What about Sex Ed for Younger Children?

Yesterday I posted a roundup of advice on sex for teenagers, and ideas about how to help teenagers learn about and navigate their sexuality. But as a number of readers pointed out, sex education starts long before the teen years.

One reader, AfricaTurtle, posted a comment:

I posted a question elsewhere just this week concerning sexuality and younger children (my oldest is 7). Do you have any practical advice/links in this category? I feel really lost because we are always told that this is a “Teen” issue (as indicated in this write-up) and yet even my pediatrician confirmed that there are major sexual developments happening in a 5 year old! (always wanting to “flash” everyone!)

They (my kids) talk about erections, masturbation (wihtout calling it that) and laugh about “sex” since they hear kids at school laughing about it. I really don’t feel prepared for some of these conversations (though I tend to go with a open/honest approach). I don’t know where to set “limits” (if any need to be set) . . . because all of my personal limits were taught within the confines of fundamentalism . . . any help from you and your readers would be appreciated!

I totally understand where AfricaTurtle is coming from here. Just this past weekend I had to have a conversation with Sally about masturbation. And she’s in preschool. (I basically just told her that yes, it feels good to touch yourself down there, and sometimes I do it too, but that it’s something we do in private, so if she wants to touch herself she should do it in her bedroom.) So yes, I am more than aware that conversations about sex, bodies, and reproduction begin much earlier than the teen years.

I think what changes when the teens hit is that, well, they get to the point where sex is actually something they’re going to start doing. A conversation with an eight year old is abstract; a conversation with a fifteen year old is pragmatic. And on some level, I think that makes the two types of conversation fundamentally different.

I wrote about sex education for the preschooler last summer, and I want to quote from it before opening the floor for suggestions and resources:

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.

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.

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.

But that’s really all I’ve got for you all. I’m no expert here.

Just the other day Sally insisted that because she grew inside of me and not inside of  her daddy, she was my daughter but not Sean’s. I responded by using a seed metaphor—that a seed from daddy called a “sperm” and a seed from mommy called an “egg” came together to start her growing inside of me—in order to explain, but I didn’t talk about how what seed got where or any of those extra details. This is where we’re at right now, and that’s all the experience I’ve got.

I’m going off my gut, and so far I think my gut has been pretty good, but I haven’t looked into any books on how to handle sex ed topics with kids this young. I probably should. So, let me put AfricaTurtle’s question to you all. What books and other resources do you suggest? What pieces of advice do you have? I’m sure AfricaTurtle and myself aren’t the only ones who would be grateful for some additional pointers!

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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.

  • Giliell

    We generally try the approach of “not making a fuss”.
    This included never making a fuss about naked bodies. Our daughters know how we look naked and how we look dressed and all stages in between. They were always allowed to look and ask. For some times their dad’s penis was an object of wonder because it is different from the “standard equipment” (yes, with three women and one man, he is the odd one out).
    We also got the “baby thing” out of the way early, reading “Mummy laid an egg”, which is a wonderful book that talks about the basics of reproduction and that shows sex as a fun activity between adults.
    And while we don’t have sex in front of the children, of course, we are not careful to hide that this happens.
    So, the condoms are not hidden away, the lube isn’t hidden away (and I tell you, it’s not easy to get it out of a kids hair) and the vibrator isn’t hidden away and they can just ask what those things are and what they are for.
    And we also had the “masturbation talk”. That it feels good to touch down there, that it is totally OK to touch down there, but that it’s also something you do in private and with clean hands.
    I don’t think that when kids become teens they suddenly become interested in sex. They suddenly become interested in sex with somebody else.

  • The_L

    When/how should the topics of GLBT be brought up? I didn’t learn that men loving other men or women loving other women was even possible until middle sch0ol, when my (private Christian) school brought it up as a sin and a way AIDS is spread. I’m pretty sure that’s not how I want my kids to learn about it, but knowing how not to do a thing isn’t the same as knowing how to do it.

    Should I wait until my kids actually encounter gay people? Should I just tell them in advance as part of a “most grown-ups fall in love with other grown-ups” sort of talk? I go to Renaissance Faires a lot, and there are a couple of transwomen working there, so I know I’ll have to at least mention the concept of transgender to my kids at some point.

