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But what should your kid know and when? We asked Cory Silverberg, a noted sex educator and author of What Makes a Baby (Seven Stories Press, $16.95), and Marnie Goldenberg, a "sexplainer" who is on a crusade to raise sexually intelligent kids, if there is a timeline parents should follow to teach their kids about sex.
They both agreed it is important to have an open environment where kids feel safe to ask questions. It may be hard, but parents should answer questions without embarrassment and should never make kids – of any age – feel that their bodies are dirty or shameful. Goldenberg says parents should want to be the people who their kids come to with their questions, because that will give them a chance to impart their values about sex and relationships.
Their Bodies: Two-year-olds should know the names of all body parts, including penis, vagina and vulva. Why vulva? Goldenberg says that the vulva is what children see when they look at their â€¨own body. Parents can explain that the vagina is the internal part where babies comes out.
Bathtime is the perfect time to go over these things, says Silverberg. When singing "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes," add in everything. Try singing: "head, and shoulders, knees and penis/vulva." Studies have shown that children who use the proper names for their body parts are less likely to be sexually exploited, says Goldenberg.
Three- to Five-Year-olds
Making Babies: This is the time when kids may start to notice pregnancies around them. Answer their questions directly and follow their lead. Tell them that, to make a baby, you need an egg and a sperm. The sperm and egg mix together and result in a baby. You can even add that Daddy has the sperm and Mommy has the egg, and they danced together and made you. They don't need to know that the penis goes into the vagina at this age, but don't be afraid to tell them, says Goldenberg. And you can share that the baby comes out of a woman's body through the vagina, or through a small incision. The doctor or midwife helps the baby come out.
Their Bodies: The way parents act as role models is very important to young kids. How we talk and treat our own bodies teaches our kids how to feel about themselves. They should know body parts and their functions. "Kids are curious. Explain that the pee comes out of the urethra and the baby comes out of the vagina," says Silverberg. This is important in case they ever need to explain to a doctor what hurts, she says.
â€¨Six- to Eight-year-olds
Making Babies: Six- to eight-year-olds might be curious about the mechanics of sexual intercourse. Sometimes parents fear that telling them will ruin sex (make it something to be afraid of) or take away their innocence, says Silverberg. But this is not true, especially if parents examine their own fears and approach the conversations in a matter-of-fact way.
If your kids aren't curious or haven't asked you any questions about sex, you don't get a pass to ignore the topic altogether, says Goldenberg. Children this age talk in the schoolyard, and your kids may be getting the facts wrong from their friends. This is your chance to give the correct information in the context that you find appropriate and with the values you find important.
Their Bodies: This age group should know their bodies are theirs alone, and that they can feel good. Ask your child, "What makes your body feel good? Does running, stretching or eating something delicious make your body feel good?" Reinforce that their body is theirs, and other people can't touch them or give them hugs without consent. This can help protect them against sexual predators and inappropriate touching, but it also sets them up for the future, so they'll know they're able to give consent or not while involved with a sexual partner.
Kids this age are exposed to a variety of media messages. Take advantage of sexual topics in TV commercials â€¨and movies by making them into teaching moments. Encourage kids to ask â€¨you questions about what they saw, whether it is a tampon commercial or â€¨a kissing scene.
Eight- to 10-year-olds
Making Babies: They may have more technical questions about pregnancy and birth at this age, as well as questions about sexual relationships. Answer those questions openly and without judgment, because you are setting the stage for puberty, a time when they will become even more aware of sex. If you don't know how to answer something, be honest and return with an answer at a later date.
Their Bodies: This is the pre-eye-roll stage, says Goldenberg, so it's the time to start talking about puberty – before it happens. Girls and boys should learn about menstruation. Goldenberg explains it this way: "A period is something I get – most women do – when my body is not making a baby. It tells me that my body is working. It is water mixed with a little blood that my body doesn't need anymore. The blood and water builds up in my uterus over a month as a little water bed for a baby in case I get pregnant. It would be a cosy place for a baby to grow. But when it isn't used, it comes out of my vagina. It doesn't hurt and, though it looks bloody, I am not cut inside."
Tweens and Beyond
Making Babies: Now is the time to make sure your kids know about pregnancy prevention and how to stop sexually transmitted infections. Your kids should know that adults have sex for pleasure and not just for making babies, because it is nice to be close to someone you care about.
Their Bodies: Conversations with your teen should empower them to be able â€¨to speak openly with their partners. "Help them understand that they should have their eyes open when they are involved sexually with someone," says Goldenberg.
Ask them what they think consent means or what they think it should look like, says Goldenberg. Boys and girls should be thinking about what a "yes" looks like – not just what a "no" is like. â€¨
|This story was originally titled "The Best Body Talk" in the September 2013 issue. |
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Learn more about talking to your kids about their sexuality. Check out our helpful tips for discussing sex with your child.