Never Too Young: Educating Children about Sex

According to the Center for Effective Parenting, "Children begin to develop an awareness of their own bodies and an interest in sexuality at an early age. This is a normal process." Here are some things parents might do to instill healthy ideas about sexuality in their young children.

Discussing Sex with Young Children

  • Don't get upset with children for touching their own genitalia. Young children have a great curiosity about their own bodies. It is quite normal for them to touch and handle their own genitalia. Instead of punishing and shaming children for this normal behavior, parents should treat it matter-of-factly. As children approach school age, they should be taught that while touching one's private parts is not wrong, it is something that is to be done in a private place and not around other people.
  • Don't overreact if you discover children "playing doctor" with each other. Young children have a great curiosity about other people’s bodies. When children show each other their private parts or even touch each other, it is not an automatic sign of anything more than curiosity. Adults should treat it matter-of-factly and use it as a moment to teach children that private parts are private and that behavior of this kind is not appropriate.
  • Explain what private parts are and what body privacy means. While children are young, parents should teach their children that private parts are private and that nobody else should touch them. This is also a good time to let children know that they should come to you or another trusted adult if anyone does try to touch their private parts.
  • Explain sex differences. Preschool-age children are very curious about the differences between boys and girls. Parents should explain these differences to their children. Parents should explain that boys have a penis, scrotum, and testicles and girls have a vagina, vulva, and clitoris.

Discussing Sex with School-Age Children

As children get older, they will need and desire more detailed explanations about sex. It is important to talk to children about sex before they are teens. As mentioned before, if we begin discussing sex with our children while they are very young, it will be much easier for parents to approach them when they are older. It will also help children feel more comfortable coming to parents with questions they may have. Here are some things parents can discuss with their grade-school-age children:

  • Teach that sex is natural. Parents should make sure their children know that sex is natural and normal within a committed, loving, mature relationship, and not dirty or shameful. Parents should not worry that such an explanation will promote promiscuity in their children. In fact, children are less likely to listen to their parents if they try to make them feel that sex is bad or dirty.
  • Procreation. School-age children are usually very curious about how babies are made. Parents should include in their explanations how babies get inside their mother's bodies, how fertilization takes place when the sperm and the ovum unite, and how babies grow inside their mothers. Explain how the process takes place, using appropriate labels and language. Children also need to know that babies grow in the mother's uterus, not her stomach, and that it takes about nine months for a baby to grow. Parents should repeat this explanation often over the years. Children need to hear these things many times before they develop a real understanding.
  • Menstruation. Girls need to learn about menstruation, preferably from their parents, before their first period, which usually arrives anywhere between age 10 and 14, sometimes younger, sometimes older. It can be a frightening experience for a young girl to begin bleeding and not know why. It can be a frustrating experience to have all your child's friends start their periods when she is still waiting for hers. It might help for moms or other adult, female relatives to share their "first period" stories. Boys also need to know about menstruation.
  • Masturbation. Boys and girls alike need to understand that masturbation is natural and normal but it is something that should be done in privacy. Share with them how you feel about it in a clear and straightforward manner.

Discussing Sex with Adolescents

Adolescents are often difficult to talk to about anything, but discussing sex will be easier if it has been a topic of conversation since they were young. Here are some other ideas to help you speak with your adolescents:

  • Don't assume children already know about sex. Often, children this age know some things about sex, but the information they have is usually not complete, or is erroneous. For example, they might believe that a woman cannot get pregnant the first time she has sexual intercourse, or have little understanding of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Define oral sex and explain that oral sex is still sex. This specific topic is often the most difficult for parents to approach with their children, but a growing trend among even young teens is to participate in oral sex to avoid pregnancy.
  • It's never too late. It is never too late for parents to open a discussion about sex with their children. Providing information when children are older is much, much better than providing no information at all.
  • Teach that sexual intimacy has profound consequences. Parents should make sure that their children know that sexual intimacy carries with it the risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional pain.
  • Teach children that it's okay to say "no" to sex until they're ready. Parents should make sure their children know that they are responsible for their own bodies, and they should not do anything that they do not feel completely comfortable about. Parents should explain that adolescents often face a lot of pressure to have sex before they are ready, but that they should never let anyone pressure them into doing something they do not want to do.
  • Teach children that sex is not the most important part of a loving relationship. Children need to know that there are many parts of an intimate relationship that are much more important than sex, such as commitment, mutual respect, compatibility, and love.
  • Share your values about abstinence, birth control, and sexual partners. Children need to know what their parents think about sexual issues, in addition to the facts. While it may not always be apparent, we as parents provide the moral landscape for their decision making.
  • Be available to your children. Make sure you let children know often that they can come to you with any problems, questions, or concerns, no matter what.

In a perfect world, in a perfect culture, coming from perfectly adjusted and openly communicating families, talking about sex with our children would be just another topic, like hygiene or sports. In our world, however, sex is not "just another topic," but with a little work and patience, we might be able to improve on past generations (or at least hold our own).

Other Resources

Here are a few resources for talking with your children about sex.

"It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families" by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley (for children ages 4 to 8)

"What's the Big Secret? Talking About Sex with Boys and Girls" by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (for children ages 4 to 8)

"Where Did I Come From?" by Peter Mayle (for children ages 4 to 8)

"Your Body Belongs to You" by Cornelia Maude Spelman and Teri Weidner (for children ages 4 to 8)

"It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends" by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberly (for children ages 5 to 8)

"A Kid's First Book About Sex" by Joani Blank and Marcia Quackenbush (for children ages 4 to 8)

"So That's How I Was Born!" by Robert Brooks and Susan Perl (for children ages 4 to 8)

"How Babies Are Made" by Andrew C. Andry and Steven Schepp (for children ages 4 to 8)

"How to Talk to Your Child About Sex: It's Best to Start Early, but It's Never Too Late—A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents" by Richard Eyre and Linda Eyre.

"Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid They'd Ask: The Secrets to Surviving Your Child's Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens" by Justin Richardson and Mark A. Schuster.

"It's OK to Talk About Sex: A Guide for Parents of Newborns through Adolescence" by Jane Carney Schulze and Rolf Schulze.

Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

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