    • ako

      I know it can be brought up with pretty young kids and they tend to take things in a stride, when it’s treated in a similar way to heterosexuality. (As in, convey the basic “This is a way people fall in love, and they live together, and some of them raise children together” stuff at a fairly early age, and provide information about the explicit details when they get old enough that it’s useful for them to know.)

      I think it’s a good idea to teach stuff like “Sometimes there’s a Daddy married to another Daddy” and “Sometimes women fall in love with other women” at a fairly early age, so the kids can behave appropriately when the situation comes up.

    • luckyducky

      My daughter’s school (K-8) had just launched a really big anti-bullying program that including not calling people “gay” as a slur. Being 7, she didn’t get the nuanced part of that — the “as a slur” part — and was very upset one day when I picked her up because one of her classmates had called another classmate’s dad gay. The classmate, in fact, has 2 dads who are gay.

      I had tried including homosexuality in my sex ed before but it didn’t really sink in because no openly gay couples had raised any questions for her (I have 2 cousins who have been with their partners since before I was born but to my daughter they were just another old person). When I explained, she was like “oh, that makes sense” and that was it. When you don’t laden sex with a lot of shame and restrictions and don’t treat marriage as the divine sanction for it, it isn’t confusing for them. They don’t have a good handle on their own sexuality yet so it isn’t hard for them to understand loving someone of the same gender.

      The transgender issue is a little more difficult as gender identity is something 3-6 yos are particularly preoccupied with.

    • Sheena

      Honestly, if you know she has friends with gay parents or relatives (or you have friends who are gay), just refer to them when talking about families. Like, “you have me and daddy, your friend Amy has two mommies, and Tony down the street was adopted, and your babysitter Janie only lives with her daddy”. Basically, normalizing the idea instead of making a big deal of it — families can be different but still love each other, rather than “did you know that Amy has two mommies? That means her mommies are lesbians, and the Bible says…”.

  • http://thegloriousliberty.Blogspot.com Kay

    The Unitarian Universalists have a curriculum called our whole lives that you may find very useful for this. It’s designed for all ages.

  • luckyducky

    My mom has worked with sex abuse victims and sex offenders professionally since before I was born and she impressed upon us early childhood sex ed is an important safety measure. There is no place, community, etc., that is free from child sex abuse and it is preferable to teach them to identify problematic behavior than to never let them leave your sight… because that isn’t realistic or healthy.

    The other side of that is that it lets you set the tone (not shameful) and give them accurate information and establishes that you are okay to talk to about it. Even at 7, I am willing to bet your child has had some exposure to the information from older schoolmates, etc. and those children often know that they are talking about something they shouldn’t and communicate it that way. I had already done very light outlines of sex and we have always used correct names for our body parts but ended up needing to really flesh it out when I picked my not-quite-7-yo from school and had been informed that she told a classmate to f*ck off. She was not satisfied with being told that it just wasn’t a word that is ever appropriate for a 6yo to use, especially at school. She heard it at school from the classmate whom she had gotten angry with and said it to. I wish that had not be the impetus for that particular conversation. My son, on the other hand, got very frustrated with not understanding some of my answers to his questions that started with anatomy, got theological and physiological at the same time… He has difficulty with auditory information so we got a book with pictures. I highly recommend that route.

    What you teach:
    (1) Using he right names gives kids the language to talk about it. Don’t underestimate how not knowing what to call things leads to not talking/asking questions. Not that it has to be exhaustive, even a small vocabulary helps.
    (2) They are in charge of their own body and no one should touch it without their permission. This goes even for nonsexual touch, though I have not be as consistent with this as I wish I had been. Don’t push kids to hug, sit on laps, etc. Let it be okay for them to say no because it is good practice and helps reinforce that their bodily autonomy is more important than being polite, though teaching them to do it politely isn’t a bad thing. Also, it is trusting that your child may be getting a weird vibe from someone — it doesn’t have to be sexual, but again, good practice trusting their instincts.
    (3) Sex feels good as well as (heterosexual sex) makes babies but it is something for adults and we’ll talk more about that when you are a little older. I made reference to the book I used acknowledging this and the push back I got (why not let them be innocent longer?) was shocking. I think sex is a good thing though I struggle with my own hangups about it and I don’t want to pass those on, but more importantly, I think it is confusing to not tell kids this. Usually preK/early grade schoolers doesn’t think sex sounds very appealing, so why would adults do it and why do they make such a big deal about it?
    (4) Full bore on the biology though — as much as they are capable of understanding in an age appropriate way. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t know how the human body works.

