Talking about sexuality
Talking about sexuality and letting your children know about sexual health can be daunting. You want to be sure that you give them the information that's appropriate for their age, and you want to let them know what your sexual values are at the same time as you explain the bodily "plumbing." Many parents find it embarrassing to talk about penises and vaginas with eight-year-olds, although the kids may not feel any embarrassment until they sense yours.
You're the best person to tell
Most kids are very curious about sexual differences, and they share whatever information they acquire with their friends, but the information is often less than accurate. You can be sure that your child has the right information only if you, yourself, explain the facts. Don't count on the school to teach your child everything he needs to know. Sexual education classes are not mandatory in many Canadian schools. Although some teachers handle the topic thoroughly in their health classes, others' classes are less than comprehensive.
When you talk about sexuality with your child, you also impart your own values. If you believe that sexual intercourse is appropriate only within marriage, you can say so. Some parents worry that by telling young children about their body's physical changes and about sexual intercourse, they may encourage them to experiment at an earlier age. But you can't prevent your child from getting information about sexuality -- they'll get bits and pieces from television programs and movies, from the stories and confidences of other kids, from advertising. You need to balance the media messages that bombard them, and you need to provide specific, accurate information along with your own messages about sexuality and sexual health: "Every human being is a sexual being." "Children need to know and understand how human bodies work and how our emotions affect how our body works." "Sexual intercourse with a partner is great, but it's for grownups."
Young children who understand how their bodies work, what the proper names are for their various body parts, and what is appropriate sexual activity are less likely to become the victims of sexual abusers; these manipulative people tend to seek out poorly informed children who are less likely to tell their parents or other adults.
Sexual understanding checkpoints
You probably had your first conversations about sexuality with your child before the age of six. Meg Hickling, a registered nurse and a sexual health educator in Vancouver, British Columbia, is the author of Speaking of Sex: Are You Ready to Answer the Questions Your Kids Will Ask? (Northstone Publishing Inc., 1996). She has been talking to parents and kids for more than twenty years about what kids need to know about sex and how parents should explain sex to their kids. Here are Meg Hickling's lists.
By the time they are six, children should know:
• the names of their own genitals and those of the other sex.
• that a baby grows in the woman's uterus.
• that a baby is born through the woman's vagina.
• that a baby is created when a man's sperm joins a woman's ovum through sexual intercourse.
• that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman can create a baby.
• that adults have sexual intercourse even when they don't want to create a baby, because adults who love each other also enjoy sexual intercourse. Children don't have sexual intercourse, though (which will relieve your child).
• something about menstruation.
• something about wet dreams.
• what condoms are, and that children shouldn't pick them up.
Between ages six and eight, your child needs to know everything a preschooler knows, plus:
• that the digestive system is separate from the reproductive system.
• that women have menstrual periods because their bodies are practising for when they will have a baby.
• that boys have nocturnal emissions because their bodies are practising for when they will make a baby.
• that both boys and girls change in different ways when they reach puberty. Girls grow breasts and start periods. Boys grow bigger penises and have wet dreams.
Between ages nine and 12, your child needs to know everything the previous age group has learned, plus:
• detailed information about puberty changes. basic information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDS).
• that becoming a teenager doesn't mean having to become sexually active.
• that there are many reasons for having sexual relations, including bad reasons like peer pressure and other reasons that involve force (rape), money, alcohol, or drugs.
• that whoever says No must rule a sexual situation.
• that real women's and men's bodies are very different from the media versions of perfect bodies.
Some parents are uncomfortable dealing with the knowledge that their children may be engaging in acts of sexual self-satisfaction. But we're all sexual beings, and humans, right from babyhood, express their sexuality by touching themselves and fondling their own genitals, which is perfectly natural.
Sometimes parents worry about their kids masturbating because they learned as children that masturbation was "bad" and that it could cause them emotional and physical harm. Or they may think that a child who masturbates is oversexed, promiscuous, or sexually deviant. Even if you, as an adult, no longer share those views, you may still feel uneasy. Those parents whose religions consider masturbation to be morally wrong should teach their children their views in an open and nonjudgmental way.