies arrive are not harmful; they’re part of a magical way of thinking that suits your child under age four. Do tell a more accurate story of birth from age four onward, as your child is ready and curious for the facts and may be confused by seeing pregnant women and reconciling this with the stork and cabbage-patch stories.
Q: He’ll bring it up when he’s ready, so I should wait until he asks about babies before I introduce the subject?
A: This is false. When you open up the subject you can be well prepared, rather than ambushed by a question. Deciding to hold this conversation before you’re asked means you can give accurate information before your child hears tall tales from the playground.
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