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!