    I went through the books at our local library and read a lot of reviews on Amazon. There is no perfect book but I decided that was okay because I was just using it to start the conversation and clear up some misunderstandings. I found 2 I was happy with but gave one away and can’t think of the title. The other is Body Science by Meg Hickling. I was looking for one that used correct terminology and accurate explained everything and was sex-positive without going overboard on the information. I didn’t find any that addressed being LBGT and I would have tried harder to find a book addressing that if I had an inkling that was an issue either one of my children was wrestling with but with early childhood it is mainly questions about biology and less about sexuality and even less so about sexual orientation so I feel that my extra commentary on that is adequate.

    It was quite interesting — after we read the book the first time, both kids traipsed into the other room to ask their dad a few very specific questions like what does it feel like when you ejaculate without being embarrassed. My husband was never even given the talk and while he’s totally on board with the approach we’ve taken, he was more than willing to let me take the lead. Though he did an admirable job of swallowing his own embarrassment to answer the questions in a straight forward manner, it wasn’t easy for him.

    • Caravelle

      It was quite interesting — after we read the book the first time, both kids traipsed into the other room to ask their dad a few very specific questions like what does it feel like when you ejaculate without being embarrassed.

      This isn’t so much about embarassment as about understanding from a child’s point of view how adults can stand to have sex at all, but I recently read about this study that found that we find things less disgusting in general when we’re aroused. Which makes a lot of sense to me.

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I think with younger children it’s pretty important to let the conversation follow closely on the heels of the child’s curiosity. That is, when a child expresses curiosity about something, that would seem to be a good time to teach them about it using words and concepts appropriate for their age. So,. I wouldn’t engrave my expectations in stone. Instead, I would keep open to teaching a child about sex more or less according to the child’s own pace.

    For instance, I have a friend who recalls that, by the time she was five or six years old, she wanted boys to penetrate her. That may or may not be a bit young to teach most children about intercourse, but I think she should have been taught something about it at that age because she as obviously already speculating about it. Curiosity doesn’t die when discouraged — it merely goes underground.

  • Rachel

    My parents gave me this book when I was about 5, which seemed to explain everything pretty straightforwardly: http://www.amazon.com/Where-Did-Come-Peter-Mayle/dp/0818402539 Bonus points for explaining ejaculation as a great-feeling sneeze the man makes.

    At 14, my mother managed to give me incredibly mixed messages by telling me that I was going to be responsible for providing her with grandchildren and handing me this follow-up: http://www.amazon.com/Congratulations-Youre-Not-Pregnant-Illustrated/dp/0025825402

  • Saraquill

    How about nature documentaries? Many of them don’t shy away from mentioning and showing reproduction, and there are species that don’t follow human cis relations.

    • victoria

      My eight-year-old watches David Attenborough documentaries somewhat obsessively and has always been rather matter-of-fact about mating for this reason. It’s also led to some fairly detailed questions. (Example: she was helping me study for my genetics class last year, and she was reading me a flash card about mutations caused by X-rays in utero. “But how could a woman not know she was pregnant? Wouldn’t she know if she had mated?”)

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    I responded by using a seed metaphor—that a seed from daddy called a “sperm” and a seed from mommy called an “egg” came together to start her growing inside of me—in order to explain, but I didn’t talk about how what seed got where or any of those extra details.

    Unhelpful but amusing anecdote: We’d got this far with our older son by the time he was 6yo. Then one day he asked how the daddy seed got inside the mommy to get together with her seed. So I took a deep breath and explained about PIV. He looked at me and incredulously exclaimed: “Naaaaah!”

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

      True fact: Young children totally don’t get the actual act of sex and are not inspired to try it just because they heard or saw something.

