What Age Do You Start Talking About Sex With Your Child?

By Concentric Counselor Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

This is such a great question, and we are glad you are interested in talking about sex with your children.  Many parents generally tend to get squeamish, anxious or shy away from bringing up this very important topic with their children.  Ideally, it’s best to start in early childhood, but it’s never too late to start.  In this blog, we will focus on children ages 0-7.  Yes, infancy because we are constantly talking in front of them, infants explore their bodies, and we start to form bonds and attachment during this period. 

Ideally, you will want to have several conversations – talking and listening - about sex with your child as he or she develops and ages.   

Before we share some guidelines, it is worth noting sex has various connotations and meanings.  Sex can be used to describe the biological markers of gender or it can fall on a spectrum to include one’s biological, genetic markers, internal and external sex organs, and hormones.  Sex can incorporate one’s gender identity, sexual identity and sexual orientation as well as sex can describe the various activities that involve a person (or persons) with or without their genitals.  And, we can think of sex when considering procreation.  Given there is not a universal or one size fits all definition of sex, it important to consider the various meanings and definitions of sex when engaging in discussions with your children.   

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Here are some guidelines to think about when discussing sex with your child who ranges between 0-7 years-old.  Naturally, you will want to be mindful of your child's biological and developmental age.     

Body and Body Parts.  You can explain that people’s bodies come in different shapes, sizes and color, and over time, our bodies change.  Boys’ and girls’ bodies and interests can be similar and different.  Each person’s body belongs to that person, and it’s important to be mindful of people’s physical boundaries.  Some like to use the visual example of pretend you are wearing a swimsuit.  The swimsuit covers the most private parts of your body. Normalize to your child that it’s normal to be curious and touch all of your body parts.  It’s okay if your toddler has cute names for their private parts, but as they get older, you want to encourage them to use correct words for body parts, such as penis and vagina.

Conception, Birth and Delivery.  You can start by sharing that all living things reproduce, such as plants and animals. There are different ways to conceive or make a baby.  Parenting.com Talking to Kids About Sex suggests these explanations:  "When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through and out of the penis into a vagina to find an egg which gets fertilized.  The fertilized egg turns into a growing baby.  Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born.  When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy's vagina."

Closeness, Touch, and Intimacy.  It’s okay to allow or at times encourage our child to give grandma or uncle a hug good-bye, but if your child is displaying resistance, no need to force the issue. You can ask your child what feels comfortable for him or her or offer an alternative such as a high-five or fist-bump.  You can explain sex or close affection can feel good and it's a way people express their affection and love for each other.  When people feel safe and loved, people give each other permission to touch each other in ways they want to be touched, such as holding hands or kissing each other, which can make them close and loved.  

Sexual Health and Protection.  When changing your baby's diaper, talk aloud about how you are going to clean your baby's bottom or bum.  Starting at toddler age, explain some behaviors warrant privacy, such as when you touch your penis or vagina, choose a private place, such as your bedroom or bathroom.  Educate and remind your child that Mom or Dad may touch your private body parts only when helping you get cleaned as you learn how to use the potty or use the bathroom.  It is important to inform your child the importance of taking care of his or her body to maintain good hygiene and health, such as washing our breasts.  A reminder that your doctor can only touch your vagina if you have pain or an infection in that area, but only when Mommy or Daddy are in the room with you.  Teach your child the importance of when and how to say, “No” to unwanted touch and when to tell a trusted adult (e.g. teacher, parent) you have been touched when you didn’t want to be or when you said “No” and it was not respected.

Freedom of Expression.  You can tell your child that people share same and different interests, and this is okay and acceptable.  You can encourage them to be free to express his or her interests and express themselves based on who they are.  Sharing stories about your own relationships throughout your life can be helpful to hear, such as how some friendships remain the same while others have changed.  The message is that over time, we will have different relationships or preferences with people as we grow and change.  

The important thing to remember is engaging in conversations about sex will be an ongoing process throughout your child’s life.  You may not have all the answers or get stumped by a question your child asks which is perfectly fine.  If this happens, you can respond by saying, "Let me think about that or I’ll get back to you with an answer." The important idea to remember is how you carry yourself and come across.  Displaying openness, willingness, and actively listening without responding with silliness or shaming is what matters most.  All of the answers are within reach as there is plenty of information on the Internet, at your local library, and through your support systems.  Pat yourself on the back for asking this important question, and enjoy your journey as you start talking about sex with your child!  

Here a few resources to check out:

It's So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie H. Harris

It's Not The Stork!: A book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris

What's The Big Secret?  Talking About Sex With Boys and Girls by Laurene Krasny Brown

"Talking to Kids About Sex." www.parenting.com,  Meredith Corporation Women's Network. Web.  June 2016.