Sex Education??? My Child’s Only 3 Years Old!
...well then, already s/he has received a wealth of messages about sexuality - three years worth, in fact. Just think about it:
- When infants are touched and cuddled, they learn that they are lovable.
- Choices of clothing (pink vs.blue), toys (dolls vs. trucks), and playtime activities (tea party vs. baseball) all present messages about male/female roles and expectations.
- Seeing a brother, sister, or parent in the shower teaches about physical differences between males and females.
- A parent’s willingness (or lack thereof) to respond openly and honestly to the question, "How did the baby come out?" conveys an attitude about the subject of sex.
The fact is, you have been educating your child about sex all along, through your words as well as through your silence; in your verbal and non-verbal communication. Your responses and reactions have taught your child a great deal about sexuality - not only in terms of information, but also in terms of your values and attitudes.
You cannot avoid being your child’s primary and most important sex educator... nor would you want to. As a parent, you exert a most powerful influence over your child’s sexual attitudes and development. The family experiences you shape, from the moment your child is born, help determine the extent to which s/he develops positive, healthy feelings about sexuality. Yet the thought that sex education begins at birth is, for many, a novel idea. The unsuspecting parent may allow several formative years to pass before the realization sets in: children - even very young children - deserve thoughtful, purposeful sexuality education. As parents more consciously attend to that education, they prepare their children to face the challenges - and sexual choices - that lie ahead.
OK - When My Child Asks, Then We’ll Talk
...but will you recognize the asking? Children are interested in sexuality long before they can verbalize the questions. For example, a pre-schooler may want to watch daddy in the shower or touch mommy’s pregnant belly. These are ideal "teachable moments" to pass along lessons on anatomy, reproduction and birth.
When parents take advantage of such opportunities, they not only provide important factual information, but also affirm their willingness to discuss sexual issues with their children. This helps establish an atmosphere of comfort and trust which encourages children to seek additional sexual information from parents in the future.
You needn’t worry about telling your child "too much too soon." S/he will simply absorb what s/he can and show boredom with the rest (you know the signs: glazed eyes, yawning, leaving the room...). Your comments are not wasted. S/he may not have gotten all the detail, but clearly the message is "mom and dad are ‘askable’."
Danger lies not in "too much too soon," but in "too little too late." When parents recognize the asking and respond openly and lovingly, they are well on the way to providing quality family sex education.
Of Storks and Cabbage Patches
A 3-year-old’s view of the world is a very literal one. For example, when told that a baby is growing in mommy’s tummy, a child may ask, "Why did she eat the baby?" The vision is one of a baby mixed with food in mommy’s stomach. Anything other than truthful, simple answers only creates confusion.
Beyond confusion, a sense of mistrust may develop when a child, told by her parents that the stork brought her, later discovers the truth. Through all this, the message implied is that sex is negative - and not an OK subject to talk about openly, honestly.
Concocting fables in response to children’s sexual questions is a disservice to them. Their questions deserve truthful answers -scaled to their level of understanding, of course.
For example, when a young child asks, "Where did I come from?", a parent may at first say, "What a fine question! Do you have any ideas about that?" This accomplishes three things: it clarifies what the child is really asking (s/he may simply mean "what city," in which case you’re off the hook); it buys the parent some time to collect his/her thoughts; and it provides a sense of how much the child already knows.
The second response can be something simple, and honest: "You started
as a tiny egg inside
mommy’s body." This alone may well satisfy the child (although probably not), yet it leaves the door open for further discussion.
The point is: honesty really is the best policy. There’s certainly no need at this stage to deliver a lengthy description of intercourse, conception and birth. That’s not what your 3-year-old is interested in now. S/he just wants some basic information.
So relax. For the young child, sex doesn’t have the same emotional significance as it does for an adult. Keeping this in mind can be a great help to parents as they encounter their children’s normal sexual curiosities.
Is Your Sexism Showing?
During the pre-school years, parents have perhaps the greatest opportunity to influence their children’s sexual attitudes - including ones about sex role expectations. It’s a wonderful time to plant the seed that both boys and girls are capable of just about anything they wish.