      • Anat

        Not so hard to get with some no-nonsense books. 5yo was the time for us. I decided the summer before kindergarten was a good time because she was curious about friends’ younger siblings, but was going to attend school with other kids. I predicted (correctly) that by the time she’d be at school she would have had time to process the information and she wouldn’t be talking about it non-stop.

    • wordsp1nner

      My mom tried to explain PIV sex to me when I was in early elementary school but failed to explain that this is something that you do on purpose (I thought it happened if you shared a bed), so I spend a bit wondering about how it happened through pjs and underwear and then promptly forgot about it and rediscovered it in fifth grade, which is roughly when I found out about gays and lesbians (from classmates / books). My reaction to sex was “ew” and my reaction to gays and lesbians was to say”huh” and continue eating lunch. In retrospect, I suspect my friend was trying to tell me that another classmates “friend of the family” with really short hair and masculine clothes was one of her lesbian mothers, but I didn’t know that either.

  • Trepto

    I’m very specific with our eight month old daughter when I change her diapers: “Okay, it’s time to clean your vulva. Let’s check between your labia to make sure we got all of the poopy. Oops, there’s a little bit by your clitoris! May I clean that up? It might feel funny for a second, but we have to make sure your clitoris doesn’t get itchy. Some day you’ll be able to clean up by yourself, but for now mommy’s going to help you.” It felt terribly awkward the first few times, but now it feels almost entirely normal.

    I feel like by teaching her that her genitals have parts other than her vagina, I’m setting the groundwork for her seeing sex as more than penetrative intercourse. The standard “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” trope does a sad disservice to the complexity of female sexual anatomy and response. And of course, I’m not actually cleaning her vagina, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a “weewee”.

    • Wendy

      And…if you use words you may feel bashful about with your infant right from the start, you get used to it pretty quick. I wish I had been as thoroughly accurate with my daughters when they were little!

  • Christine

    Step one, that a lot of people skip: make sure you know the proper terms for the parts of the body. I was in a Facebook moms’ group, and one woman posted that her daughter was complaining that her “cookie” hurt when they wiped her vagina. I couldn’t do anything about the twee terms that they were teaching her, but I very carefully posted a reply that used proper terms.

  • Becca

    I don’t have any advice, but I just wanted to say a big “THANK YOU!!!” to all the posters, including Libby. I’m very far away from having kids (I only a few months ago realized I even wanted them), but I have been thinking about how I want to raise them in a sex-positive way. Watching my family members raise their kids has been eye opening and challenging, and I know that I want to do things differently. Hopefully by soaking all this in (and keeping some bookmarks handy), I’ll be able to handle all of this with grace when the time finally comes.
    Additionally, I’m a high teacher, and a lot of this advice has been helpful for how I frame conversations when they come up with my students. Just wanted to let you all know that it isn’t just parents who are really grateful for the info!

  • Anon

    The book It’s So Amazing is a great resource explaining everything from bodies, sex, transgender, gay, lesbian, families, babies, in a fair, unbiased, supporting, loving way. It’s an awesome book for any age. http://www.amazon.com/Its-So-Amazing-Families-Library/dp/0763613215/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361294871&sr=1-1&keywords=it%27s+amazing

    • victoria

      Was going to recommend the same thing! This is actually the middle of a series of three books targeted towards different ages — It’s Not the Stork! is the younger book (aimed at ages 4 and up) and It’s Perfectly Normal is the older book (aimed at ages 10 and up). The younger book gives the very basics about where babies come from and what the different body parts do. The middle book (It’s So Amazing!) covers those same topics in more detail and starts to get into what happens during puberty. Those are the only two I’ve read (my daughter is 8).

  • http://tinygrainofrice.wordpress.com Kristycat

    One book I love-love-love is “The Guide to Getting It On.” As the name suggests, it’s lighthearted and goofy. It’s also sex-positive, inclusive, and non-judgmental. And it covers everything from basic biology and safe sex to consent, techniques, discussing boundaries, how to know when it’s the right time, kink, and dealing with a broken heart. It talks about gender roles and expectations, nontraditional families, sexual identity, etc. And it has a whole section on talking to kids about sex, including what’s appropriate and helpful at what ages.

