Sex Ed for the Preschooler

My daughter Sally is only in preschool, but I don’t want her to grow up to be as ignorant about her body or issues of sexuality as I was, and I want to lay a good foundation for information and understanding now. In other words, this is something I have already done a good bit of thinking about. So far, here is what I have come up with:

1. Answer questions honestly and openly

Sally took me aback the other day by finding my vibrator. I had thought it was thoroughly put away, but apparently not. She held it up, a curious but wholly innocent look on her face.

Mommy, what is this? 

So many other women would have simply freaked out, taken the vibrator away, and told her she wasn’t supposed to see that, or else told her nothing at all. I didn’t, though. Without registering that anything at all was amiss, I said the following:

That’s mommy’s vibrator. When you are all grown up you can have one too. Here, let me have my vibrator and I’ll put it away.

As Sally handed me the vibrator, I knew that I was setting up lines of trust – and barring the door against shame. If I’d responded differently Sally might have thought my vibrator was something shameful, or she might have become curious about this forbidden object and, knowing she couldn’t ask me, looked elsewhere for answers.

Now I’ll readily admit that Sally didn’t ask what my vibrator was for. But I think I could answer honestly and appropriately even if she did.

For example, several weeks ago we were watching a movie and there was a sex scene. I don’t try to shield Sally from those the way I try to shield her from violent scenes. Sally turned from the movie to me in confusion.

Mommy, what are they doing?

I thought a moment and then replied:

They’re having sex. Sex is something grownups do. When you’re a grownup, you can have sex too, if you want to.

And that was it, I’d given her enough to satisfy her. I didn’t traumatize her, or attach guilt or shame to sex, or shroud it in secrecy. My goal is to always be open and honest, and my hope is that if I do so Sally will grow into a teenager ready to come to me with her questions or troubles.

2. Teach her about her body without shame

I’ve taught Sally essentially all of her body parts. We usually do it during bath time. She knows her hands, her belly, her back, even her nostrils. And of course, she knows her private parts too. I don’t see any reason to teach her about all of her other body parts but skip those parts as though they’re some sort of secret, something we don’t talk about, something to be ashamed of.

When I was a teen, I used to get some sort of infection fairly frequently. Not sure if it was a yeast infection or what, but given that I never paid those parts attention and didn’t even know what all I had down there, I found this horrifying. In retrospect, I think the fact that I didn’t ever properly clean those parts played a role, because once I began to learn my parts and keep them clean – this was in college – the infections stopped. But at the time, I was so ashamed of those parts, so ignorant and almost afraid of them, that I never even learned to keep them clean. I don’t want this for Sally.

When Sally sees her daddy naked (i.e. right after a shower), she comments on his penis. She doesn’t have one, after all. So we talk about how daddy has a penis but Sally and mommy have vaginas, etc. And again, all this is with done without anything to induce shame or guilt or feelings of secrecy. I want Sally to know her body, to understand it, to own it. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Let her know her body is hers

When I teach Sally her body parts in the bath, I tell her that her body is hers, no body else’s. I tell her that she is in charge of who touches her, and how, and no one can force her to let them touch her if she doesn’t want them to. Her body is hers. And I think she gets that. She even repeats it back to me:

My body is mine? Not anybody else’s?

Yes, I tell her, yes, that’s right. And then I sometimes run down a list. Is your body mommy’s? Is your body grandpa’s? Is your body *insert friend from daycare*’s? She answers no, no, no, and eventually I finish with “is your body yours?” “Yes!” she squeals with a smile.

And I back her up on this. If it’s time for me or her daddy to go to work and Sally doesn’t want to give us a hug or a kiss, well, then we don’t get a kiss. It really does suck to send your child off to daycare without a kiss or a hug, but I don’t want Sally to think that kisses or hugs – or any other sort of physical contact – are things she should be able to be forced to give. I want her to learn that she chooses when to say “no” and when to say “yes.”

