How to Talk to Young Kids About Sex in an Age‑Appropriate Way
Even the most cool-headed parent sometimes struggles with how and when to introduce basic knowledge about sex and reproduction to a young child. And while parents might feel awkward about the “birds and bees” talk — usually because of societal taboos around sex — the truth is that kids harbor none of that awkwardness. So the key is to have these conversations in as matter-of-fact a way as possible.
Here’s a field guide to talking to young kids about sex.
Don’t be Awkward
You kid is more intuitive than you think, so if you’re awkward about nudity and body parts and explaining where babies come from, you can be sure that it will show. Get over any weirdness about naming parts of your kids’ anatomy exactly what they are. And though the level of nudity your family is comfortable with is a subjective and personal decision, making kids feel self-conscious or uncomfortable about their naked bodies will only serve to create more awkwardness around these conversations. Open, direct, and factual is the way to go.
For example, “It’s okay for mommy and daddy to see you naked, but it’s inappropriate for someone who is not family to see you naked after you’ve stopped wearing diapers, so please keep your clothes on when your friend comes over.”
Provide Factual Information
It’s important to provide facts, rather than fanciful mythology around human reproduction. Lies about storks or obfuscation (“we prayed and you appeared”) only serve to confuse kids more. The clearer and more factual the explanation, the more likely you are to 1) educate, and 2) avoid embarrassment later. Remember that kids who receive confusing or incomplete information from their parents about sex will go looking for answers elsewhere.
Provide Age-Appropriate Information
By age 1.5-2, children are learning names for their body parts, and their genitalia should be no exception. By age 2.5-3, kids may start asking where babies come from. They are capable of understanding that moms and dads make babies (though they do not need to know the mechanics of that process), or that babies grow in mothers’ bellies and are born by coming out of their vaginas (or stomachs, as the case may be). Inherently, there is nothing controversial or inappropriate about a four year old knowing that a man and a woman are required to make a baby, that it grows in a woman’s belly, and comes out one of two ways. And if kids ask more specific questions about intercourse that you’re not ready to answer, a simple “that’s a bit complicated and I’ll explain it to you when you’re a little bit older” should suffice.
Why is talking to young kids about sex a good idea?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. The first is a purely self-serving one: kids who have open channels of communication with their parents tend to come to those parents first with questions or problems. Which means that when your child does eventually have a difficult question in her teen years or beyond, she’ll come to you rather than to a source you can’t know or trust. Furthermore, children who are empowered with information about their bodies, who have been taught what’s appropriate and what’s not, and who know their parents are open to discussing these issues will be far more willing to report instances of abuse.
The second reason is perhaps more idealistic: it’s important to impart good sexual values on our children. This concept is well-summarized in our interview with Cindy Gallop, but it goes something like this: if sex is a normal part of adult human behavior, then we don’t do our children any favors by refusing to teach them the same values we teach on other realms — honesty, sharing, kindness — as part of sexual behavior as well. And the more we shroud sex in secrecy, the less our children are learning to expect, and to provide, consent, equality, and respect in the bedroom.