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How to Handle THE TALK with Little Ones: Broaching the Subject of Sex

It's a tough topic to open up about, especially with smaller kids. Here's some guidance on how to break the ice.

Of the many difficult topics parents are responsible for introducing to children, sex and sexuality are at the top of the list of subjects we wrestle with most in our culture, and even avoid. Why? Our physical bodies, inclusive of sex organs, hormones, and pleasure receptors, are the most basic aspects of who we are. Our brains, home of gender and orientation identifiers, guide our bodies. Every body with a brain has the capacity to be a sexual being, and we’re all born out of the functional biological imperative that we’re hardwired to perpetuate: that’s sex! So why are we so afraid to talk about it openly? Especially when we’re simultaneously inundated with imagery of sexuality everywhere we look? Culturally, we are both repressed and obsessed. And in those circumstances, where do we start, when do we start, how do we start explaining to our children what sex is about? 

The first thing to know is that while most of us hope our kids won’t start doing anything about sex until they’re mature, responsible, and self-actualized individuals, they do need a working knowledge far in advance. Growing children need to understand their bodies, what bodies do, what physical interactions signify, when they are okay, when they are not, and how to navigate the landscape of sexual awareness and sex itself physically as well as emotionally. For kids, that awareness comes fairly early on in development, but without guidance, they’re at risk. In order to make healthy decisions about sex, and to experience themselves without shame, they need as much information as possible. 

It’s important to remember that sex is not one subject. It’s a seemingly endless concept encompassing anatomy, development, puberty, consent, masturbation, behavior, privacy, relationships, pregnancy, and so much more. Because of the complexity of material that falls under the umbrella term of “sex,” instead of one grand puberty-preparing summit on The Birds and The Bees that lays out the fundamentals of what periods and erections are and how babies are made, for kids sex should be a part of daily conversation. 

In conversation with younger children about sex, it’s helpful to: 

Normalize It

Sex is normal. Our body parts are as natural as leaves on a tree or ears on a rabbit, and it’s with that kind of comparative illustration we can help our children understand, for example, what genitals are and what they do. It’s also vital to use correct terminology for body parts so that children understand there is no shame in possessing a penis or a vagina. Some parents might feel awkward using these terms, so you may need to practice, and learn along with your child that these words belong in common (albeit appropriate) parlance. Bathtime is a great opportunity to work these terms into the conversation, and you can begin this early. We all chatter to our babies during baths. Add the right words for their body parts into the conversation. As your child grows and develops speech, she’ll use “vagina” as casually as “hand,” and she’ll know that that is right and okay. 

Keep it Age Appropriate, Keep it Honest

When talking about the varied sectors of sex, sexuality, and sexual health with kids, it’s crucial to be honest, while also considering age and development. For younger children, simplicity and mechanics help them make sense of concepts they’ll comprehend in deeper detail as they grow. Being frank and open, and keeping an eye on the reaction to the information you provide is key. It’s important not to drop education on a child as a one-off, and send her away to worry over it. Once you introduce or speak to a new topic, keep it in circulation. Let your child know the subject is open, and open-ended, and check in regularly to help her achieve a level of comfort.

Let Them Lead

Generally, kids will tell you when it’s time to start talking about sex, but you’ll have to watch for when that time is right, and it may not be a clear question you’re looking for. What you are looking for is behavior. Toddlers may “discover” their genitalia during bathtime, or when dressing and undressing, and start to touch or talk about it. They might make observations, verbal or otherwise, about what’s going on in the bathroom and why one parent’s body looks so different from their own. They might attempt to investigate what’s going on under friends’ or family members’ clothing to see how they compare, or use touch on themselves or others to understand and explore anatomy. All of this behavior is normal, and it’s the kind of curiosity and behavior that lets you know it’s time to start talking to your kids about bodies, privacy, consent, and what’s appropriate to do and say at home as opposed to out in the wider world. 

Make Use of Resources

While it might feel challenging to navigate your child’s curiosity about body parts, sex, and the natural exploration that all children go through as they grow, there is an enormous collection of books and websites to help support you as you seek to educate your kids about this intergral aspect of human life. Picture books that illustrate anatomy and explain how bodies work, how procreation and birth happens, and how to set boundaries and express consent, are an invaluable tool as you embark with your child through the landscape of this complex topic. And don’t forget to consider friends and family a resource. Experience is a great guide and teacher, and sometimes helps us decide how to proceed, or sometimes the opposite!

“The Talk” need not be pressurized, or scary, or (too) uncomfortable for you as a parent, because, as a part of normal life, it won’t be just one talk. An ongoing conversation helps forge a bond of trust between you and your children, decreasing the chance of fear, shame, and embarrassment around sex that puts kids at risk. The sooner you begin, the more likely they are to keep talking to you as they get older, when the stakes around sex get higher. So start early, practice honesty, encourage questions, and keep the conversation active.

Philadelphia Family is published by a team of local women to connect families raising their kids in the city with resources, events, and each other. Learn more about us, our mission, and our method for supporting local businesses at familyfocus.org.