Hopefully, someday, if a boyfriend pushes her for something she’s not comfortable with, she’ll know how to say “no.” And in the meantime, hopefully she’ll know that she can say “no” to a sexual predator should she ever have a run-in with one.

Conclusion

I hope that I am setting Sally up for a future of open communication, a future without shame and guilt, and a future where she knows that she and only she controls her body. I know Sally’s only in preschool. I know she has a long way to go. But I hope that I am setting up the foundation now for a self education and a self awareness far better than what I had growing up.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • ArachneS

    This is my approach with my children as well. My daughter is five and we have covered pretty much all of the above in the same way. Having grown up in a family that wouldn’t even say the word sex or vagina meant that I felt like touching parts of my body, even for cleaning was dirty somehow. I had a LOT of hang ups about sex and boys and really didn’t know how to say “no” when I did end up hanging out with a boy I liked. It is so important to have a healthy sex education.

  • Steve

    I’ve heard it argued that one reason why so many boys in the US are circumcised is because that requires less cleaning. So less touching of naughty parts and thus, according to Christian thinking, less masturbation.

    • Conuly

      That is most probably the ORIGIN of routine infant circumcision, but at this point I doubt most people who have their sons circumcised are thinking about it that much.

      • Rilian

        Every time I get into a debate with someone about RIC, the first thing they bring up is that it’s cleaner. It’s like a way more psychotic version of shaving a kid’s head so they won’t get lice.

      • MadGastronomer

        Rilian:
        *headdesk* A) Easier to cleaner, technically, rather than cleaner. B) Yeah, ok, let’s go with that logic for a second. If you cut off the baby’s buttcheeks, it would be a lot easier to keep the baby’s anus clean, too. Hey! Anybody want to do that?

  • MadGastronomer

    Good job! My mother, who was raised Catholic but had lapsed by the time she had me, answered all my questions, but was always a bit uncomfortable, and eventually she just started leaving books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and similar things in places where I could find them. It proved reasonably effective as sex ed — I’ve always been an autodidact, and I’d pick up pretty much any book available to me from a young age — but I definitely picked up on her discomfort, too, and it’s left me with some lingering issues. Not serious ones, or anything, just minor stuff I remain uncomfortable with.

  • jay

    I like to think I’m “sex positive” but now I have a 15 year-old with a boyfriend and I’m trying to not freak out. When he was over the other day, I told my daughter that she could be in her room or in the den, but the door needed to stay open. I’m not sure how to handle this!! Agh! I’m from the purity-purity-purity culture but am now atheist and like you, Libby Ann, suffer with incompatibility between my husband and me – in part because of the purity-purity-purity culture. But now that my daughter is dating, I’m freaking out. Any advice? What is OK to do with a boyfriend in my house???

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I’ve never had a teenager, but I do know that once my daughter reaches that age and has a boyfriend I plan to put her on the pill, just to be on the safe side. There’s no sense in risking her getting pregnant. I’ll also make sure she has ready access to condoms because, again, no sense in not protecting against STDs. Oh, and I absolutely plan to make sure she knows that her body is hers, and that she should have sex only when she’s sure she’s ready for her, not because the other kids are doing it or her boyfriend wants it, etc. And then…my plan is to let her make her own decisions and leave the lines of communication open. I’m sure, though, that when I actually get to that point I will freak out too. :-P

      • jemand

        I really liked this article by Kate Clancy, who seems to have done quite a lot of research into the menstrual cycle:

        http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2012/04/27/why-we-shouldnt-prescribe-hormonal-contraception-to-12-year-olds/

        teen girls have different hormone levels from adult women in developed countries, and because of this may respond less well to the hormonal contraceptive pill. If any of my sisters ever gets a boyfriend as a teen and asks my advice… I’d recommend getting a copper IUD from the local health clinic and doubling up with condoms for disease protection.

