A negative sex education received as a child can predispose us to sexual dysfunction as an adult. Casey Blake, a registered counsellor with a special interest in sexual wellbeing, gives us some insight into how to talk to young children about sex in a healthy and practical way.
Many of us are not comfortable talking to our children about sex, so here are some guidelines on how to get around those tricky questions.
My child heard her cousin refer to her genitals as a rose. What do I say to her?
“Many families have their own language for their genitals, and it is important to understand that every family home has its own levels of comfort as well. Please take the opportunity to introduce the correct terminology as early as possible, in addition to the cute names. This will help to create the language around our genitalia. In an instance such as the above, we could answer that that is the name that they prefer to use in their family, but we also know it as ‘vulva’. Then we can talk further about other names they may have heard for genitals. It is fantastic that her friend felt safe enough to bring it up as there is often a taboo around the subject of genitals, even if the children are very young and don’t fully understand the subject of sexuality.”
“When we do not provide accurate language for genitals, we make them literally unspeakable in a serious way. If the only language we have is cute names, children pick up the confusing messages that genitals are unspeakable, but somehow also cute and funny. When children can accurately name their own genitals and those of other bodies, they are more likely to tell you or another trusted adult if someone tries to look at or touch their genitals.”
Is nudity at home bad?
“Such a beautiful question, and no, it is not a bad thing. Again it depends on the family. If you feel comfortable, as the adult, being nude around your children, it has so many benefits for your children. It gives them the opportunity to see bodies as they really are, not only as the photoshopped images they will be exposed to in the media. It also demystifies genitals to a degree, if they are just body parts on the bodies around them. Some people feel uncomfortable once their children are over the age of two because the child will start asking questions and adults tend to want to hide and protect themselves, and the child, from those awkward conversations. But nudity in the home is perfectly fine and it will actually help you navigate future conversations around public and private spaces in the home. They will soon realise that when someone who isn’t immediate family comes to visit, we all put clothes on – so we already have beautiful opportunities to talk about public and private spaces when navigating nudity in the home.”
“Coming back to the idea of avoiding conversations, it is important to think about why these conversations make you feel uncomfortable. Avoiding their questions doesn’t make their curiosity go away. It only means they will find their answers elsewhere.”
My child heard us having sex. Have we scarred him for life?
“No, absolutely not. However, mostly when children hear noises that are sexual, it can sound like noises of hurt. So I would have a follow-up conversation with him about what he heard, what he thought was going on, and if he has any questions or concerns. It is appropriate to say that you were having sex and that it is a private thing between the two of you. A few days later, I’d recommend a conversation with him to ask what he and his friends know about sex. You don’t have to give him too much information, but by doing this, you are letting him know you are open to this type of discussion.”
“Remember that when we let them tell us what they know about these topics – assuming they feel safe enough to speak to us about what they know – we only have to correct their information. They do most of the talking.”
How do you answer a 4-year-old’s question about where babies come from?
“Asking ‘What do you think?’ is always a great starting point. We can start to share the myths and inaccuracies that we heard when we were children, whilst giving them the knowledge they are looking for. Babies come from pregnancy and that is a result of sex, which is where the egg meets the sperm in the ovaries. It is age appropriate for young children to not only know the correct names for their genitalia but also their basic reproductive purpose. You can then circle back to this conversation a few weeks later and ask some questions that will show how they understood what you told them. Then you can correct them where necessary and open the door for future conversations about sex.”
Having an open channel of communication with your children around sex is very important to empower them to discuss things they are curious about, helping them learn how to create boundaries when they feel uncomfortable, understand gender and navigate relationships in a healthy way. “Start these conversations early and have them often. It will help your child trust you regarding topics of sexuality.”