What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When)

A straight-talking guide for parents

Does Your 8 Year Old Want to Know What a Dildo Is? No? Think Again!

Sex questions we never thought our kid would ask

I have visited well over a thousand classrooms over the years to speak on many different topics and issues pertaining to sex and sexuality. I have spoken to high school and middle school kids many, many times, but if truth be told I have always enjoyed most my discussions with kids in the elementary school grades. I suppose I have always been drawn to young children's innocence and genuine sense of wonderment when they discuss aspects of human sexuality. Adolescents tend to be more guarded, careful of how much they share and disclose. But the little kids just let it all out; their questions and comments flow like water without consideration for correctness or context. Admittedly, it can all be rather challenging and at times pretty scary. I'll be honest, being a professional sex educator can be very tough, but being one that works with kids between the ages of 5 and 10, can really test one's resolve. You just never know what they're going to say or ask you. And believe me, I have heard and been asked some stuff by these little kids that at times almost twisted my head off!

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Elementary school teachers have invited me into their classrooms to talk about a variety of topics that have included human reproduction, sexual abuse prevention, physical and emotional changes of puberty, body part awareness, masturbation, sexual orientation, and a host of others, dependent in large part on the particular grade level in question. So you can imagine some of the things I have heard. Add to this the fact that I am a parent and the many questions I have gotten from my own child, and I would suggest that if there is a sex question that a young child might have asked I have heard it.

Here are a few:

• A 10 year old asks what rimming is.
• An 8 year old asks what a dildo is.
• A 6 year old in 1999, when there was considerable news about possible oral sex and a president, asks "Did the president really pull down his pants and have that lady kiss his privates?"
• A 7 year old asks how a man can become a woman.
• A 5 year old asks how a baby is made.
• A 9 year old asks how a penis moves in a vagina when people have sex.
• A 9 year old asks how homosexuals have sex.
• An 10 year old asks if people can have a baby when they have butt sex.

And the list could go on and on. Please understand that most of these questions were asked "off topic". That is, I certainly don't go into an elementary school classroom intent on discussing rimming, dildos, oral sex, etc. What this shows however, is that not only do young children have a very natural curiosity about sex and sexuality, but in a very sexualized world that curiosity only strengthens as they become more and more exposed to adult-themed sexual messages. What this tells us as parents is our children are likely to harbor any number of questions and uncertainties about the sexual world around them, and that now more than ever they need us to help them put into context and make sense of what they are exposed to. I am reminded of this any time I stroll down Christopher Street in Manhattan on my way to the neighborhood school. I pass multiple shops with fake penises and vulvas that are for sale in the windows, along with the life-like blow-up naked dolls with black leather boots and fishnet stockings. I also see countless parents strolling down the block hand-in-hand with their 4, 5, or 6 year old children and I wonder to myself at what point will they discuss with their kid exactly what is in those windows and why that stuff is there. After all, their kids will not ignore it forever. And please don't go thinking because you don't live in the big city your kid is less likely to be exposed to explicit sexual messages. There are more than enough opportunities nowadays for young children to have multiple exposures to sex irrespective of where one lives.

So what to do as parents if we are asked questions like the ones I just mentioned?

Rule #1: Do not wait for your child to ask a question about a sexual topic before talking about it. If you wait for a particular question to come it may never get asked. We need to be ready to discuss sexual information irrespective of any questions being asked.

Rule #2: When a question does get asked do not avoid it. Avoidance response is an age-old tactic that is used by many parents. Just remember though, if you don't answer your kid's questions about sex and sexuality they will go elsewhere for an answer.

Rule #3: When your child asks a really tough question like, "What is a dildo?" feel free to ask a question of your own before answering. "Well, what have you heard about what a dildo is"? Always good to get their perspective as well as any insight into why the question is being asked.

