Kids Need To Know... Parents Need To Tell Them.
Certainly by age 5, a child has a good idea about where mom and dad stand on the subject of sex...and whether it's OK even to talk about it. From birth, children receive an array of messages about sexuality from their parents: infants who are held and cuddled learn about loving touch; toddlers exploring their bodies quickly discover their sexual parts - and their parents' reactions to their exploration; the preschooler who asks her dad, "Where's my penis?" becomes aware if sexual questions are OK to discuss (or not) in her family.
The 5-year-old has had a bit of experience in the world: interactions with family; exposure to other children and differing beliefs; TV, movies, magazines, advertising, music... which influence the developing sense of sexuality, either directly or indirectly. Children cannot avoid the sexual messages that permeate life today.
Natural situations and everyday moments and events lend themselves to a child's sex education. With or without your consent they occur as the life and learning processes of your children unfold.
Parents may respond with silence, disgust, scolding... implying that sexuality is negative or dirty. Or, they may respond with delight, using these opportunities to offer loving, honest explanations... teaching the child that sexuality is a wonderful part of being human.
Families have so much to gain from open communication about sex. Taking the initiative to develop a dialogue of trust, parents can pass along important family values. Children have the opportunity to gain accurate information and a positive regard for sexuality.
The time to start this dialogue is early - earlier in fact than many parents would suspect. In today's complex world, perhaps even more so than in the past, children need and deserve thoughtful, purposeful sex education from day one.
But it's never too late to begin. And while you as a parent will not be your children's only sex educator, you can be (and are) their first and most important.
"What Will The Neighbors Think?"
"...or grandma and grandpa? How will they react to my openness with Kenny about sex?"
Everyone has his/her own feelings about sexuality and about messages that are appropriate for children. Chances are you'll find family members, friends and neighbors whose ideas and values are very different from your own. This can challenge your resolve to communicate openly and honestly with your child about sex. It may help to keep in mind what's at stake here... and what's more important: your child's needs, or the opinions of others?
There's a lot to be said for the child who knows that s/he can depend on mom and dad to respond to sexual questions and concerns with respect, support and honesty.
"But what if he goes around the neighborhood, sharing this information with all his friends? Then what?"
So what. Let's face it. Kids frequently compare information with each other about sex, whether parents want them to or not. Usually it's misinformation. The bottom line here is that children deserve quality sex education. Parents need not apologize for providing that education - no matter who objects.
Here We Go Again...
The sexual curiosities of your 5- year-old aren't so different from the ones s/he had at ages 3 and 4. You may think, "I'm sure I told you where babies come from," or "We've already discussed what "bellybuttons" are all about, remember?"
Your 5-year-old probably doesn't remember. There's so much to learn... and this is complex stuff. Maybe your child does remember (sort of), and is just checking to make sure it's still OK to talk about sexual issues with you. Please be patient and supportive.
The goal of family sex education goes beyond the mere presentation of facts. Ideally, parents seek to nurture in their child positive attitudes toward his/her body, gender, and sexuality. One way to do this is to continue to be "askable" ... encourage sexual questions, acknowledge and discuss sexual behaviors, and initiate conversations about sexual issues.
But Scott's Dad Said...
As your 5-year-old becomes more involved with others (in preschool, kindergarten, etc.), s/he will also be exposed to differing family attitudes and values. It can be terribly confusing, so it's important that parents reemphasize personal beliefs. For example:
Johnny: Scott's Dad got really
mad today. He yelled at us for
taking our clothes off.
Dad: What did he say?
J: He said we were nasty. We told him we were just pretending to be doctors, but he yelled at us again and made us put on our clothes.
Scott's dad was alarmed at seeing his son and another boy undressed, looking at and touching each other's body. Perhaps he worried this was "abnormal," maybe he was upset because he believes nudity is inappropriate. His anger left the children feeling hurt, ashamed and "nasty."
Johnny's dad believes that "playing doctor" is a normal childhood experience - between same and other gender children. At this age, they're fascinated by bodies - how they look, feel, work ... and are especially interested in "how yours compares to mine."
He realizes that often parents forget that a child's sexual behavior does not have the same emotional significance that it does for adults.
He also appreciates that families have different values and beliefs surrounding sex.
