Teaching the Basics of Sex and Consent for Children Under Five

August 26, 2017

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.


Additional reading:


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!

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By Kellie

Kellie is a redeemed woman pursuing vulnerability, color, and hygge. She loves to write, take photographs, play, and learn. She's a marketing specialist by day, a blogger at night... and a mom all the time. Kellie lives in Denton, Texas with her husband, Clay, and their young daughters.

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    Corey | The Nostalgia Diaries

    I definitely need to check out this book. I don’t think kids are ever too young to start learning about their bodies and what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to them.

    1. Reply

      Flossie McCowald | SuperMomHacks

      I’m right there with Corey. There actually was no sex ed in schools when I was growing up, so my mom and the pastor’s wife (both registered nurses) put together a curriculum for a comprehensive sex-ex course at our church! (in the 1970s!) While I have nothing against sex ed in schools, I think it should be taught MUCH younger, starting at home with parents, and ideally be a conversation in which religious communities are also involved. I’m actually also a certified K-12 facilitator for Our Whole Lives, a faith- and values-based comprehensive sexuality education co-developed by the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Church. Not all the parents even in my local UCC congregation are on board with our K-6 students learning about these things (at church or anywhere), but you are SO right – if these conversations don’t start when our children are infants/toddlers, then they learn a lot of the *wrong* things over time about their bodies and how to respect others’ bodies!

  2. Reply

    Angela Milnes

    I haven’t heard about this but it looks an interesting book and I love to read more about this

  3. Reply

    ohmummymia

    My little boy didn’t start talking properly so I have still time for that kind of questions. It’s always big challenge hot to explain in proper way

  4. Reply

    Jackie

    Thanks for sharing this. Definately something to think about as my daughter is almost 3. I agree with the proper terms too – just need to get my husband on board!

  5. Reply

    Ana

    We have always given the good touch, bad touch talk and we are very open with our kids. It’s a crazy world out there and I want my kids to know when something is appropriate or not.

  6. Reply

    Margaret Westhoff

    What an informative post! With 2 under 2, I haven’t even considered having the “sex talk” yet. But you encouraged me to start teaching my son and daughter the correct anatomy terms instead of cutesie names, and to be open with them about the differences between boys and girls. Thank you!

  7. Reply

    Rose

    I have not had the “talk” with my little people yet. I did however discuss and gave a book to my teens prior to their cycle. I lived in a house full of girls for the longest so I’m getting used to a little man. So I’m dealing with that and that’s enough in itself sometimes.

  8. Reply

    Melissa

    This sounds like a great book for those who wish to teach their children about where a baby comes from.

  9. Reply

    Menaka Bharathi

    This is infact very important these days. Just a couple of days back we have seen a kid of seven killed because of sexual harassment and another five year old is undergoing treatment. No child is safe and somehow there seems to be a raise in pervertist behaviour.

  10. Reply

    Kavita Singh

    What an important topic you picked up to write about. I am definitely going to save this and will follow it to discuss this with my baby. I agree I never had a talk from my parent but I am pretty sure that I am going to follow the tips shared by you to talk it out with my baby.

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