    A funny side note: my 3-year-old goddaughter has apparently become fascinated by the difference between boys and girls. We’ve been warned to please not be shocked if she comes up and asks, “Aunt Kristy, do you have a vagina?”

  • Wendy

    I have three terrific, sex-positive grown up daughters. Here’s my advice:

    1. They’ll usually ask for info they’re ready for, and, curiously, forget info they’re not prepared for.
    2. Focus on privacy.
    3. “That’s an important question, but I need to think about the answer.”

  • http://sylvia-rachel.livejournal.com sylvia_rachel

    I have a 10-year-old daughter who is both fascinated and repelled by the whole concept of sex, which I think is pretty much how I felt about it at that age. I try to be as frank with her as she’s ready for and answer her questions honestly and straightforwardly, but I am not always 100% able to overcome my own embarrassment at some of the questions she asks. She’s still at the stage where she understands the mechanics of PIV sex but is completely unable to fathom why anyone would want to do that, eww, ick, gross, Mummy!!

    Our situation is complicated by the fact that we have always been totally open with her about the fact that she herself was conceived in a little glass dish (we still have the glass dish) and squirted into Mummy’s uterus through a tiny tube, so I have to clarify that (a) sex is how *most* babies are made, but obviously not *all* babies, and (b) yes, your parents do indeed have sex, even though we can’t have babies that way, because, you’ll just have to take my word for it for right now, it’s fun and we enjoy it. Strangely enough (or maybe not), the explanation involving eggs, sperm, and a petri dish seems to have made much more sense to her. Similarly, explanations of menstruation have to begin with “I don’t, but most grown-up women do…”

    She is totally comfortable with breasts and breastfeeding, but completely baffled when she sees someone leave the room to nurse a baby (that baffles me, too, but different strokes…). I don’t think it’s occurred to her yet that breasts might also have a sexual function. I’m afraid we all call them “boobies” at our house (I guess at least that’s a standard euphemism that wouldn’t prevent her from communicating about them).

    We also had that conversation about masturbation a few times when DD was a preschooler: “You know how some people call those ‘private parts’? That’s because when we play with them, it’s polite to do it in private, not on the living-room couch.”

    The best sex advice, bar none, that I ever got from anyone was this from my mom: “When you have sex, do it because you want to — not because you feel pressured or coerced into it, not because ‘everyone else is doing it’, not because you’re afraid the other person won’t love you anymore if you don’t — and make sure you’re protected.” She made sure I understood the value of waiting until I was ready, but she didn’t suggest that anyone else, including her, should decide when that was.

  • Christine

    Can I add a couple of questions to the discussion here: how do I teach “hands don’t go in your diaper/in the toilet (it doesn’t get cleaned as often as I’d like… there’s a 12-month-old in the house)” without accidentally teach “OMG, you shouldn’t be touching yourself, it’s a horrible thing to do!”? And is there any way to prevent toddlers from using anatomical terms loudly in public? (This is one of the reasons I don’t let other people refer to her wanting “the boob”).

    • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

      I tend to just be really conversational:
      “Alex, don’t put your hands in your nappy! …oh, see, now you’ve got poo all over them and we need to wash your hands too. Yukky. Okay, let’s clean your hands… now, please don’t touch your penis until I’ve finishing wiping all the poo off. We don’t want your hands to get dirty again, do we? No…”

    • Giliell

      Well, we went for the “there’s a time and place for everything” route.
      So, it’s totally ok for the hands to go into the undies (our daughter only started once her genitals were freely accessible), but only if you washed them before and only at home.
      And no, there isn’t a (good) way to keep them from using anatomical terms in public and why should you bother?
      It’s a sign that your child doesn’t think there’s something magical or wrong with genitals and that’s a good sign. Be proud that they know them.

    • victoria

      You can definitely emphasize to a little one that poop is full of germs without teaching them that nearby body parts are dirty/dangerous.

  • mildlymagnificent

    A couple of things that helped us when ours were growing up. Proper names for body parts – though it’s hard not to laugh when 2 year old language learner gets the Volvo in the driveway mixed up with the vulva body part. Preschooler and primary aged children? The best advice we ever got was that the *real* sex ed when they’re teens is a whole lot easier if they’ve learned the mechanics without any emotional involvement when they’re young enough to treat the information as just one more thing in an inexplicable world. Of course, you’ll get the ewwww emotional reaction if it’s that stage in development, but it is much easier to handle than later when it’s so beyond embarrassing the conversation consists mainly of eyes on floor, foot shuffling umming and errring.