Rule #4: Always try and put a tough question about adult-oriented sexual behavior into an adult context for your child and then attach a value or set of values to it. For example, if your 8 year old asks about a dildo you can say, "A dildo is a fake penis. I know it might sound a little crazy but there are some adults that like to touch a dildo or fake penis. Sometimes they might touch their private parts with it. As long as they are in a private place when they do it daddy doesn't think there's anything wrong with it". Or, if your 9 year old asks how people who are gay have sex you can say, "Well, they have sex pretty much like a man and woman would have sex. Of course they can kiss and touch their bodies. They can have oral sex which is when a mouth goes on a penis or on the vulva, the outer part to the vagina. Gay men can have anal sex, when a penis goes in the rectum. Lesbian women can use a dildo that they can insert into their vaginas or rectum. It is also important that we respect people that are gay or lesbian". Notice how in both examples I not only provided an answer but I also weaved in a values statement.

Rule#5: Always reinforce with your child how important it is for her or him to come to you with these questions. You always want to reinforce with your child that she or he can always come to you with any question or concern about sex. You want to make sure that you are always approachable on all matters that are sexual.

You are probably wondering how you might address the other questions I mentioned previously. Well, before I give you my responses I want you to think of what you might say...okay?
So have gone over each yourself? Yes? Okay good...now here are my answers:

• The 10 year old and rimming question: "Rimming is when a person puts his or her mouth on another person's anus. I know that may sound a little gross, but there are some adults that do this. I believe that this should only happen when someone is grown-up and only when he or she has total love, respect, and trust with the other person". (See some of my previous posts about my thoughts about love, respect, and trust in a relationship).

• The 7 year old and how a man can become a woman: "Sometimes a man truly believes that he should have been born a woman. And sometimes there are women that truly believe they should have been born a man. These are people who really believe that they should have been born the opposite sex. A person who wants to change his or her sex can be treated by a special doctor and it is possible that they can have medical treatments that can actually help them to become a person of the opposite sex. A person that changes his or her sex is called a transsexual. A transsexual actually becomes a person of the opposite sex. The only difference is when they do they are not able to make a baby. I can only imagine how difficult this all must be for someone that is transsexual. We always need to respect people that may be transsexual".

• The 9 year old that asks how a penis moves in the vagina during sex (FYI-I get this question a lot from 9 and 10 year olds). "When a man has sexual intercourse with a woman he puts his stiff and erect penis into her vagina. Both the man and woman can move their bodies in ways that make the penis move around in the vagina. Sometimes the penis comes out and then back into the vagina, but most of the time the penis stays in the vagina and moves back and forth. The man can move his penis at different speeds as he has sex. But what is very important is that the man and woman should be able to talk with each other before they have sex about what sort of movements during sex they like best. It's so important that a man and woman love, respect, and trust each other before having sex so that they are certain that they can have the very best sex together when they do".

• The 10 year old that asks about having a baby from having anal sex (FYI-I get this question a lot as well). "A woman cannot get pregnant when she has sex like that. It is called anal sex, when a penis goes into the rectum. The only way a woman can become pregnant is when she has vaginal intercourse...when a penis goes into the vagina" (you can add your values again as in the above example).

(You can refer to my previous posts about the 6 year old and oral sex http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-your-child-needs-know-about-sex-and-when/201109/the-super-sexualization-children-time-take and the 5 year old and making a baby http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-your-child-needs-know-about-sex-and-when/201109/parent-s-first-mention-doing-it-sometime-b).

I can imagine that some of you might have some difficulty believing that your child would have questions like the ones I just mentioned. All I can say is that is usually the response of the parents of the children that have actually asked these questions. So at the very least it would be wise to start to practice answering some difficult hypothetical questions. Just in case of course. You never know when you might need a good answer. Here's to you becoming an approachable parent when it comes to sex.

 

 

Fred Kaeser, Ed.D., is the former director of health for the NYC Department of Education. He is the author of What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When).

more...

Subscribe to What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When)

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.