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

A straight-talking guide for parents

What Your 5-Year-Old Needs to Know About Sex

Start your sex conversations early with your child

When our kids are infants, many of us really don't think a whole lot about what we're going to say to them about sex when they get older. For the most part the stuff we're going to discuss with them later on is not even on our radar screen as yet. And even if it is, it is all so far off in the future that we think we have a bunch of time to prepare for it, correct? Even when our kids reach four and five years of age there are still many parents that think there is little about sex that they need to hear and they still believe they have a ways to go before they have to deal with the topic. But if we stop and think about our children's development today, puberty is likely to be only about five years away for your typical kindergartner. That's right, you heard me correctly. It may be hard to believe but your little one is only a few years away from having to confront the complexities that come with the onset of puberty and the transition into pre-adolescence and adolescence. Truth is there are many ten-year old kids that have begun puberty. Heck, there are more and more eight and nine year olds than ever before that already have! So in reality a lot of heavy duty sexual educating is really just around the corner for the parent of a five year-old!

In my presentations to parents, I frequently remind those that have children in kindergarten that now is the time for them to lay a foundation for many of the big sex messages that they will want their kids to learn about when they become teenagers. In fact, in my book I have a chapter titled, "Everything They Learn About Sex Needs to Start in Kindergarten". The building blocks for your child's sexual future begin early. By age five you will want to begin to address a number of sexual topics that your child will have to confront regularly as a teenager. It is important to understand that learning about sexual intercourse, determining the type of person to be sexual and intimate with, preparing oneself to avoid sexual victimization, and learning how to postpone pregnancy until adulthood should not suddenly begin when these issues become relevant in a young person's life. These are decisions of such magnitude that our children need to begin learning about these issues long before they are faced with them. You can actually begin very basic and simple discussions about them at age five.

Of course when you discuss various topics that pertain to sex and sexuality with your five year old you will do it in a way that won't overwhelm your child. I advise that you periodically provide your child with little bits of information, personal values, and guidance about different aspects of sex and sexuality. You can disseminate information according to how much your little one can absorb. You will want to scaffold your talks. That is, build on and expand the information you offer. As your child learns a particular concept and begins to understand each topic you broach, you can add on more information and guidance, just as a builder raises the scaffolding as he builds each story of a building.

There's no particular "flow" that you need to follow when sharing with your child your wisdom on sexual matters. You certainly won't have sexual discussions every day, or even every week. Sometimes a topic might come up more often and other times you will have what seem like long dry spells. When a teachable moment presents itself you may well take advantage of it. With all of the various sexual messages that our kids are exposed to on a daily basis there are more than enough opportunities to pick and choose the ones you will comment on with your child. Your formally planned talks will probably occur several times a year, perhaps once or so each month. At times you may need to discuss things more frequently, at others, less so.

The list of sexual topics or issues that could be addressed with your five year-old can actually be pretty extensive. Let's take a look at what you might cover with your child:

• Sexual vocabulary. You will want to teach about both male and female genitals and private parts of the body: breasts, vulva, clitoris, vagina, ovaries, penis and testicles.
• Teach the basic functions of the genitals and private parts.
• Teach that a baby is made when a sperm cell from a man joins together with an egg cell from a woman. This happens when a man and woman have sexual intercourse: the man puts his penis inside the woman's vagina and sperm cells come out of the man's penis.
• Teach that a man and woman should only have sexual intercourse when they love, respect, and trust each other.
• Highlight often different examples of love, respect, and trust and reinforce the importance of these values in a relationship. Discuss how important they are in the context of a marriage or life-partnership.
• Highlight how important it is that when two people decide to have a baby they should love, respect, and trust each other.
• Teach how two men or two women can love each other like a man and a woman. Teach the word homosexual and teach the concept of tolerance and respect in conjunction with homosexuality.
• Teach the concept that one's genitals are private parts of the body. Make the connection between private parts and private places: one can touch one's private parts and show one's private parts in a private location only.
• Teach rules that pertain to touching private parts of the body: one is not supposed to touch the private parts of others or have others touch theirs. Teach exceptions to this rule: parents helping to wash one's private parts, a doctor might have to examine one's private parts.
• Teach about sexual abuse prevention. How to say "no", how to recognize the "Uh Oh" feeling and what to do when one has it, learn about one's support system and who one can tell if one needs help.
• Teach about masturbation. Share your values and reinforce the concept of privacy in relation to it.
• Teach as needed about the flexibility of gender roles.

Obviously there is much to say about the specifics of a parent's talk with her or his child, as well as how to package how it is to be discussed. I refer you to my book for all the details but let me give you an example. Let's use the topic of how a baby is made. You've already laid the groundwork with respect to sexual vocabulary by giving the names for the genitals and sexual parts. You've explained the testicles and ovaries, and how the testicles make sperm cells and the ovaries make egg cells, and how these cells are so very tiny. Your noticed that your child became sufficiently bored during your discussion and that she couldn't make total sense of all that you were saying. This is not surprising and should actually be expected. You soldier on with the solace of knowing that you are becoming an approachable parent on all matters sexual each time you have a "sex' talk with your child. You now make the bridge between how the sperm cell meets with the egg cell. "The man and the woman lie in their bed without any clothes on and the man puts his penis into the woman's vagina. The sperm come out of the man's penis into the woman's vagina, and if the woman's ovaries have made an egg cell, then a sperm cell can join together with the egg cell to make a baby". At this point, your child might look at you bizarrely or even say it's all really gross. Doesn't matter...you've actually done a great job.

As you move forward and scaffold your discussions about how babies are made, you will discuss the values that you want your child to adopt about sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and the type of person to enter into a relationship with many years down the road. You will have discussions about love, respect, and trust, and how they should play a major role in all decisions about sexual intercourse. If, for example, you are in the park with your five year-old and you see a baby with its parent, you might say in passing, "You know, a person should only think of having a baby when she is an adult. There are too many teenagers who become pregnant". You might add to this during another teachable moment when you see say, "People must be in love before they have a baby. They have to be really sure that they are in love with each other". You will scaffold this with even more talks: "It takes a long time to know if you love someone. It takes a long time to know if you can trust someone". You can also pose questions to your child when a teachable moment pesents itself. As you pass a high school or middle school, you could say to your child, "Remember when we spoke about how only adults should have a baby? What then would you say to a teenager who wanted to have a baby"? Or, if you're watching TV with your child and you see a parent taking care of a baby you could say, "Do you think a teenager can handle the big responsibility of taking care of a baby and being a mother? Why/why not?"

You are trying to share the values you want your child to learn in conjunction with sexual intercourse and having a baby. You want to instill in your five year-old child both the knowledge and the moral guideposts early on, and then continue to have these types of discussions as you see fit over the course of the next several years.

By having these conversations with your five year-old you can assure yourself that, by the time your child reaches adolescence, she or he will have a strong foundation upon which to make critical decisions about sex and sexuality. If you take each of the topics listed above and take the time to explain them to your five year-old, and add your values and any moral guidance that might apply as you do, you will assure yourself that you will be a fully approachable parent on all matters of sex by the time your kid reaches puberty.
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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).

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