His concern right now is to restore Johnny's positive feelings about himself, his body and his sexuality.
Dad: Why do you suppose Scott's
dad was so angry?
Johnny: He thought we were being nasty.
D: Do you think you were?
D: Neither do I. You and Scott were interested in finding out about bodies. That's pretty normal.
J: Scott's dad thinks it's bad.
D: Well, he may believe it's not ok for kids to play without their clothes on. Some families feel that way. So when you're playing with Scott, be sure to respect that, and keep your clothes on. It's ok to be curious about bodies. In fact, I have a book that shows all kinds of bodies, and how they work. Let's read it!
Johnny has heard some valuable messages: his dad reinforced his willingness to discuss sexual issues with him and emphasized a positive attitude toward sexuality. He acknowledged that family beliefs differ, and it's important to respect that.
Good work, dad!
Just When You Thought You Had It Handled...
We live in frightening times. The alarming incidence of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has sparked serious concern - and at times irrational fear.
Many schools offer HIV/AIDS education grades K-12. Increasingly, ads, news stories and public service announcements talk of safer sex practices, condoms, gay, lesbian and heterosexual issues.
As parents of a kindergarten child, you're totally baffled. Just what and how do you discuss HIV/AIDS with a 5-year-old?
Your child doesn't need confusing details about the complexities of sexual relationships, sexual transmission of infection, etc. S/he does however, need you to address this scary topic that everyone's talking about.
It's an ideal time to discuss general concepts of wellness and staying healthy. Help your child appreciate that much of his health is under his control. Habits such as handwashing, dressing appropriately, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and getting plenty of rest promote good health. Discuss basic facts about disease. For example, explain that some diseases like colds, flu, and chicken pox are caused by germs, which spread from person to person. If those germs get into his body, he may become ill. Ask if he has heard of AIDS (he'll likely say yes). Let him know that AIDS is a disease caused by a germ called a virus.
This may suffice for now, but expand if he shows interest or anxiety. Find out what he's heard about HIV/AIDS, and correct any misinformation.
Contact your child's school to see how teachers are dealing with the subject. Discussions at home can build upon information s/he's learning in school.
Appropriate messages about HIV/ AIDS for a 5-year-old:
- AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV.
- Some viruses like HIV can only spread in special ways (e.g., by blood from an infected person getting into another person's body).
- We needn't avoid people who are HIV+ or who have AIDS. HIV is not easy to get. It is not spread by casual contact (e.g., shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, etc.).
We can't ignore the subject of HIV/AIDS and other STI's. Neglecting or refusing to discuss this with children may only cause unnecessary alarm. On the other hand, initiating discussion can help allay their fears while providing important information to protect their health. At the same time, you once again reinforce that you value open family communication about sexual issues.
A Little Help?
While various issues of this newsletter discuss pertinent sexual topics, by necessity the scope is limited. Quality materials are available which provide extensive information and sex education strategies. Many address specifics not covered here (e.g., concerns of single-parents, adoptive, and blended families, gay- and lesbian- headed families). See our Resources page for more information, including additional web sites and books.
Little ones are fascinated by the babymaking process. Most 3- and 4-year-olds are interested in how baby "gets out of mommy." Your 5-year-old’s concern is a bit trickier: "how baby gets in." Not one to put curiosity on hold, s/he’s likely to insist on an explanation while you’re dining out at a restaurant, standing in line at the movies, or at some equally inconvenient spot.
Should the time or place be awkward for such discussion, say so - while at the same time supporting your child’s interest. A parent might say, "What a wonderful question! Let’s talk about that when we get home." (Then do!)
Brief explanations about intercourse are appropriate for the 5-year-old. It’s highly preferable to magical stories of storks, fairy godmothers, and babies found on doorsteps. While a fable may temporarily get parents "off the hook," it is truly a disservice to the child. Neglecting to respond honestly to sexual curiosities adds to a child’s confusion or discomfort about the issue.
A parent may simply choose to say: "When a mother and father want to have a baby, the father puts his penis into the mother’s vagina. This is very loving and special. Sperm made by the father’s body move through his penis into the mother. If a sperm meets an egg cell made by the mother’s body, a baby will start to grow inside the mother’s uterus."
