A lot of important topics fall under the umbrella of sexuality: anatomy, self care, body image, social norms, bodily autonomy, abuse prevention, consent, gender identity, sexual orientation, relationships and reproduction. These are not topics we save up for “the Talk” – one big conversation when our kid hits puberty! Instead, they are topics we can talk about a little at a time, in age appropriate ways, from when our children are very young. These open, matter of fact conversations not only give our children the information they need to stay safe and healthy, they also give us opportunities to share our family values, and to let our kids know that we are available as a resource to them. People who got accurate information from their parents, and know their parents are approachable for advice, are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and less likely to have a teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. (Source, Source)
Here are common suggestions for topics to address and messages to share with your child. All families have their own set of values on these topics, and you know your own child best, so adapt these to fit your needs and what feels right to you.
- Understanding Their Own Body, How It Works, and How to Keep It Healthy
- Potty training (age 2 – 4) is a perfect time for teaching your child the names for their own body parts and products (penis, vulva, vagina, urethra, urine, bowel movement…) Teach the correct anatomical terms – this enables them to communicate with doctors in the future. (And can also help a child to clearly report sexual abuse.) Teach them how to care for their own bodies – how to wipe after using the toilet, and how to wash their own private parts.
- When they become curious about other people’s bodies that are different from theirs (often age 4 – 6), answer their questions.
- By age 8 or 9 – before they and their friends experience them, they need to know the basics of puberty, the menstrual cycle, and/or wet dreams / nocturnal emissions.
- By age 10 – before they and their friends are likely to be sexually active, talk about sexual health, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI). Also talk about the importance of delaying sexual activity till they are older.
- How They Feel About Their Bodies – Body Image. Throughout your child’s life, be conscious of how you talk about your own body image in front of them, be aware of the impact of media messages and peer pressure, and reinforce healthy, realistic attitudes.
- Understanding Social Norms about Nudity and Public vs. Private Behavior
- Children under age 4 may naturally have ‘no shame’ about their bodies – they may show body parts to others, look at and touch other people’s bodies un-self-consciously. We want to teach them the idea of ‘private parts’ – the parts of the body that a swimsuit covers – and your family / cultural norms about where and in what contexts it’s appropriate to show them or touch them and where it is not appropriate. For example, some families say about masturbation: “It may feel good to touch your private parts, and it is OK to touch your own private parts, but only when you’re alone, and only in the bathroom or your bedroom.”
- At age 4 – 6, children usually understand this, but they may occasionally try to sneak a peek at others, or touch others, or play “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” Playing doctor is normal behavior at this age (as long as: it’s between children the same age, it’s consensual for both, it’s motivated by curiosity and only happens rarely). However, you should set limits and calmly explain why this behavior is not allowed in your family. (Learn more about sexual development and behavior in children.)
- This is also the time frame for potty humor, and then testing out swear words. Set limits for what is appropriate and in what contexts.
- At age 7 – 12: Kids may play truth or dare style kissing games, look up words in the dictionary, or seek out pictures of nudity online. You can set parental controls and monitor media usage, but you should also talk to children about pornography and how it is designed for adults – tell them that if they encounter it on the internet, they should click away from it. (You might also talk about how pornography is often misogynistic and/or exploitative, and also that pornography sex is different than real world sex.)
- It’s important for you to teach your child your family values and standards. For children ages 5 and up, explain that different people may have different standards.
- Bodily Autonomy – Teach your children that their body belongs to them and ensure that they feel empowered to set limits on how others may touch them.
- This can begin very young – when you are changing your child’s diaper or bathing them, you can talk with them about what you’re doing. Now, this doesn’t mean we ask permission every time we change a diaper. A lot of toddlers would say “no!” to that. But, we can still be respectful and explain to them what we are doing.
- Don’t require that your child give hugs or kisses to anyone if they don’t want to.
- Before tickling or rough-housing, ask them if they want that. Let them know that any time they want you to stop, all they have to do is say stop and you will. Also stop every once in a while and ask “are you having fun? Do you want to keep playing?”