      • kisekileia

        @jemand: I read the Kate Clancy article, but I take major exception to her claim that very few teen girls have debilitating menstrual symptoms. That’s simply not true–menstrual cramps tend to be worse for teen and younger girls than for adults, and lots of teen girls are anemic due to heavy and/or frequent menstrual bleeding. The copper IUD increases cramping and bleeding, and would thus probably be really problematic for a lot of teen girls. The Mirena IUD or the NuvaRing would probably be better options–both use low doses of hormones that are mostly confined to the reproductive system, and the Mirena reduces menstrual bleeding.

        I think the research to determine whether it’s safe to give preteen and teen girls oral contraceptives should be done. However, I don’t think giving teens the pill should be avoided as a matter of course–rather, doctors should make sure teens come for follow-up visits and are warned about possible side effects. I noticed that the data showed that girls who start menstruating earlier have cycles that regulate much earlier, which is consistent with my experience–I started menstruating at 10 and was regular in two and a half years. I went on the pill at just shy of 16, and while I still get some breakthrough bleeding from it, the beneficial effects are worth it for me.

      • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

        @jemand and anyone else listening in:
        Do. NOT. “double up” on condoms. Bad, bad idea. It increases friction, and makes it MORE likely to have a breakage. I mean, it sounds like something that would work, but it’s actually a very bad idea.

      • Liz

        How about telling her about different birth control options and letting her have a say in it? The pill can really suck for some women… and many adults including me don’t have the presence of mind to take it regularly.

        Just a suggestion, given what I’ve read about your parenting philosophy I bet that’s what you meant ;)

    • Steve

      I think it’s understandable that you are worried. No matter your background.

      But I figure if they don’t have sex in your house – or do other things like kissing and making out – they’ll simply do it somewhere else. If they want to, they’ll find a way. That doesn’t mean you have to allow it if you think it’s a bit creepy to do while you’re there. But it doesn’t mean they won’t do it at all.

    • Lola

      I didn’t grow up in a purity background. My parents were very open about sex and relationships, it was, in fact, a fairly common conversation around the table, BUT we still had those rules about boyfriends/girlfriends in bedrooms with doors open. There was a, you can do it, but we don’t feel the need to make it easy for you mentality, that I found pretty appropriate for our family at the time. As we got older, the rules lifted a bit, and currently, now that all of the kids are in our 20s, the parents have very little problem allowing significant others to sleep over if we’re home. At least in our house, things like boyfriend/girlfriend privileges were just that, privileges and the rules regarding them changed as we got older and more responsible.

  • cy

    It sounds as though you are doing an excellent job of raising your daughter to have a good understanding of her body.

    I was wondering if you might want to teach her that her about her clitoris, as in, “Mommy has a clitoris, daddy has a penis.”

    The equivalent of a man’s penis is a woman’s clitoris–it is the place on a woman’s body that is the primary cause of sexual pleasure–just like a man’s penis on his body.

    I don’t know if there is something comparable to a vagina on a man.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yes, I’ve taught her about her clitoris too. In fact, she wanted me to make up a “privates song” (this came after the nose song and the belly button song) and so I did, and it included the clitoris, vaginal, vulva, etc, and what each part is for. :-P

      • cy

        HA!—You are just the best mom ever!

        I wish I had this information taught to me before I started having sex. It’s not like I didn’t figure out on my own what felt good to me. It was just the dissonance between what I liked when having sex and what I–and everyone else–expected me to to like. I never, ever, heard any mention of my clitoris and what it was there for.

      • Rosa

        That’s awesome.

        Maybe you should record that & share it somewhere. Because it would come in handy for a lot of people.

        The one thing other than “your body is yours” that I wish I’d heard (and my friends) when we were teens was “Sex should be FUN.” That is, not just be ready but actually *want* to do whatever you’re doing.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Ah, good to hear! It all sounded wonderful, but I was a little concerned about the penis/vagina dichotomy. So many parents, including sex-positive ones still seem to teach their daughters that their entire genitalia, rather than just the orifice, is called the vagina, rather than the vulva. Glad that you are teaching Sally about the other fun stuff too!

