One of the trickiest situations as a parent involves teaching your child about the birds and the bees. Sex education is necessary — and especially so in these modern times of sexually-transmitted diseases and other such issues — but most parents will acknowledge that how to teach, and when to begin, is the biggest ‘headache’. When this topic should first be introduced might actually surprise you.
“Discussions about the birds and the bees may start from the time a child is a toddler,” says Karin Goh, a child and clinical psychologist at The Center for Psychology. “Often times, vague explanations may suffice with toddlers and preschoolers. This may begin with a simple lesson of the anatomy, which can then be used as a guide to answer questions about where babies come from. Parents may use charts or picture books to explain these to their young ones. Likewise may be done with older, school-age children.”
Start ‘Em Young
Exposing your children to the idea of sex and sexuality at a very young age has its benefits. For example, in the Netherlands, ‘Spring Fever’ week in schools focuses on sex ed classes for children as young as four. The approach is known as “comprehensive sex education” and it is about having open, honest conversations about love and relationships.
This approach has received international attention because the country has, in fact, some of the best stats on teenagers’ sexual health. For example, Dutch teens have sex at a later age, compared to those in the US or other European countries. Their teen pregnancy rates are among the lowest in the world, and a study found that nine out of 10 Dutch teens used contraceptives the first time they had sex.
There are resources readily available in the market to teach your child as young as four about the birds and the bees. But the decision as to when to educate your child about sex rests with you.
“There is no particular right or wrong age to teach a child about sexual organs and sex,” says Ms Goh. “Often times, children will ask and that curiosity in itself is a good time to begin sex education. These discussions need to be age-appropriate (at the level a child can understand), logical, taken seriously and spoken about respectfully. This ensures that children develop a healthy sense of their sexuality as adults.”
Let’s Be Adults
Most importantly, deal with it in an adult manner. “When a child first asks, parents should not shy away from the subject, laugh or humiliate a child for asking,” Ms Goh explains. “Instead, parents can check with their children about what they already know and correct any misconceptions respectfully.”
Also, don’t think that your kids will be emotionally traumatised if they know too much about sex at an early age.
“As long as the information is age-appropriate and pegged to the needs and readiness of the child, there is no issue of ‘traumatising’ the child,” says Dr Calvin Fones, Psychiatrist, Gleneagles Hospital Singapore. “Individual kids should be gauged as to their readiness to receive the information, ideally by parents or those who know the child well.”
Children who learn the facts about sex at an early age benefit in the future, says Dr Fones: “Good sex education cultivates healthy attitudes to sexuality and allows kids to grow up comfortable with an important, satisfying and beautiful part of life.”
Dr Fones has some helpful hints for parents:
- Don’t use scare tactics as a way to stop young people from having sex — they don’t work.
- Keep it simple; give accurate, honest and short answers.
- Admit when we don’t know an answer. We can help our kids find the answer in a book or other resource.
- Foster positive feelings about sexuality.
- Assure them that they’re normal. Help them understand that it’s ‘normal’ for everyone to be different.
- Listen, be patient and be there for them.
- Keep your sense of humour!
The Right Words for the Right Age
Dr Martha Lee, Clinical Sexologist and Sexuality Educator, Eros Coaching, gives a lowdown of what you should tell your child at various ages.
0 to 2 years
- Children should not be ashamed of their body. If there is confusion, this can present later in life as body image issues or shame surrounding their sexuality.
- Use the correct names for body parts. Nicknames may imply that the body is something to be hidden or masked.
- Normalise self-touch. Recognise that self-exploration and curiosity of one’s genitals is normal and healthy.
3 to 6 years
- Your child will begin asking questions about his body. He or she will start to notice the differences between men and women, and will begin to verbalise that confusion and seek answers from you.
- If your child is exploring his or her body and genitals in public or at inappropriate times, explain that while it feels good to touch the penis or the vulva, they are private parts and this touching should only occur in private.
- Teach your children that their private parts are their own and that no one else should touch them, other than parents or caregivers who are helping to wash them or wipe them. Also, let them know that other people’s private parts are off-limits too.
- Instill the lessons of good and bad touch at this age. Good touching feels ‘normal’ and ‘okay’; bad touching is when they don’t want to be touched. Teach your child to say, “Don’t touch me that way” if someone ever touches them in a way that they don’t want to be touched, and to inform you or a teacher.
7 to 9 years
- The child enters the phase of asking all questions related to, “Where do babies come from?” Rather than become overwhelmed by these questions, try answering questions using a matter of fact approach and in bite-size stages.
- Charts or picture books can be useful in explaining your way through the endless whats, hows and whys.
10 to 11 years
- Consider giving an anatomy lesson by using sexual anatomy drawings of girls and boys. You may talk about how semen is made, ovulation, menstruation, tampons or pads, and ‘wet dreams’.
- You should include the other physical changes that happen with adolescence, such as pubic hair growth, deepening voice, and the growth of breasts and penis.
- Normalise all of this and let them know that these changes happen at different times for everyone. Reassure them that they can come to you anytime with questions or concerns.
(See also: Precocious Puberty Explained)
12 to 14 years
- Your child is well into adolescence. It is very important to continue reinforcing the lessons you have taught them in the past. You may be giving the same information and answering the same questions numerous times but realise that the information is being processed differently each time.
- Be sure to cover birth control options including discussion, demonstration and condom negotiation.
14 to 17 years
- Answer questions and concerns as fully and non-judgmentally as possible. Revisit the topics of safe sex, birth control and condom negotiation.
- Continue instilling the importance of behaving appropriately online and via mobile phones. Discuss current events and use the media for teachable moments.
- Lastly, remind them that sexual pleasure goes both ways.