Children today are apt to learn about sex at much younger ages than their parents did, and from sources that are largely out of the parents’ control that don’t put sex in the proper context. From cable TV and films, to the internet, and other kids at school, children are regularly exposed to sex in a jarring way that presents it as a freak show of curiosity, instead of an act of bonding that’s beautiful and sacred.
All things considered, including health and sex education classes at school, the best place for children to learn about sex is at home from their parents, who care about them the most and understand their individual sensitivities and needs. Even so, most parents think their children don’t want to hear from them about sex, but it’s actually the opposite that’s true. The Parent Power Survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found 52% of children between 12 and 15 said their parents had the most influence on them when it came to sex. In contrast, when parents were asked, 60% thought their childrens’ friends held more influence in sexual matters than they did. In reality, only 17% of children said they valued their friends’ opinions about sex above their parents’. While 28% of teens between 16 and 19 said they valued their friends’ ideas on sex more, a slight majority of 32% still said their parents had a bigger influence on them.
Anyone can teach the biological facts of reproduction, but only parents are in a position to put this information in a context that best suits their children and family’s spiritual principles.
Although there is no standardized way as to how and when to share information about sex with children, it helps to keep a few things in mind.
- Talking to children about sex does not harm their innocence. Innocence is a function of attitude, not information. A child who understands the dual purpose of sex is to express love and create life maintains a healthy view of it and thus, retains his innocence. Without this crucial framework, children may be exposed to sex in a way that’s abusive or degrading, negatively impacting their view of the opposite sex and themselves.
- If you feel overly nervous or inhibited in talking to your child about sex, you might want to review your own attitudes about it. Perhaps past experience has caused you to feel that sex is bad, dirty or shameful. It’s very important to become conscious of these feelings before they’re unconsciously passed on to your children. Recognize this is an issue for you that may require discussion with a therapist to begin your healing process.
- Don’t wait to share everything you know about sex with your child in a single talk. Doing so risks waiting until your child has already been influenced by others or overwhelming them with too much information. Facts about sex should be shared gradually with your child over several years with increasing detail, as it is age appropriate. The same issue applies with sharing any information with your child as he or she grows, whether it be about handling money, relationships, spiritual values or anything else. “The talk” is really a series of talks that should begin at a fairly young age.
- Give information on a need-to-know basis. If your five-year-old wants to know how Aunt Susan’s baby is going to get out of her belly, she doesn’t need to know how it got there. You don’t need to provide that much detail at that time. However, if you haven’t had any conversations about sex with your eight-year-old, then it’s definitely time for you to start the conversation.
- Always admit what you don’t know. If you can’t answer a child’s question, admit that you don’t have that information but will look into it and get back with him. Children will respect your honesty and candor more than bluffing and finding out later that you misled them.
What and When
All children are different. Some are ready for more complex information at younger ages, while others are not. What follows is a general explanation of what children can understand at specific ages, and when and how it can be discussed.
Ages 2-3: The right words for genitals, such as penis and vagina.
Ages 3-4: The general place a baby comes from. “Mommy has a uterus inside her tummy. That’s where you lived until you were big enough to be born.”
Ages 4-5: How a baby is born. “When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy’s vagina.”
Ages 5-6: A basic idea of how babies are made. “Mommy and Daddy made you.” If the child needs more detail, “A tiny cell inside Daddy called a sperm joined with a tiny cell inside Mommy called an egg.”
Ages 6-7: A simple understanding of intercourse. “God/Nature created the male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces. When the penis and vagina fit together, a sperm cell from Daddy swims up to meet the egg cell inside Mommy and make the baby.” You can also add, “This is one of the ways mommies and daddies show love for each other.”
Ages 8-9: Sex is important and should be experienced in the right context. By this age, children can handle more direct and/or abstract conversations about sex. “Remember when we talked about sex being part of a loving relationship? When someone is forced to have sex when they don’t want to, it’s called rape, and that’s wrong.”
Ages 9-11: The changes that happen with puberty. Also be prepared to discuss sexual topics your child sees in the news, as well as things like nocturnal emissions, masturbation, and menstruation.
Ages 12+: Your child is starting to form his own ideas about sex. Check in every so often to put the information they’re getting into the right context. Be careful not to come off as intrusive. As your children get older, you’ll want to shift the conversation to focus more on what they’re feeling inside that usually drives what they’re doing on the outside. Keep children aware of the fact that the sexual images they see in the media aren’t real, particularly with regard to how young women are presented, so as to foster a positive relationship between young girls and their bodies.
Avoiding Early Errors
Long before children are aware of what sex is, they love to explore their bodies. Never shame a child who is touching his or her genitals. Even if they cannot talk yet, they will receive the negative energy of your shaming actions and tone, and relate it to their sex organs and later, their sexuality. Children explore their genitals largely out of curiosity and a need for comfort. Children do, however, have a tendency to touch themselves in public and at other inappropriate times. All that needs to be said is, “This isn’t the proper time or place. That’s something we do at home in private.”
Internet statistics show that 70% of children between 7 and 18 have stumbled onto pornography online. If you catch your child on a pornographic site or find out they’ve visited one, try not to get angry. Counteract what they’ve seen by putting sex back in the proper context of love, relationships, and procreation. Explain that while you don’t approve of pornography, you’re not judging them for viewing it. Always keep family security settings in place on your children’s and home internet devices.
At various ages, books can be a great tool to support what you’ve shared with your child along the way. Be sure to research some and ask friends for recommendations so that you’ll have them ready when your children begin asking certain questions.
When you pre-plan and start early enough, you can put sex into the proper context for your children in a way that not only preserves its beauty and sacredness, but helps them to continue to confide in you as they grow.
Knowing they’ve grown up anchored in your values, you can have peace that they’ll make the right decisions in difficult situations and the confidence that they’ll come to you when they still need guidance.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.