|Young Children Ask the "Darndest" Questions about Sexuality! Suggestions for How Parents Can Respond|
Young children are notorious for asking questions that make parents squirm, especially when it comes to sexuality. From "Mommy, where's your penis?" to "How did Ms. Smith's baby get inside her tummy?" difficult questions often come much earlier than you might anticipate - and sometimes at inopportune times!
It's useful to remind yourself that when your child asks about sex, she or he is simply trying to make sense of the world. Discussing the biological facts of sex with your children when they are young will help begin the process of open discussions about sexuality, as well as other topics, as children age. Answering questions matter-of-factly, calmly and honestly is the best policy. Viewing these questions and situations as natural and normal can help us keep our sense of perspective - and our sense of humor!
We suggest that parents to keep in mind the following four themes during ongoing conversations with their child about sex and sexuality. Whether you choose to include one or more of the themes in your answers, it's a useful framework to keep in mind.
- Rights and Responsibilities: As a parent, it is your right and responsibility to be your child's primary sexuality educator. Children are naturally curious and will get information as well as misinformation about sex/sexuality from the culture around them so we need to make sure we are part of the conversation!
- Values: Think about and gain clarification about your attitudes, beliefs, and values and be willing to share them with your child.
- Feelings and Self-Esteem: Try to practice listening carefully without judgment or criticism in order to foster an environment where your child feels comfortable in approaching you and sharing their feelings. Affirm and validate your child to help promote healthy self-esteem and decision-making.
- Facts and Knowledge: Gather facts and resources so that you can help your child get accurate information. Admit if you don't know the answer and make sure you get back to your child with correct information (or investigate together!)
Here are some sample situations and questions that parents from our workshops have brought to our attention. We provide some guidance for responding, sample answers, and key points to make with your child that incorporate the four themes. Try some of these answers on for size and see if they make sense for you and your family!
My 4 year old daughter is asking personal questions about private parts in public. What should I do?
If your child asks, "Mommy, does Daddy have a vagina too?" in the middle of the grocery store, it's just because kids are naturally curious and they say whatever pops into their heads. Rather than respond with anger or shame, the important thing is to confirm the factually correct information and give her skills for understanding situations by starting to set boundaries about privacy. Try this response: "Girls and women have vaginas and boys and men have penises. Remember, we talk about our bodies at home with family and at the doctor's office."
Feelings & Self-Esteem - it's okay for you to ask questions
Values - we respect privacy
Facts & Knowledge - girls have vaginas and boys have penises
My 3 year old likes to use the word "wee wee" for his penis. What kind of language should I use when explaining body parts to my little one?
By the time a child is 3 years old, parents may choose to model using the correct anatomical names for all body parts: penis, vagina, anus, vulva, and so on. Using slang terms or childhood language can interfere with a child's understanding of body parts and function. Using proper names for sexual body parts promotes a healthy attitude without shame. Try this response: "Some people call it a 'wee wee,' but that's just a made-up word. The real name is "penis" and that's the word we like to use."
Values - all body parts are normal and have a real name; we can talk about these parts
Facts & Knowledge - the body part between a boy and man's legs is called a penis
My 5-year-old daughter is very affectionate and loves to kiss. At school, she always tries to kiss another little boy, who gets upset about it. How should the teacher and I handle this situation?
This is a good question because it is important that parents and teachers work together on these issues. Children are naturally affectionate and will inevitably want to kiss and snuggle. This is a good time to begin to discuss boundaries for appropriate and inappropriate touching. You and the teacher should make sure the children know what to do if someone tries to touch them in a way they don't like. They should say, "No!" and go tell the teacher. Be sure to give your child permission to come to you with complaints. Try this response: "It's great that you have a friend that you like and you want to show him how much you like him. But, not everyone wants to be kissed or touched and you need to respect your friend's feelings, just as you want others to respect yours. You can tell your friend you like them without kissing him."
Values: everyone has a right to not be touched if they don't like it
Feelings & Self-Esteem: it's wonderful to have friends; it's important to respect each other's feelings
What should I do if my child goes to school and shares information from our family discussions about sexuality with other kids who have not yet had this conversation?
As our children become more involved with others (preschool, kindergarten, etc.) s/he will also be exposed to differing family attitudes, values and experiences. When you start having these discussions with your child, tell her/him that you are sharing this information because this is something that families talk about with each other. Remind your child that friends will talk about it with their own families. Kids frequently compare information with each other about sex, whether parents want them to or not. S/he may choose to talk to her friends about what s/he's learned, but it's important to convey that these conversations are ones to have at home with families. Try this response: "I think it's great that you are interested in learning more about bodies and how they work. You can always ask me any questions. And, each family has their own idea of when to talk about these things, so let your friends talk to their parents."
Feelings & Self-Esteem: it's great to be curious; your body is fascinating
Values: our family shares information about sexuality topics; each family makes their own decisions
How should I handle the "Where do babies come from?" question?
With this, and most of the questions kids ask, you need to do some active listening, which means finding out why your child is curious about this concept. You can ask gentle questions to help find out what your child really wants to know. We always think the child wants to know the mechanics or the graphic details involved in conception, but s/he might want to know something basic, such as which hospital s/he was born in. Answering, "Babies come from their moms" might tell them all they need to know. Let your child's questions be your guide. If a 4-6 year old wants more information, try this response: "That's a great question! A seed from a man and an egg from a woman join together inside the uterus, a special place inside the woman. When the baby is ready to be born, it comes out through the opening between the woman's legs called the vagina."
Values: we talk about this topic in our family; parents are reliable resources for information
Facts & Knowledge: age and developmentally appropriate information about how babies are made and born; all body parts have accurate names