When parents are careful to avoid stereotyping male/female roles, children learn that their life options need not be limited by gender. This does wonders for their self-esteem.
Take advantage of the many simple opportunities to broaden your child’s perspective with regard to sex role expectations:
- Share household chores.
- Allow and encourage children to play with toys and take part in games that cross traditional lines - it’s fine for boys to play with dolls and girls to play football.
- Read non-sexist literature to your child - with males and females portrayed in a variety of roles.
- Pay attention to language implying sex role limitations (ie. "fireman" vs. "firefighter"). Use "he or she" in reference to doctors, nurses, etc. It’s awkward, but makes an important point.
Simplistic? Pointless? Don’t let the subtlety fool you. When parents refuse to pigeonhole male/female expectations, they allow a child’s "self" to blossom.
An Ear Is An Ear ...
... and a penis is a penis, not a "wee-wee;" a vagina is a vagina, not a "down there." When parents use incorrect names for sexual body parts, the message is that they are somehow different or that there is something wrong or unmentionable about them. Often this results in children learning to be embarrassed or ashamed of their genitals.
Studies have shown the value of teaching children the proper names for sexual body parts. Aside from promoting a positive sexual attitude, accurate terminology can at times become especially important. For example, if a child is trying to describe an injury or inappropriate sexual touch, s/he needs to be equipped with language more precise than "down there."
Frequently a child may refer to sexual body parts using terms s/he's heard from friends. It's perfectly fine to say something like, "Some people call it a "wee wee," but that's just a made-up word. The real name is "penis" and that's the word we like you to use."
Such a simple, matter of fact response may seem somewhat trivial to us. To a child however, it's an important lesson - one that encourages respect and a healthy attitude toward his body and sexuality in general.
At age 3, a child is intensely curious about bodies - and not just her own. There's particular fascination with sex differences and body functions. This interest may be demonstrated in a variety of ways: "playing doctor," wanting to watch mom/dad in the bathroom, genital play, comparing body parts to other gender friends or siblings.
About this time, a girl begins to wonder what happened to her penis, and a boy wants to know "what those are" (pointing to mommy's breasts). Opportunities abound for sharing information on sexuality, growth and development.
Q. What happened to my penis?
A. You never had one. Only a boy has a penis. A girl has a clitoris.
Q. Can I see where the baby came out of you?
A. The baby came out through an opening between my legs called the vagina. I prefer not to show you my vagina because it's a private part of my body. Would you like to look at a book on how babies are born?
Q. Why does Paul stand up to pee, and I have to sit?
A. It's easier for girls urinate sitting down. Their "pee" - the real name is urine - comes out through a small opening near the vagina. A boy urinates from his penis.
Q. Can I have a baby when I get big?
A. Only a woman can have a baby, Johnny. She has a special place in her body called the uterus where the baby grows. Daddies help to make a baby. You can be a daddy when you grow up if you want to.
These are just some ideas on how a parent might respond. You will decide for yourself how you wish to handle your child's questions.
The point is, children are seeking basic information at this stage, and deserve simple, honest answers. The important thing is for parents to respond in a supportive manner. It's a nice time to get a little practice. Take advantage of the easy questions now... it will help you respond to the hard ones later.
Show Me Yours and I'll Show You Mine...
Hmmm. Your 3-year-old Jenny and her little friend Will are playing quietly upstairs - too quietly. What are those kids up to?
Uh-oh. Jenny's door is closed. Resisting the urge to waltz right in (you've been teaching her about privacy these days - respecting closed doors and all that), you knock. Giggling bubbles up from within Jenny's room, and you think you hear a faint "come in"... so you do.
There stand Jenny and Will thoroughly enjoying that classic preschool pastime, "playing doctor." They have shed their clothes and are busily examining each other. Now what do you do?!
You could respond with shock and anger: "What are you two doing? Put your clothes on right now, and don't ever let me catch you at that again! Will, I'm taking you home!" Message: The children are bad; curiosity about bodies is wrong; nudity is wrong. This of course leaves the children feeling confused, ashamed and hurt. After all, they were just displaying a normal 3-year-old interest in bodies.