    And from personal experience. I remember a friend of mine who had been horrified beyond belief when her mother gave the big important you need to know this talk when she was in her early teens. Why was she horrified? She already knew all the mechanical facts from schoolmates. She was horrified because she also *knew* that the only people who did such things were the “dirty kids” in the neighbourhood that she rarely spoke to. She couldn’t believe that her uber respectable madly xtian parents would ever have dreamed of such a thing.

  • A Reader

    I don’t have kids, so obviously I don’t have a whole lot of advice on this, but I will say:
    1. Don’t make your kid find out about PIV sex by looking it up in a dictionary. My parents were completely silent about everything sexual, and I didn’t actually figure out how (hetero) sex works until I was in 5th grade & was dared to look it up in a school dictionary while the teacher wasn’t looking.
    2. Don’t make your kid’s first exposure to gay and/or trans people awkward and negative. The first time I learned about the concept of being gay was when a news show my mom was watching briefly showed two guys holding hands. Mom made a big deal out of how “icky” it was, and I didn’t quite get over that initial experience until high school.

  • http://allweathercyclist.blogspot.ca/ JethroElfman

    I started with the Magic Schoolbus episode in which they explain the purpose of pollen, extrapolating to how animals exchange genetic material. I found some lovely pictures in The New Good Housekeeping Family Health and Medical Guide . It’s very technical, which leads in fact to atheism, since the whole randomizing nature of sexual reproduction is a perfect example of why life was ***not*** created by God.

    My daughter was embarrassed to be in line with us when we were replenishing condoms for her older brother. I suggested that she could go on the pill, so that she could maintain privacy when she had a boyfriend. She did so, then quit after six months, realizing that if she had sex, one of the first things she would want to do is tell us all about it. Being honest and forthright in your communication works.

  • http://allweathercyclist.blogspot.ca/ JethroElfman

    Oh! I got another funny story. Daughter Jen comes home from school. Says they were teasing her about her sonic screwdriver. Said it looks like a -blank-. What’s a -blank-, she asks? She knows it’s something sexual, but has no idea. That lead to a trip to the bedroom cupboard. They said it looks like one of these, I said, handing it to her. …and this here is a vibrator, which looks the same, but has a motor in it. Doctor Who as sex education.

    • Rae

      Hahahaha, one of my friends had a similar experience! Only, she was flying for a comic convention, it the other person in question was a TSO who was trying to figure out what, exactly, this item in her carry-on did. And her sister was there, and said sister had watched Curse of the Fatal Death but hadn’t understood the reference at the very end until that moment… ah, the awkwardness of life!

  • Allison

    Hi I love your blog! I was thinking that a great resource I have found in dealing with sex ed is a site called lovematters.info. The content I would say is geared more toward teens and adults, but it is a great way to covef the basics and you could probably use some of the info for a younger person if you are careful.

  • Caravelle

    Just the other day Sally insisted that because she grew inside of me and not inside of her daddy, she was my daughter but not Sean’s. I responded by using a seed metaphor—that a seed from daddy called a “sperm” and a seed from mommy called an “egg” came together to start her growing inside of me—in order to explain, but I didn’t talk about how what seed got where or any of those extra details. This is where we’re at right now, and that’s all the experience I’ve got.

    That’s a very interesting question actually, you could make it into a conversation about what she thinks “daughter” and “parenthood” mean.

    What I mean is that while it’s true that ova and sperm come together to make a baby one could also argue that pregnancy is also a very important process (after all as we know from previous posts, zygotes don’t grow up on their own :)); one could make an argument for calling Sally your daughter and not Sean’s on that basis if we wanted to. Even on a purely biological, genetic level ova and sperm aren’t equivalent – ova provide mitochondrial DNA, sperm doesn’t.