When providing this detail, keep in mind that a 5-year-old is very literal. The term "egg" needs clarification, lest your child envisions mommy producing chicken eggs. Remember too, the correct word "sperm" rather than "seed" avoids the notion of flowers blooming in mommy’s uterus.
If you’ve successfully made your way through the babymaking talk, congratulations! The topic’s not been laid to rest, however - just as you suspected. Your 5-year-old will ask this one several more times (over the next few years) before s/he’s gotten it straight. You can look forward to a lot more practice.
When Children Don’t Ask
If your 5-year-old doesn’t seem the least bit interested in sexual issues and hasn’t asked any questions, it’s time to initiate discussion.
The easiest way to begin is with "teachable moments" - everyday events that lend themselves to conversations about sexuality (a neighbor is pregnant, the hamsters are mating, etc.). Make deliberate attempts to educate your child:
- Children’s picture books on sexuality can be wonderful! Read them together.
- Look at family albums with pictures of weddings, mom - when she was pregnant, or the new baby coming home.
- Comment on a news item that deals with sexuality.
- Watch movies/TV together.
- Ask your child to draw a picture that shows a baby being born. Talk about the process.
You might consider that your child has indeed been asking about sexuality - often in nonverbal ways - since birth. You may not have recognized it as such, or perhaps you’ve given an impression that it’s not ok to ask. Whatever has or has not been going on, start something now. Since your children are learning about sex whether you tell them or not, surely you want to get your 2¢ worth in too!
J. Hey dad, do you use tom-toms
D. What do you mean, Jim?
J. You know, tom-toms. Like mom has.
D. Jimmy, tom-toms are drums. Mom has drums?
J. No...come on. I'll show ya.
With that, Jimmy drags dad to the bathroom, opens the cabinet and pulls out a blue box. Dad's face breaks into a grin. "Oh those! They're called tampons, not tomtoms!"
Why clutter up a 5-year-old's head with talk of menstruation - and a boy at that! Well... because he asked. While shopping with his mom, Jimmy saw her pick up a box of tampons. Naturally curious, he asked about them - and, valuing family communication about sexual issues, his mom explained. Jimmy has since forgotten what "tom-toms" are all about, so he's asking dad.
D. Do you know what tampons
are for, Jimmy?
J. Mom told me, but I forget.
D. Well, each month, inside a woman's uterus, a special lining grows. If the woman becomes pregnant, that lining is needed to help the baby grow and develop. If the woman doesn't become pregnant, the lining passes out of her body through the vagina. It's called having a period. The lining has blood in it, and the tampon is placed in the vagina to catch the blood so it doesn't stain her clothes. The bleeding is very normal. Make sense?
J. Well, sort of.
D. Only women have periods, so I don't need to wear tampons - and neither will you.
A young child might be alarmed if s/he discovers a used tampon or sanitary pad. Associating blood with injury, s/he may fear mom is hurt. So it's important to give children accurate information.
Besides the fact that Jimmy deserves an honest answer, his parents appreciate that he will be interacting with females throughout his life. He needs to understand how their bodies work, as well as his own. There's no point in keeping body functions a mystery. By explaining issues such as menstruation as normal and healthy, parents help children accept them as so.
Another Tough One...
As is true for most sexual topics, there's no right or wrong answer for the question of masturbation. Each family must make a decision based upon personal values and beliefs. Along with this guideline, consider the following:
- Most children fondle their genitals - often when they're tired, bored, nervous - as well as for pleasure!
- Masturbation is normal; not masturbating is also normal.
- There is no physical or psychological harm associated with masturbation. If a child masturbates excessively (interfering with other normal activities), it may indicate a problem. Parents would want to call their physician or health care provider.
If parents disapprove of masturbation, they can express that without causing the child to feel ashamed or guilty.
Parents who accept that masturbation is a normal activity need to help their child understand the concepts of appropriate time and place: "I know it feels good to touch your genitals. But do so in private - not where others can see you." This sets important limits for the child.
For some parents, masturbation may never be a comfortable topic to discuss, yet it's important to do so. If parents merely ignore the behavior or try to divert the child's attention with a toy or different activity, they've missed an ideal "teachable moment" to share information and values.