- For a child 3 or older, let them know it’s not OK for others to touch their private parts without permission. Even parents and doctors should ask if it’s OK, and explain why they need to touch them.
- Talk about healthy touch – touch that is comforting, welcome, and pleasant – versus unhealthy – intrusive, unwelcome, uncomfortable. Tell them what to do, and who they can talk to, if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
- Due to fears of abduction and abuse, we used to teach stranger danger. However, most crimes against children are done by people the child and the parents know. We need to instead teach about “tricky people.” Tricky people might try to arrange alone time with the child, ask the child to do something which breaks family rules, or doesn’t feel right, or ask the child to keep a secret. Learn how to teach about “tricky people” here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/02/13/tricky-people/
- Learning to Ask for Consent Before Touching Others
- Around preschool, start encouraging your child to ask before giving hugs and kisses or climbing in someone’s lap. They should also not assume just because someone has welcomed their touch in the past means they want it right now. You might say: “I love having you in my lap, so usually I say yes, but ask first to be sure.”
- You can apply consent in situations where your child has been physical with another child: “Did you ask him if it was OK to hit him? If you had asked, what would he have said? Yeah, then it’s not OK to hit him.”
- Read: “How Sex Educators Talk to their Sons About Consent“
- Gender Identity and Gender Roles
- By 2 – 3 years, children begin to label themselves and others as male or female, By 3 – 4 years, they categorize thing as boy things or girl things, by 4 – 6, they say “only boys can do this” or ”girls never do that.” By 6 – 7 years children understand that boys grow up to be men, and that women aren’t “daddies.”
- As they get older, their perception of gender roles will be highly influenced by peers, by the broader culture and by media. But the early years are an opportunity for you to share your family values and beliefs about gender roles and gender expression. Think about what you say and what you do, and how this shapes their views.
- There are different components of gender: a person’s biological sex (their body parts), gender identity (do they view themselves as male or female), expression (how they dress, wear their hair, and move), and gender roles (what others expect them to be interested in or to do based on their perception of their gender).
- Most of us were raised with a binary concept of gender – you are either male or female. There has been a significant cultural shift where the current generation of youth may have a view of gender more as a spectrum, which includes transgender, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming. To learn more, see my post on Talking to Children about Gender Identity, or see plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/
- Sexual Orientation and Attraction
- Kindergarten age children often explore the idea of couple relationships – “I’m going to marry her.” They may imitate relationship behaviors such as holding and kissing. 7 to 9 year olds may explore relationships “that’s my boyfriend” and may start to wonder about sex. They may be working to figure out the difference between liking a friend, loving a family member, being attracted to someone and being in love. Children 10 and up may develop a more physical attraction to one or all genders.
- By age 4 or 5, most children have noticed in the families around them and in media messages that it is more common for men to marry women, and for boys to be in relationships with girls. Think about your family values about sexual orientation and same gender relationships and share those with your children with your words and actions. As your children get older, talk about how others may have different values.
- Babies and Sex
- Preschoolers will notice pregnant bellies and may tell you that babies come from mommies. And they may want to know how the baby will get out. By age 5, children may get curious about how the baby got in there.
- For a preschooler, we might tell them that a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg make a baby, and the mother carries the baby in her uterus. For a 5 – 6 year old, many parents talk about how a man and woman lay together in a special way to make a baby. For older elementary students you may talk in more detail about sex, and also address the fact that sex can make a baby, but more often adults engage in sex because it feels good to adults.
- Healthy Relationships with Others
- Throughout your child’s early years, your words and actions, and those of other people in their lives model for them what to expect from relationships. Try to model healthy relationships. If there are unhealthy relationships in your environment, try to insulate young children from them, and talk to older children about them.
- In general, a healthy relationship is one where you feel good about yourself, you feel supported and valued by the other person, and you feel safe with them.
When and How to Have the Conversation
Answer questions as they come up. (If the child is old enough to ask, they’re old enough to hear the answer.) But, be sure you know what question they’re asking, so you don’t either just tell them what they already know or give them way more than they’re asking for. Start with a brief answer, then ask “Does that answer your question?” or “Is there more you want to know?”