    I want to go on and compare with other organisms with different gender systems, or the differences between organisms with external vs internal fertilization as far as parental involvement and sexual dimorphism goes and so on but I really shouldn’t but really it all comes down to the fact that biology is not the only way to define parenthood, and it isn’t how we legally define it nowadays – if Sally were adopted, or if you’d borne her from an egg and sperm donor, or if she’d been borne by a surrogate from either your eggs or Sean’s sperm or both, she’s still be just as much your and Sean’s daughter. While also being in another sense related to any one of those other people involved if she chose to see it that way.

  • Caitlin

    I would again suggest the OWL (Our Whole Lives), which addresses sexuality throughout the lifecourse.

    It technically starts in kindergarten, but a lot of that material could easily be adapted for slightly younger children.

    I think the most important thing is that kids learn that their sexuality is normal, healthy, fun, and THEIRS. This can be a way to teach privacy (masturbation can feel great, and it’s something you do by yourself and for yourself). Teaching words for body parts is important too. The penis-vagina dichotomy has always driven me nuts–it makes it seem as if girls’ sexuality is only for reproduction or servicing males. We taught our children that boys have testicles and a penis with a urethra. Girls have a vulva with a clitoris, urethra, and vagina. We explained when the issue came up that the clitoris is what generally feels good when touched. We also explained that urine comes out of the urethra, not the vagina. Mostly we tried to answer their questions honestly, and to address emotions, love, and sexuality in addition to biology.

  • marty

    How does Sally’s body being hers go when she needs shots, or other necessary but unpleasant things? I entirely understand and agree with the teaching, just not sure how it plays for you in those tricky situations.

    • luckyducky

      The vast majority of kids can appreciate and understand different contexts/exceptions/nuance/whatever you want to call it. Once kids are old enough to remember, there is a lot of kid-friendly material (children’s TV shows, books, etc.) to prepare kids for the mundane scary/unpleasant/painful experiences that are common childhood experiences. I would bet there is even some for kids with major illnesses and other less mundane experiences. Not that it takes a book or TV show to do it but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to figure out how to talk to kids about it. It makes things easier exactly once to surprise kids with things like shots, after that you have to work to rebuild trust. And kids spend a lot of time processing this: going to the doctor and getting shots is a pretty common pretend play theme.

      If you treat your children as if they can or will be able to understand contextual exceptions, they will learn to. If you treat your children as if they can only appreciate the literal and exclusive meaning of any “rule,” you risk either teaching them to think that way or that you are ignorant.

  • http://beholdconfusion.wordpress.com/ Sara

    I taught a few years of preschool and found that usually kids just want to know that an adult has an answer and is willing to give it to them. I didn’t field a lot of questions about sex, but I did get a lot about death. Whether it was a student who lost a goldfish, or who’s family was getting through the death of a close relative, or even just seeing death portrayed realistically on TV, kids really just want reassured that they continue to be loved and cared for in a time of uncertainty and stress. Letting kids know that their bodies are healthy and safe and that their feelings, physical and emotional, are normal and won’t get them in trouble, will go a long way to making them healthy and sane adults. Beyond the basics (proper names and bodily autonomy) I would be most concerned in making sure children understand that they never have to keep a secret about their private parts. I had children who ended up suffering painful, but completely treatable, rashes because they were embarrassed to tell anyone that it hurt when they peed or that they were itchy. And certainly you would never want a child to believe that they should keep a secret about abuse – a child who’s told, “don’t touch, don’t look, don’t talk about ‘down there,’” is going to take, “this is our little secret,” in stride.

  • Sophie

    I generally go with the “if they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know” strategy. That’s how my dad taught me, and it meant that my sex education came at times when I was ready to learn. I was two and a half when I asked for a book about where babies came from, books did play an important part in my education. I always knew the proper names of both sexes’ genitalia and was often confused by my friends using supposedly ‘child-appropriate’ names. I knew about masturbation from early on as well. I remember my dad showing me a condom when I was 7 after I asked why he and his girlfriend didn’t have babies, I knew they had sex so I was confused by my lack of younger siblings. He also explained about other forms of contraception and abortion. Basically sex was never a strange idea to me, and I always knew I could ask my dad about anything. I was also brought to be comfortable about nudity, which has come in handy considering how often I’ve been examined by doctors!

