I remember having coffee with a colleague one morning when she told me her son had said over breakfast, “I think I had a wet dream last night. What causes that?” She didn’t quite know what to say (“Wow, aren’t these Rice Krispies extra good this morning?”), but pulled together a coherent response about hormonal changes in puberty and spontaneous ejaculation – and thanks for letting me know, do we need to change the sheets? Upon reflection, she was just grateful that her son was comfortable enough to share this milestone and ask a question about his body.
How are you at answering kids questions and seizing teachable moments to talk about the human body, sexual development and sexual activity? What would you say if your child asked how a baby gets in the tummy, had a question about porn, or wondered about oral sex?
Whether your child poses a question or you see an opportunity to proactively educate before they ask, use such moments to give children accurate information, while weaving in discussions about respect, boundaries, and consent.
Now, let’s practice. How would you answer this question: “What is sex?”
What is sex?
Child: What is sex?
Parent: “Thank you for asking me because we can talk about anything. What do you think sex is?”
Child: “It’s something with kissing and hugging, right?”
Parent: “Sexual activity is when two adults who love each other agree (consent) to touch each other’s private parts. Sex is for adults only. Children have body-safety rules which means that no one is allowed to touch their genitals (except for cleaning purposes or medical reasons with a parent and doctor present together) and they don’t touch others. Kids can touch their own genitals in private.”
Child: “Gross. Why would adults do that?”
Parent: “Because it feels good and it’s one way adults express their love with one another. It’s important that both adults always agree when touching genitals.”
- Discussion: Notice some important features of the adult’s response:
- The parent starts by asking the child what they already know and then listens. This way you are more likely to answer the question that child is really asking!
- The focus is not on heterosexual intercourse because that is not the only model for sexual activity.
- The focus is not on making babies; after all, how many times is sex actually about making a baby?
- The response uses the phrase “agrees to” which teaches the concept of consent.
- The response offers an opportunity to include your values (“adults who love each other”) on which you could expand (respect, trust, consent).
- The response reinforces body-safety rules about touching and boundaries.
- The response uses the phrase “private parts.” If you elaborate, use correct names for genitals.
- The response is truthful (“adults touch because it feels good and is a way to express love.”)
Sometimes parents worry that by being direct and specific their children will run off and try sexual activities with friends or siblings. Educating children about sexual development does not typically lead children to practicing or exploring what they learn – but it does lead to less risky sexual behavior in adolescence.
Let’s try another one.
How does a baby get in the tummy?
Child: “How does a baby get in the tummy?”
Parent: “There are several ways that a baby gets inside a uterus which is the place the baby grows. It takes a sperm and an egg to create a baby.
- One way is when a penis goes inside a vagina. The penis releases sperm and swims up the vagina to look for an egg in the fallopian tube. If the egg and the sperm come together, a baby grows inside the uterus.
- Another way is that a doctor can take sperm from a male body and eggs from a female body and put them inside the uterus.
Remember, when children have follow-up questions, and it’s likely they will, just take a breath and tell the truth.
Adults are responsible for educating children about sexuality and proper education decreases the risk of sexual abuse AND the incidence of risky sexual behavior in adolescence and young adulthood. Just like parents nurture their children’s emotional, physical and spiritual development, nurturing and educating children about sexual development is important.
Children need information at every stage of development. Some kids are more likely to ask questions than others, but not all children will ask questions. Thus, it’s important for parents to be pro-active and educate anyway.
Find out what your child already knows – and then tell the truth, correct misinformation, and keep building from there. Start early – really early – so you normalize conversations about bodies and sexual development at each stage.
Okay, more practice: How would you respond if your child asked you:
- “What is oral sex?”
- “Mommy, where’s your penis?”
- “Why is my penis standing straight out?”
- “Daddy, is that your tail?”
- “Why do you kiss? It’s disgusting.”
- “Mommy, what is the blood in the toilet?”
- “What’s a wet dream?”
And for older children:
- “What are the best birth control options?”
- “Is it true that condoms break?”
- “ Can I get an STD if I’m using a condom during sex?”
Adolescents may ask fewer questions than younger children, especially with instant access to the Internet, which is why it’s so important to initiate conversations with teens about sex. Include discussions about safe sex, the emotional consequences of sex before the brain is fully developed, abstinence, birth control, pregnancy, and STD’s.
It’s not uncommon for parents to freeze when children ask questions about bodies and sexuality. They can become embarrassed, shocked or even panicked about how to respond and what exactly to say. Sometimes answers come out like, “Go ask your Dad,” or “You don’t need to know that right now.” Unfortunately, if you don’t answer your children’s questions, I promise you someone else will – either the kid on the playground with misinformation, the Internet, or worst case scenario, a teen or adult with an intention to sexually offend, taking advantage of the child’s naivete. I hope this blog post has given you the encouragement to be proactive in having conversations with your children about sex and sexual development.
Thank you for all you do to keep children safe from sexual assault.