Look for teachable moments: When you happen to see something in a book, a movie, or while people watching that could lead into a conversation, just drop in a few little tidbits of information. Make these topics that are normal and comfortable to talk about. Watch their non-verbal cues for when it’s time to move on to another topic.
If there’s something you want to talk to them about, first ask them what they already know about that topic – that helps you set your conversation at the appropriate level of sophistication and also lets you catch and clear up any misconceptions they have.
Buy a book or two on the topics to keep on the shelf at home. For younger children, you may read them together. For older children, we often just have them available for them to use as a resource whenever they want to. They might not ever admit to you that they read the book, but you might notice some pages getting a little tattered over time as they seek out the information they want when they’re ready for it.
Recommended books for kids about sexuality:
For preschool age: Amazing You: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, by Saltz.
For early elementary: What’s the Big Secret? by Brown.
For upper elementary: It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Harris. Age 7 – 10.
For additional book recommendations, and details on available books, check out my post on Books for Children about Sexuality.
Sexual Development and Behavior in Children: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files
Talking to Your Preschool Children about Sexuality: www.frfp.ca/parents-resources/parent-education/sexuality/talking-to-preschoolers-about-sexuality.pdf
Talking to Your Young Child About Sex: https://healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Talking-to-Your-Young-Child-About-Sex.aspx
Under Your Wing: Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education Video Series: https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/justice/health-and-wholeness-advocacy-ministries/under-your-wing-our-whole-lives-sexuality-education-video-series/
Sex Talk Podcast from Just Say This podcast: Sex Talk Tips. Or video: Birds and Bees, the Basics, both by Amy Lange.
Classes for parents: Birds + Bees + Kids – Seattle area
Classes for parents and pre-teens – Great Conversations – Washington, Oregon, and California, and Online.
Classes for kids: Unitarian Universalist churches and the United Church of Christ sponsor classes using a curriculum titled Our Whole Lives. They have programs for k-1, for 4th – 6th graders, for 7th – 9th grade, and for high school, and often welcome non church members to participate.
If you’re a parent educator, and you’d like a handout on this topic to share, just click here: Talk about Sexuality With Kids. I also have free printable handouts on LOTS of other topics on my Materials for Parent Educators page.
Are you wondering how to talk to your child about other challenging topics (like death, war, drugs and alcohol, and more? Check out Better You Than YouTube.)
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Did you write this whole thing? It’s fantastic. As I educate about porn addiction, one of the top few questions I get is about when to talk to your kids about porn. I’m going to incorporate some of what you said into a slightly revised answer.
The one thing I will say, though, is that unless you keep your child in a box away from the world, filters on your home computers and devices are really not going to do that much. First, I’ve met too many people who have told me their 10-year-olds know how to disarm them. Second, they live in a world where the kid next to them in class has a smartphone. Their friend at the sleepover has an Instagram account. We can’t shield kids from running into porn, it’s going to happen. Filters are more to make parents think they’re doing something proactive than actually getting the desired job done.
I think that a kind, non-judgmental “If you see pictures of people without their clothes doing things that don’t seem OK, just let me know” goes a long way for a 4 or 5 year old. Porn doesn’t need a bright spotlight on it with kids. It only needs it once it’s too late. I think the anti-porn speech is treated as the anti-drugs, anti-strangers, look-both-ways-before-crossing-the-street speech.
Right now, 33% of men 18-to-30 years old self-report that they believe they have a problem with or addiction to pornography. But 33% of those men don’t use hard drugs, or get in strange cars with strange people, or run into traffic. Why? They were taught as children not to do those things, but were never taught to steer clear of porn. The only way those scary numbers are going to drop is if we start talking to our kids when they are young.
Again, great post. Thanks for sharing.
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Thanks for your feedback Joshua! Great insight. (And yes, I wrote the whole thing… I write all the posts on this site. 🙂 )
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