    My previous partner had a son, P, and for whatever reason I ended up doing a lot of P’s sex education. His mum got pregnant when he was 7, and me and P tracked her pregnancy in a book I bought. It showed you the size of the baby at each week and told you what parts of the body had developed, every Friday night when P arrived at our house he used to rush to look at the book to see how big his sister was. About halfway through the pregnancy we covered how the baby had got into his mummy, his dad took the dog out for a walk during that bit! The whole process felt very natural to me, I rarely got embarrassed by P’s questions. I think that was down to how I was taught, which was shame-free. I know that if I have children then I will teach them the same way.

  • https://www.facebook.com/meg2700 Meg

    Great post and comments! I don’t have kids but had religious parents who gave me a book with all the biological information and proper names (even pictures!) at a young age and I went out and showed the book to all my friends and taught them the words, we all laughed at it (probably because it made the adults nervous and uncomfortable) because to a child those things are so weird and funny! I think that just mortified my parents so much that after that, they avoided all conversation and gave me extremely religious books (without pictures or science or the correct names for body parts) that emphasized ABSTINENCE-ONLY to read on my own… which led to me looking things up in the dictionary, asking friends and having to learn about things the hard way. I couldn’t ask my parents the definitions of words like rape or contraception without them freaking out and giving a baby-talk over-simplified and not really informative or factual answer. My sex life as an adult was pretty awful and awkward since I hadn’t been told that it was okay to masturbate (or told how to!), I didn’t understand what consent was, how to give it or that it was okay to have sex (at all!), I wasn’t taught bodily autonomy agency or privacy, didn’t have a full working knowledge of my body and how it worked (the dictionary doesn’t teach you how to orgasm!), and just had always learned from my parents that sex was shameful bad and something that you do NOT talk about. When our dog went into heat and suffered a vaginal prolapse it was almost scary how my mother talked about it, ‘She has THINGS hanging out of her body! It looks PAINFUL!’ so I had to call the vet and set up the appointment because my mom wasn’t able to even communicate what had happened. Which is weird because she had so many kids and was perfectly comfortable discussing childbirth and all of it’s uncomfortable details openly and repeatedly.

    If I were a parent I would really try to be the parent that is comfortable, open and will talk to their child about anything. As a young child I had interest in the technical meaning of words and needed a simple explanation, not the whole thing and somehow that just really scared my parents. The advice here really reflects that, that there are different ways to discuss sexuality at different ages.

    I’ve been enjoying the information from Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross: http://www.dodsonandross.com They really help to explain things and answer a lot of questions from similarly repressed young women like me. Carlin Ross actually teaches the Our Whole Lives curriculum that was mentioned previously… it sounds really great. This website has so many resources and answers, gleaned from Betty Dodson’s decades of sexual education and practice as a sexologist. As a feminist, I think it is very important to teach girls healthy sexuality since they are most discouraged from it. I wish I had had a cool aunt who bought me a vibrator or a family member who had told me how to masturbate and achieve my own orgasms. That is something Betty emphasizes is that a healthy sex life starts with childhood masturbation. Abstinence, living alone as an adult and the sexually turbulent years as a teenager would all be much easier with healthy masturbation. As an adult who has had to spend years learning healthy sexuality I really recommend this website and that girls’ sexual education be no different than boys. For some reason parents tend to just overlook when boys touch themselves maybe they think it is more natural given their body parts. But girls really are given a lot of shame early on for touching themselves, for asking questions about sexuality for any curiosity whatsoever, which is probably normal in a patriarchal society that is overabundantly religious. We’re taught to be pretty and passive. To be sexually attractive, but not to have sexual agency of our own. It’s very screwed up. In contrast, giving girls power over their own bodies and letting them have control over their own pleasure really does help them seek healthy relationships and avoid a lot of unhealthy things like sexual violence, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, STDs, low self esteem, depression and other problems that seem to correlate with abstinence only education and unhealthy attitudes towards female sexuality.

    This is another good resource, for teaching teens and young adults: http://www.scarleteen.com

    Thank you for this post and such wonderful comments. I probably should have read the first one about teen sex ed. But I just wanted to emphasize that sex ed begins very early and that the foundation to a healthy sex life is childhood masturbation for both girls and boys.