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Answering Children’s Questions About Sex

Parents often ask us when they should start telling their children about sex. One answer is, when the child begins to ask questions. It seems typical for children to be naturally curious about sex along with the myriad of random questions about the world around them. Research has indicated that by about age 4, most children begin asking questions about how babies are made (Martinson, 1994). One may ask, what is more natural than to want to know where you came from? Parents can end the sex talk right here if they react with embarrassment or uneasiness. Kids pay attention to your non-verbal cues as well as what you are saying. Did you get a flushed face? Did you stammer over your words? Or better yet, did you redirect their question with a “That sounds like a question for your mother (father),” or “You’re not old enough to learn about that yet”. Putting off questions at this early age means that you may be confronted with the potentially awkward task of starting a dialogue on sexual matters at a later point in your children’s development.

“When I was 5 years old I asked my oldest sister where babies came from. She was very uncomfortable answering my question and replied, “Honey, I think we need to wait till you are a bit older to talk about that”. I hated her answer! Later that day my sister asked me where something was and I replied, “Maybe I’ll tell you when you are a little bit older”. (Authors’ files)

It helps to include information about sex and growing up (when appropriate) in everyday conversations that your children either observe or participate in. I like to call these “teachable moments”. When you do this regularly you create a sense of ease and naturalness about sex. For example, a family member or neighbor is pregnant. You could ask your child if they know how that happens or how that baby gets out.

If a child is not asking questions about sex there might be a point when you as a parent will feel it is important to begin to talk about sex. It is ok to tell your child that the topic makes you uneasy but that it is important enough that you are going to try to talk about it anyways. By expressing your own uneasiness (if you have any), you may actually make yourself more accessible or what I call “askable”. This may be enough to say to leave the door open for future discussions. If no questions follow this first effort, it might be wise to bring up sex again yourself. Some suggestions for open-ended questions to begin with include the following:

  • How do you feel about the changes in your body?
  • What do you think sex is?
  • What do you know about where babies come from?
  • What are some of the things that your friends tell you about sex?

Parnts sometimes tend to overload a child who expects a brief, straightforward answer to his or her question about sex. For example, 5 year olds who ask, “Where did I come from?” probably are not asking for the entire explanation on conception. It is probably more helpful to just briefly discuss the basics of sexual intercourse. Often times a brief explanation will prompt further questions. For example, to the question above a mother might respond, “You came from a special place in my body called a uterus.” A child most likely will ask, “How did I get in there?” And so the conversation continues with a basic explanation of what sex is and how your child got in your uterus. It is also a good idea to check to see whether your child has understood your answer to his or her question about sex. When young children want more information, they will probably ask for it, provided that an adult has been responsive to their initial questions.

When a child first asks a question what I like to do is first, praise them for asking such a wonderful question and then ask them what they think it means. For example, “Dad, what is sex?”, “Well sweetheart I’m so glad you asked me that question, tell me what you know about sex first and I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks”. This way you know how much information to say, and if your child is really asking you what you think they are asking you. Maybe your child saw the word “sex” on a form you were filling out at the doctor’s office. By asking your child what they know about something you can gage better what level of information they are asking for and are ready for. This also gives you an opportunity to correct any misinformation they may have received from somewhere else.

“I was in the car with my 9 year old nephew, his friend, and my 7 year old niece. They were laughing about something that happened at school that day and how they were telling two kids to “Go get a room”. I laughed at first and asked them what that meant. My nephew replied, “To go get a room”. I naturally asked, “Well what will they do in there”, and he said “Make-out”, I asked “Is that it?” “Yep”.(Authors’ files)

Some parents believe that is inappropriate to tell their children that sexual interaction is pleasurable. Others conclude that there is value in discussing the joys of sex with their children. Reluctance to express the message that sex can be enjoyable can stem from parents’ concern that children will rush right out to find out what kind of good times they have been missing. There is little evidence to support such apprehension. There are, however, many unhappy lovers striving to overcome early messages about dirtiness and immorality of sex.

Information taken from: Our Sexuality, Tenth Edition. Robert Crooks & Karla Baur. Thomson Wadsworth Publishing, 2008. Not yet published version.

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