How to Talk to Your Child About Sex, Ages 3 to 6

How early do children have sexual feelings?

Almost from the very beginning, children are exploring their bodies. But before that idea makes you anxious, remember that at this point your child's curiosity is less about sex as you think of it and more about the general mysteries of body function. "What's this part for?" "Why does it look different from my cousin's?" "Why does it feel good when I touch it?" Young children are intensely interested in the differences between boys and girls, and they are natural scientists: They like to experiment, look for reactions, and draw conclusions. Readily available tools for these investigations are their eyes, ears, and hands. What's more, they tend to figure out pretty fast which kinds of questions and behaviors generate the most interesting responses from adults. Not only that, but at this age kids are natural mimics, readily imitating adult behaviors such as kissing and flirting.

What should I do when my child starts touching himself?

Start by remembering that -- though you may feel embarrassed -- his sexual exploration is utterly natural. By the time they're preschool age, many children have figured out that it feels especially good to touch or rub certain parts of their bodies. They may be direct about this, or they may find an indirect route, like straddling the back of a couch. In any case, you should probably suppress your instinct to say urgently, "That's not nice." Self-stimulation by young children is best ignored unless it's interfering with other activities or making a social situation uncomfortable. In those situations, the key word is private, as in: "I know that feels good to you, but that's something to do in private, not with other people." Try to stay calm; if this message is delivered in a hysterical voice, your child may realize he's found a powerful new tool for agitating you.

When should start discussing sex with my child?

Most experts believe that kids who start talking with -- and listening to -- their parents about sex early in life are more likely to avoid risky behavior later on as teens. But talking with children as young as 3 or 4 years old may be hard, especially if you've never had the discussion. If so, talk with a close friend or family doctor about how you should start.

Should I teach my child anatomically correct names for "private parts"?

Most experts in children's behavior think so. The trick is staying matter-of-fact about it - "knee, shoulder, ear, penis" -- while at the same time indicating that certain parts of the body are not to be messed with by anybody besides your child or you. Again, the key word is private. By the time they're in kindergarten, most kids have learned the concept of private parts; many preschools and kindergartens introduce the idea of "good touch" and "bad touch" in an effort to prevent molestation. There are different ways of defining the privacy regions most susceptible to bad touch (some teachers, for example, talk to children about "the parts covered by your bathing suit bottom"), but when you're teaching your own child, being straightforward is usually the best approach.

Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners, points out that you can also do your child a service by filling him in on some of the popular euphemisms -- just so he knows what his playground pals are talking about. (You might say, "That's your penis. Some kids you know call it a wiener.") "You do teach the child the correct names," Martin writes in Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children. "But you also teach him the current euphemisms. Giving him one without the other is unfair." A kindergartner can understand that there are times when euphemisms serve a purpose. Miss Manners observes: "The person who grows up saying, 'I'm going to have a bowel movement now,' is not going to have much of a social life."

How do I answer questions about where babies come from?

As simply as possible. Resist the urge to do the whole birds-and-bees speech; chances are your child doesn't want to know all the details yet. Young children best digest unsettling information in very small doses. Even before you're put on the spot, you might want to talk with your partner or a friend who has older children about how to word your responses in ways that keep you feeling comfortable and answer your child's immediate concern without adding mechanical specifics that might distress or confuse her. "Babies grow in a special place inside their mother" may be a perfectly satisfactory response to a 4-year-old, or you might say, "The baby grows from a special seed inside the mother's body."

If your child's already a cub reporter, he might ask the much-anticipated follow-up question. Make it easier to keep your cool by thinking about how you want to respond. One possible answer is: "The baby begins growing after the father joins his seed with the egg inside the mother's body." At this age, your child probably won't press you about how this comes to pass, but if he does, the simple and matter-of-fact route will get you through the rocky part: "When they decide they want to make a baby, the father puts his penis inside the mother, and that's where his seed comes out."

Are there tools that can help me with this?

Books are invaluable when it comes to answering tricky questions without getting red in the face. For two decades parents have relied on the classic Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle, Arthur Robins, and Paul Walter. Straightforward text and hilarious illustrations make this an ideal teaching aid for discussing sex and baby making with your child. The candid text is most appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds, though of course you can always skip a few pages as you go along.

You'll also find well-worded answers to questions including "Why does he have a penis and I don't?" and "How does the baby get out?" in What's the Big Secret? by Lauren Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. If you're having trouble talking to your child about sex -- knowing what to say and when -- this book can present the info for you with just the right balance of sensitivity and clarity. Pets and animals in the wild are great teaching tools as well. If the frogs in your child's classroom terrarium are suddenly getting cuddly, it's a perfect time to introduce the subject. TV nature programs have also stimulated many a family discussion.

What should I do if I find my child in sexual play with another child?

Don't freak out. For most young children, showing off their genitals or examining somebody else's -- what used to be called "playing doctor" -- is just another way of figuring out the world. