Curiosity about sex is a natural step from learning about the body. Sex education helps kids understand about the body and helps them feel positive about their own bodies. Younger kids are interested in pregnancy and babies, rather than the mechanics of sex.
Just before you tackle any of your child’s sex-related inquiries, Cory Silverberg, sex educator and author of Sex Is A Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings And You, suggests you first ask a clarifying question such as “Where did you hear that word?” in order to give an appropriate response.
How to talk to kids about sex from birth to age 2
“The process of talking about sex should start before they’re verbal,” says Silverberg. That means incorporating the proper names for genitals into everyday activities like bath time. While Silverberg isn’t against also using cutesy names, “Penis, vulva, vagina, clitoris, bum and nipples are all terms that every toddler should know,” he says, explaining that they need these words to communicate health issues or injuries.
Teaching your baby the anatomically correct terms for her genitals might sound daunting, but Thornhill says to be casual and treat those terms as you would the word “arm” or “ankle.” She also recommends avoiding connecting sexual biology to gender. For example, drop the idea that all boys have penises and all girls have vaginas. Instead say, “People with penises” or “People with vaginas.” Thornhill explains that by watching your language now, you set the groundwork for easier conversations about gender roles and identities later.
Closer to age two, you can start talking to your kids about when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies. If your toddler has the tendency to touch his genitals—which is perfectly normal—use it as an opportunity to explain how that’s something we do in the privacy of our bedrooms. “You want to be really gentle,” Thornhill says, explaining that you don’t want your child to feel like he’s doing something shameful.
How to talk to kids about sex when they’re 2 to 5 years old
A major focus for this age group is learning about boundaries and what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to touching—or being touched—by other people. “This is fundamental to consent,” says Silverberg who explains that it’s crucial that even young children learn to ask before they touch someone else. Lessons around sharing, touch-based games like tickling, and asserting your own boundaries, such as telling a child when it is and isn’t OK to climb onto your lap, all help to create a more intuitive understanding of consent. Establishing that kids have a say over their own bodies also helps with keeping them safe. While you can skip the explicit details, now is when you should be telling your child that others should never ask to or try to touch their genitals.
How to talk to kids about sex when they’re 6 to 8 years old
At this age, it’s important to discuss how to safely explore digital spaces—even if your child won’t be using the internet unsupervised for a few more years. Establish rules around talking to strangers and sharing photos online, as well as what to do if your child comes across something that makes her feel uncomfortable. While you don’t need to pre-emptively explain pornography to kids, be prepared to have them stumble across it. “Calmly explain that those sorts of websites are about grown-ups doing grown-up things,”. While there’s no need to present pornography as something bad, you will want to state that that these types of websites are just for adults.
This is also a good time to revisit masturbation, since by age eight most children have begun to explore their bodies. Frame it as something that, while normal, is done in private, and don’t forget to address proper hygiene.
At this age, you can also speak more explicitly to kids about sexual abuse.
How to talk to kids about sex when they’re 9 to 12 years old
Now is when you should start talking about sexism and sexualisation. Use examples found in the media or even in your own community—for example, a grandparent who thinks boys should only have short hair—to spark discussions. These chats can be depressing, but support kids to find their power, and point out positive examples of individuals who have overcome stereotypes. Also, point out how progress has been made; for example, with more women working in STEM fields.
This age is full of emotional and social changes, and girls in particular may struggle with body issues. Parents should check in with their children about how they’re feeling and what they’re wondering about. “At this age, it’s really just emphasizing over and over again that it’s normal,” when it comes to how their bodies are changing.
How to talk to your teenager about sex
Talking with your kids about sex and sexuality early in life really pays off once they’ve hit their teens. If you’ve established yourself as open to discussing those topics, “your kids are probably going to feel more comfortable talking to you and asking you questions,” .But if you’ve been quiet on the subject of sex up till now, then sit down with your teen and stating that you’re changing your ways. “Even just hearing that is really reassuring for most kids,” .While you generally want to minimize the lectures, teens need real talk about birth control, who adds that you might even want to supply condoms or set up a doctor’s appointment for hormonal birth control.
You want to empower your child to be able to evaluate risks and make good decisions. “Helping kids understand that they have a gut, an inner voice, and they can and should listen to it, is a big part of what sex education is about,”. And by discussing the right topics at the right ages, you’re setting your child up to do just that.
Children, when learning about sexual issues in school or outside of school, are likely to have many questions. The topic certainly can be confusing. Parents should be open to continuing the dialogue and answering questions at home. This is especially true if you want your kids to understand sexuality within the context of your family’s values.
Body changes and sexual issues are an important part of human development. If you have questions about how to talk with your child about them, ask your doctor for suggestions.