Age of Un-Innocence

Confronting difficult topics with kids

When Does Sex Education Begin?

Are Toddlers Too Young to Talk With About Sex?

Sometimes it’s hard to know what our kids are up to or what to expect from them next. One day we’re changing diapers, and the next they’re threatening to elope. How do they grow up so fast? What are they really doing when we imagine them still playing with Barbie dolls or Hot Wheels? We tend to think our kids are younger than they actually are. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Some people say sexuality begins in the womb because it starts with touch, and infants touch themselves while still in the womb. After birth, being held and caressed marks the earliest connection that infants have with intimacy and love. These connections come directly from you, the parent.  So, in fact, you’re their introduction to sex education in a very substantial way.

Think first about the seemingly insignificant things: How do you handle children’s jokes about going to the bathroom? What’s your reaction to your toddler seeing you naked? How do you respond when other adults bring up sex in the presence of your child? Such early parent-child interactions start your child’s understanding of what is appropriate with regard to sex, even before you know they are interested.

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The way that you relate to your child’s body—through both body language and words—shows your level of comfort with your child and with the private topic of sex. This sets the foundation for your child’s sex education. Both direct and indirect communications have an impact. So kids learn about our feelings toward sexuality through all of our words, actions, and interactions.

Taking into account the limited span of knowledge in most young kids, it’s important to keep the answer short and clear. Young kids can’t recall lots of facts in a row, so they’re usually not asking for substantial details—they just want a reassuringly calm and simple answer that gives them the basics.  On the other hand, if there’s something specific on their mind, keep in mind that this is their question, their, brain, and not your question.  Tune into to what they are really asking and respond.  And, if the answer isn’t so clear for you, have them join you in getting the facts straight—from reading, researching, or consulting your preferred source.

When a young child asks where babies come from, you might simply say, “A baby comes from a mommy and a daddy. When a mommy and a daddy want a baby, they get together and have one.” If your child is 4 or 5, that may be enough. If she’s 7 or 8, however, she’ll need more information. You might say something like, “Both mom and dad help make a new baby. The dad’s sperm goes inside to meet the mom’s egg, and they make a tiny baby that begins to grow in a special baby-room inside the mommy.”

We all seek touch. Studies confirm that we are healthier when we are touched, hugged, tickled, and massaged. If ever there was an easy and welcome opportunity to pursue touch, it’s through the many tickling and hugging opportunities that arise during childhood. Permit yourself to be involved, and celebrate these wonderful moments with your kids. On the tickling topic, there is a cautionary note: sometimes adults may not be “in touch” with the impact of their tickling or their own impulses. What they intend as joyful play may lead to the child’s discomfort. Therefore, it’s important to be vigilant about what your kid’s actually feeling.

You should talk to your child as early as you can about proper and improper touch and explain that her or his body is under her or his control. Explain the absolute necessity of telling a responsible adult (you or a teacher or counselor) if they ever feel uncomfortable about the way someone else touches them.

Such messages set your children’s comfort level for talking to you about sexual issues. Kids develop (or fail to develop) comfort about their sexuality through exploration, play, interactions, and relation- ships. By developing these avenues in your relationships with your children and helping them understand their experiences, you let them form a confident and healthy understanding of both sexuality and themselves.

Another natural springboards for starting a conversation with your kids about sexuality comes from the practical task of developing good hygiene. Helping your children understand their bodies through the process of caring for them provides an excellent starting point for teaching ownership and awareness of their bodies and sexuality. And being self-aware of your response to sexuality as part of life sets the stage foundation for what lies ahead.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.

John Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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