7 Guidelines for Talking to Your Child About Sexuality
The importance of teaching children about boundaries, body images and sexuality
Posted Apr 15, 2018
Mommy, where do babies come from? Why does daddy have a penis and I don’t? Do you think I am fat? Why are Auntie’s breasts bigger than mine? Do these sentences sounds familiar? They do to many, because having children means receiving questions that you are not always prepared to answer. However, being able to openly discuss our children’s inquiries about sexuality will lead to a better relationship and understanding of their own bodies for the remainder of their lives.
There is evidence that shows that good sexuality awareness is vital for the overall well-being of young people, and can increase their ability to make positive and health-enhancing decisions. These decisions can help them to feel positive about their bodies, feel good about being male or female, appreciate and accept individual differences, understand appropriate and inappropriate behavior, as well as physical and emotional changes.
In Denmark, we are known for being very direct, honest and always speaking openly from our hearts when interacting with one another. This also carries over in the way we talk to our children about sexuality, the differences between boys and girls, how babies are made and personal boundaries. This is made possible when we, as adults, do so calmly and authentically, showing that it is the most natural part of life. By doing so, our children will adopt the same mindset and approach these complicated topics as a part of their natural development.
My children were taught in school about the “flowers and bees” already at the young age of seven because learning about sexuality also encompasses all the things that make us who we are. It was adjusted according to their age, and looking back it was such a gift, because at that age they don’t view these subjects as embarrassing and strange.
Some parents talk openly about this part of life naturally and undramatically, but there are also many of us who will end up brushing aside questions, or replying evasively when our children come to us with questions about sexuality.
Denmark may be different than many other places in regards to our communication style, and when uncomfortable topics arise it can be normal to avoid the questions altogether. Even though Danes can often seem overly open and honest, I also know of children who haven’t had any personal conversations with their parents about their bodily changes such as menstruation, contraception and protecting themselves against sexually transmitted infections.
Reflections of Ourselves
How we feel about our own bodies and sexuality is reflected in the way our children will deal with these issues later in life. If we want them to have a positive body image and feel comfortable with their sexuality, we need to look inwardly at how we feel about ourselves.
Therefore, I have created some helpful tips on how to get started – they might help to set the stage for some reflection on this topic, so we can all become better at helping our children feel confident and good about themselves, their self image and their bodies.
I want to strongly emphasize however, that talking honestly about these areas does not mean that you are required to go into every detail and explanation. Not at all! It only means that when questions arise from your children, you shouldn’t run away as fast as you can.
All development stages have limits, which means when a three year old asks you how babies are made, you can answer that it is when two people love each other very much, like mommy and daddy. When a seven year old asks the same question, you can go into more detail like saying: It is something that happens when a man and a woman are naked together and really love each other deeply. However, when a 12 year old asks this same question it is important not to withhold details from them. At this age they will need us to teach them about their anatomy and explain how their bodies are changing. If we do not, they will search for information elsewhere, from places we do not have control over, and which do not necessarily capture the beauty and love that we hope our children will experience later in life.
This approach has worked for families in Denmark, and as the happiest nation for more than 40 years there might be something important to learn from this country.
How to do
Reflect on your own situation at first. How do you feel about your own body? Does it feel natural to talk about boundaries, love and sexuality? Does it feel embarrassing? Comfortable? Scary? You can write your negative and positive perspectives down and share it with your spouse. For instance, “I feel it’s embarrassing to talk about genitals.” Share this concern with your partner and agree on how you, in your family, can talk about uncomfortable subjects like this in the future. Remember that if you find it difficult to talk about this part of being human, you will predispose your child to feel the same way.
Consider the hopes you have for your children. How do you think they should feel about themselves, their bodies and sexuality? Write this down – it will help you to commit to change. Reflect on “why” you feel it is important that they develop a better relationship with these topics than you may have had (if that’s the case).
Something has peaked your child’s interest and lead them to ask you questions. Always follow up on that and be happy they feel comfortable enough to ask you. Meet your child’s curiosity with attentiveness and honesty, and answer their particular question. We often have a tendency to overanalyze and respond to far more than really necessary.
Make it natural from the beginning. Read stories to your children from a very early age about the differences about girls and boys, their development and so on. This is such a wonderful way to come around these topics without directly confronting them. When Emma became Emma – and How that Happened by Peter Gotthard and For the Curious by Marie Christiansen are educational books with nice illustrations that children will love. I am sure there are many more.
As a fundamental rule, you should only talk about or explain something when your child shows an interest in it and asks! This involves meeting your child on his or her level. If they say: “What is that?” and point to a boy with a penis, respond with, “that is a boy, and what you see is a penis.” Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Wait for other follow-up questions. If there are none – let the matter rest. They will ask questions if they feel they haven’t received enough answers. The most important thing to teach them is that they can come to you if they have questions and want to find answers. The trust that you build with them is essential for future communication.
Call things by their names! Don’t make up nicknames. It’s better to just talk about the genitals using words that are normally used. Penis, vagina, bum, breasts, etc. Doing this will avoid leading our children into some kind of fairytale life. It’s better to reflect on life as it is.
Protect your children’s privacy and teach them to respect their own boundaries and those of others. Don’t frighten or shame them. We are all different and have different attitudes towards our bodies and sexualities. Teach your child about the underwear rule. All parts of the body, which are covered by underwear, nobody must touch.
Remember that teaching our children about sexuality is part of the responsibility given to us as parents. Each time one of my children has asked me questions about their sexuality when they were younger, my heart melted a little because it was so obvious to me what stage they were at, and that made me smile inside. I felt so grateful that they didn’t go around all by themselves without getting the necessary answers.