I’ve just been interviewed by LBC Radio in London http://www.lbc.co.uk/ about talking to kids about sex.
The inevitable “birds and the bees” talk is one that lots of parents I coach often put off for as long as possible. But learning about sexuality is a normal part of child development, and answering your child’s questions in an honest, relaxed, age-appropriate way is the best strategy.
I think it all hinges around your attitude to discussing this subject. If you are matter of fact when they are little about their private parts and what they are for, and are relaxed and open about discussing sexuality, being gay and your values around love, sex and marriage then your kids will feel able to talk to you about all sorts of things and you will be able to talk, teach, guide and explain all in the loving environment of your home.
Sex education shouldn’t be a one-off talk but a gradual process of communication, starting when your child is small and continuing until they’re adults. If your children grow up knowing it’s all right to discuss sex and the feelings they have, then they’re much more likely to come to you for support when they need it.
Which is why I think your home is the best place to have these important conversations.
Why is talking about sex important?
Children will learn about sex whether or not you want them to. Children and young people learn about sex from each other, from the TV (think of Eastenders!) from school and what gets passed on in the playground may not be accurate, or what you want them to hear, see or pick up.
So you have a very important role, as a parent, in making sure your child has the right information and that sex is taught to your child from a place of love so you just don’t teach the “nuts and bolts” of sex but pass on your values around it and set it in a loving, nurturing, respectful context.
When should I start?
You might feel that by discussing sex you’ll encourage your children to start having sex. But research shows that teenagers from families where parents talk frankly about sex wait until they’re older before they start having sex, and when they do have sex for the first time they’re more likely to use contraceptives.
Not talking about sex can affect how young people feel and behave about sex for the rest of their lives so if you don’t talk to your child, they may think that sex is scary or embarrassing.
So I think it’s helpful to remember that you are creating a blue print for your children in how they feel and act around the subject of sex.
The UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and sexually transmitted infections are increasing among young people. Giving your children support, information and help to feel good about themselves can lessen the chances of both.
Be guided by the emotional maturity of your child and keep your language simple, age appropriate and matter of fact. If you feel more comfortable keep it on a need to know basis.
What kids can understand, age by age
Ages 2 to 3: I think it’s helpful to start to use the right words for private body parts, such as “penis” and “vagina” as it shows that you are not embarrassed right from the beginning to use the proper words to talk about sexual parts.
Ages 3 to 4: Often at this stage and age children will ask you “Where does a baby come from?” But they won’t understand all the details of reproduction – so keep it simple or “KISS” Keep It Simple and Short is an acronym I teach my parents. A matter of fact and simple “Mummy has a uterus inside her tummy, where you grew until you were big enough to be born” is fine.
Ages 4 to 5: Children are often very curious at this age and may ask how a baby is born. So just stick with the literal response: “When you were ready to be born, my tummy pushed you out through Mummy’s vagina.” Using a story book is often easier and can be very helpful. See my list at the bottom of this blog post.
Ages 5 to 6: Around this age children have a general idea of how babies are made. (“Mum and Dad made you.”)
Ages 6 to 7: Around this age children have basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, “Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces” and you can explain how the sperm, like tadpoles, swims through the penis and up to the egg. Explain what you think about sex and relationships too as this will pass on your values around loving relationships and sex. For instance: “Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other.” Again be guided by the age and maturity of your child as all children mature at different speeds – and it’s not a competition !
Ages 8 to 9: Children are becoming more aware of sex through the media and their peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic if you are relaxed, open and prepared to talk, teach and explain.
Ages 9 to 11: This is a good opportunity to be aware and to start discussing the changes that happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.
Age 12: By now, kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information that your child may be getting. Be subtle and avoid overdoing it as you will switch them off from listening or asking. Remember to be guided by the maturity of your child as you know them best!
Older children may not want to admit that they don’t know things. If your children say they know all about sex, just ask them what they know and fill in the gaps.
You may have religious or other moral views about sexual responsibility, which you want to introduce to your children at this stage. You need also to explain that being responsible about sexual behaviour means:
- Considering the needs and feelings of their partner
- Discussing the relationship both partners want
- Not having sex if your partner isn’t ready
- Using contraception unless both people want a baby
- Practising safer sex to avoid sexually transmitted infection
- Respecting yourself, your body and your choices about when to have sex
Handling specific questions
Your child’s questions about sex don’t always come up at convenient times or in predictable ways and that’s just life, so I would just have some answers up your sleeve and once again I think the secret is just to be relaxed, truthful, open and prepared to TALK, TEACH, GUIDE and EXPLAIN and to be confident in passing on your values, expectations in a loving, caring environment.
They don’t want to talk to ME!
Teenagers often find it much harder to talk to you about sex, so it’s important talk to children when they’re much younger, rather than leaving it until they feel really awkward.
You may have to accept that your teenager doesn’t want to talk to you. Children need privacy and the chance to make their own decisions, but to have your support when they need it.
You can help by making sure that they know where else to get advice if they don’t want to discuss these issues with you so maybe a friendly aunt,uncle, sister or friend can take that role for you.
Kids learn about sex education at school so they often k now the mechanics but I feel it’s really important for you to teach them about sex in a loving , caring environment as you are a role model in everything you do, say and in how you act.
There are lots of books available for parents and children about sex. The list below is not exhaustive but includes a number of recommendations that I think are helpful.
•For under fives: Mummy Laid an Egg, by Babette Cole, published by Red Fox Picture Books
•For five years onwards: How Are Babies Made? by Alastair Smith, published by Usborne
•For nine years onwards: Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From, by Robie Harris, published by Walker Books
•For 11 years onwards: Let’s Talk About Sex, by Robie Harris, published by Walker Books
•For all ages: Questions Children Ask and How to Answer Them, by Dr Miriam Stoppard
•From The Sexual Health Charity fpa: (for 9+): There’s a parents pack available (in the UK) that includes fpa’s range of booklets for young people: 4Boys, 4Girls, 4You, Abortion, Is Everybody Doing it?, Love STIngs, Periods, Pregnancy, Talking to Your Child about Sex. For more information about how to buy this pack, call 0845 122 8600.
How to support your child’s sex education – at home and in school.
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About the author
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
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