        I LOLed at the vibrator! I admire your poise! As liberated as I like to think I am, I definitely can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have been thrown by that! The thing is, little kids are satisfied with surprisingly simple answers. They’re not even old enough to feel that sex is something utterly fascinating that they need to know as much as possible about. It’s just one more part of the mysterious grown-up world that’s not particularly relevant to their lives.

    • Steve

      It’s more like the tip of the penis. Not the whole thing.

      • cy

        This is incorrect. It’s just that a woman’s clitoris is mostly internal, as in, you can’t see most of it, unlike a man’s penis which you can see, as it’s hanging out there. They are comparable in size.

      • Steve

        That’s true, but I was speaking sensation-wise. The shaft of the penis really isn’t very sensitive at all.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Hmmm. I’d always been taught that the clitoris and the glans are homologous structures. But maybe that’s just the head of the clitoris and the glans. And the clitoral shaft and the penile shaft would themselves be homologous structures. Okay, done with bio for now.

  • Meyli

    Wow, it sounds like you’re doing a great job teaching your daughter! Though I don’t have children yet, one thing that is very important to me is teaching them to take care of their bodies and not be afraid to ask questions about certain things. Things that I was taught (or not taught) were a no-no, much like yourself.
    It sounds like teaching her that her body is HERS and no one else’s will not only make her feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to physical contact she doesn’t want, but also build general self confidence. It seems like maybe if you know your body is yours only, you might be less likely to be pushed into dressing, acting, or presenting yourself in ways that OTHER people want. That’s so wonderful :)

  • Alexandra

    Libby Ann, I love your blog posts about your parenting the best. I’m not a parent yet, but I’m always surprised by the choices you make and they make me reevaluate my own ideas.

  • Soren

    I have a 5 year old boy, and we have always answered all his questions.

    In fact I tend to give very thorough explanations, so most of the time I end up talking to empty air ;)

    Our neighbors are a lesbian couples with two children. The youngest is just a couple of months. Nathan has been very curious about this, so we told him that they are two moms, and the kids have no dad, but a man helped them have the children – he knows about eggs and sperm.

    One day he asked if the two moms had put put their wee wee’s inside eachother to get pregnant, which was kinda sweet.

    Sex is treated differently in Denmark – when I had my first girlfriend i was 16 and in high school. We would sleep together in the weekends at either my house or hers. we slept in the same bed, and there would be lots and lots of sex – because you know – we were 16 ;) No one batted an eye at this, allthough I would get chewed out if I stayed at her place on a school night.

  • MI Dawn

    One book I would really like to recommend is “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives”. I had it as a text when I was training to be a midwife, and left it out on a bookshelf. I never censored what my kids read, and they knew they could come to me with any questions, anyway. But the book is an open, honest book (by the same group who did “Our Bodies, Ourselves) and generally describes things in an open, non-judgmental way. As I’ve reported on other sites though, don’t be surprised if your child, like my eldest did at age 5, asks at the dinner table with company all around, “Mommy, what’s cunnilingus?” As the other adults jaws dropped, (she’d even pronounced it properly), I answered that it wasn’t something to discuss at the dinner table, and we’d talk about it after dinner. Since I’d always kept my promises to my kids about things like that, she knew I would tell her, and subsided. And we did have a discussion about the subject later. Her reaction – at age 5 – was “ewwwwwww”. At nearly 25 now, I am sure her reaction is pretty different!

  • wendy

    My kids are really bright and interested in science, so the idea of only answering Q’s that are asked didn’t work. I had to laughingly tell all three of them over the years that technical info is unlimited, but I don’t really want to talk anymore about where/when/how Daddy and I have sex.

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