Perhaps you remain unruffled and acknowledge the children's curiosity: "It looks like you two are interested in how boys' and girls' bodies are different. While you put your clothes on, I'll get a picture book we can look at that explains all about bodies." Message: It's ok to be curious about bodies; I prefer you keep your clothes on; I'm willing to help you learn.
There are a number of ways a parent might react to this type of situation. When choosing your response, remember to see the behavior from a child's eye view. Pre-school children are fascinated with bodies. Their desire to check out the differences between "yours and mine" is a natural part of their developing sense of self and sexual identification.
Since "playing doctor" is universally popular among young children, it's likely you'll be dealing with it in your own family. Plan your response ahead of time, keeping in mind the messages you wish to express. In this way, rather than reacting in a kneejerk, perhaps negative manner, you can offer a thoughtful, positive response.
A final thought ... no matter how you deal with this situation, it's important to discuss it with the other child's parents. They may or may not agree with how you handled things, but will appreciate being informed. It gives them a chance to convey their own family values and beliefs to their child.
Relax. There's a lot of help out there... in the form of books, films, classes, and resource people. Community schools and colleges may offer parenting classes which include sexuality education. Planned Parenthood is an excellent source of speakers, books and pamphlets. Your local health department, private physicians, family counselors and members of the clergy often have valuable insights into family-based sexuality education. Also, see our Resources page.
There's a Time and Place ... Or Is There?
Pre-school children fondle their genitals for many reasons. They may be sleepy or bored, nervous or upset... and it's comforting; they may be in circle time listening to a story, or engrossed in a TV show. Pre-school children also fondle their genitals because it feels good. If parents find this hard to acknowledge, perhaps it's in the challenge of accepting that children are sexual beings.
Masturbation is a normal part of development. Most experts agree that this can be a healthy expression of sexuality, regardless of age. However, some people disapprove of masturbation for religious or other reasons.
The way in which parents react to their child's genital play is important. Punishing, scolding, or pulling the child's hand away sends a message that the genitals are bad or dirty. It can foster guilt, shame and embarrassment.
Parents who disapprove of masturbation could explain to their child - calmly and lovingly - that they believe this behavior isn't acceptable. Simply telling the child, "STOP THAT!" is rarely effective; neither is trying to distract them with another activity.
Many parents do not object to their child's genital play, yet feel compelled (and rightfully so) to discourage its occurrence say, in the middle of the grocery store. It's perfectly fine to say something like: "Sara, I know it feels good when you touch your genitals. And it's something you do in private - not where other people can see you." This sends out a message about appropriate behavior and respect for others. At the same time, sexuality is kept in a positive light.
Parents who accept masturbation may worry that their child is "doing it too much." Children will stop when they are satisfied, or if they become physically uncomfortable. Compulsive masturbation - compulsive anything - may indicate a problem. If a parent notices his child is masturbating to the point where it interferes with other normal activities, it is time to consult a physician or other professional.
The "Askable" Parent
Attending to your child's sex education may be an awesome task. The reality is, you are the ideal person for the job. After all, you can best convey the family values and beliefs surrounding this issue. Keep in mind a few tips to smooth the journey:
- Parents: talk with one another about the messages you want to give to your child about sex.
- Anticipate sexual questions and behaviors. Plan and practice your responses.
- Answer questions as they arise. Replies such as "Not now" and "You don't need to know that" teach children it's not OK to ask. You can delay a discussion with "This isn't a good time now. Let's talk after dinner." Then follow through!
- Tell your child if you're embarrassed. A comment like "This is hard for me to talk about, but I'm willing to try" is wonderful! S/he will appreciate your honesty.
- Answer simply and honestly, leaving the door open for further discussion.
- Initiate discussion about sex. Ask, "Have you ever wondered about how you were born?"; use picture books; visit a pregnant friend.
- Use everyday events as "teachable moments" for passing along family messages about sexuality.
Your child's initiation into the lifetime process of sexual learning can be wonderful or difficult.
You get to choose.