Teaching the basics of sex and consent is just as important as any other topic you might teach your children—perhaps arguably more important. There are plenty of resources for talking to older children about their bodies, and about sex, but I believe that by your child’s pre-pubescent years, it’s much too late to start the dialogue. Is it possible to teach children the basics very early, in an age appropriate way, and begin increasing knowledge and building trust?
Did your parents give you “the talk?”
I’ve talked to a lot of peers about this, and the vast majority of them admit their parents never gave them a “the talk.” I’m not necessarily faulting our parents, as I think these topics were far more taboo they are now. However, when we neglect having this discussion with our kids, we leave them open to learning it from another source. Wouldn’t you rather have your child learn scientific, accurate information from you than inaccurate, mature information from someone else?
My own childhood and discovery is the perfect example: My parents are Christians with Biblical views about sex that are much like my own. My mom never talked to me about sex because she was concerned that I would go blab to all my friends. The sad reality is that I already knew about sex (when I was eight, I looked up the word the phrase “sexual intercourse” in the encyclopedia after, ironically, reading the word in the Bible), and most of what I was learning about it was coming from my friends at school and was not at all age appropriate.
So how DO I go about teaching the basics of sex and consent to my young children?
Like I mentioned, it was too late for me to learn about sex by age eight. Sex ed needs to happen MUCH earlier than you think. Even before that, children should be learning how a baby grows inside a uterus, and before THAT, our children should know anatomically correct terms for their body parts and about appropriate and inappropriate touch.
Let’s start at the beginning.
1. Use Anatomically Correct Terms
What did you call your private parts growing up? I have heard some of the craziest names for genitalia: front butt, hoo-ha, va-jay-jay, no no square, willy, pocket, peepee, cooter, booboo … the list goes on. I will try not to rant about this too much, but no, just no.
Can we all please agree to stop using cutesie names for genitalia!? As parents, we set the tone for our children. There is nothing weird, funny, or embarrassing about using the correct term. It is exactly the same as teaching your children to identify their arms or legs, fingers or toes, belly button, head and hair, lips, eyes, you name it.
We started teaching our daughters correct names for their body parts from the get go, from the moment they were saying their very first words. For both my girls, this was around one year of age. That’s right, ONE! Infants and young toddlers like to touch themselves in the bath or during diaper changes. We encouraged our children not to do this, using direct and accurate language, because it can cause irritation and transfer bacteria. A simple “no no, don’t touch your vagina/penis” is age appropriate and fine.
Of course, you will probably have some embarrassing moments as you navigate the use of these terms with your kids. For example, at 2 1/2, when I had taken Stella shopping in a quiet Anthropologie store in an upscale part of town, Stella loudly declared to the cashier “MY DOLLY HAS A VAGINA!” And naturally, I was a little mortified. But be confident in your decision. Using anatomically correct terms IS the right thing to do, even if others find it embarrassing or don’t understand.
Remember: it is important to never shame your child about their body.
2. Consent is Crucial
The next step is to teach about appropriate and inappropriate touch, while simultaneously expounding on the existing anatomical words you began with. Between age 2 and 3, we added other anatomy words, such as breasts, nipples, anus, uterus, ovaries, testicles, and understanding the difference between a vulva and a vagina.
Teaching our children about consent often happens in ways we don’t expect. Family members, friends, and caregivers must understand that if a child says “stop!” the adult must stop whatever they’re doing immediately. “No” means no, even when interacting with our children. Even if the action is simple and completely innocent (tickling, blowing raspberries, throwing a child up into the air for fun, etc), a demand to “stop” must be met with ceasing the action promptly. By doing this, we are teaching our children:
- That their physical boundaries should be respected (and, subsequently, that they should respect others’ boundaries)
- That their bodies are their own / they have body autonomy
- That their bodies do not exist for someone else’s enjoyment
- To trust in the adults in their lives
For these same reasons, we never make our children give relatives mandatory hugs or kisses. Yes, even great-grandma at Christmas. Instead, we let our children make their own decisions on the level of physicality they are comfortable with by letting them choose to give a “hug, handshake, or high five?”
3. Initiate the Conversation
Some children will not ask where babies come from. Parents should be the one to take the lead and start the conversation in teaching the basic of sex and consent, rather than waiting on their child to initiate, or allowing someone else to initiate the conversation with their child.
Ideas for conversation starters:
- Do you know the difference between a man and a woman’s body?
- Where do you think babies come from?
- Do you know what pregnancy is?
- Do you know how a baby grows inside a woman’s uterus?
Listening and asking questions are key for every part of parenting, and especially crucial for parents teaching the basics of sex and consent to children under five. For example, even though I do not suspect my child of being abused, I still ask. I ask if they feel comfortable around everyone, from their teachers to their own father. I ask if anyone has ever touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. I ask the difficult questions, and I ask them repeatedly. Unfortunately, the conversation about sex goes hand in hand with learning how to prevent child sexual abuse.
4. Use Simple Language
When teaching the basics of sex and consent, language should always be simple. I think that when they’re young, matter-of-fact and scientific verbiage is best, without being over the heads of little ones.
Books, of course, are excellent resources for parents to start conversations about sex education. One of my favorites is What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg. I love this book because it is GREAT for very young readers (I think we first checked it out at the library at about 2 1/2.
In Silverberg’s own words, it is “a book for every kind of family and every kind of kid, and doesn’t include information about sexual intercourse, donor insemination, fertility treatments, surrogacy, or adoption. But it creates a space for parents to share as few or as many of those details as you like”. Check out my full review of the book here.
5. Encourage Openness / No Secrets
In our house, no question is a stupid question. We encourage our children to ask whatever questions they like, and answer them as truthfully as possible. Try not to be dismissive or laugh when your children ask you about sex–if you do, they might be reluctant to ask more questions when it really matters. Openness is extremely important to build trust. We also do not allow secrets while our children are young. There is no reason why a five-year-old should have a secret kept from a parent.
- The Case for Teaching Kids ‘Vagina,’ ‘Penis,’ and ‘Vulva’ from The Atlantic
- No, My Child Does NOT Have to Hug You from Inspired by Family
- 10 Things Your Child Should Know to be Safe from Predators from Inspired by Family
- Sex Education and Talking About Sex to Children: 0-8 years from Raising Children Network
- The Case for Starting Sex Education in Kindergarten from PBS
- How Can I Protect my Child from Sexual Assault? from RAINN
- Tips for Child Sex Abuse Prevention from Parenting.com
- “Tricky People” are the New Strangers from Checklist Mommy
- What Makes A Baby Reader’s Guide from Cory Silverberg
So, have you started discussing the basics of sex education with your children? What resources are some of your favorites? If not, why not? Maybe the time to start is today!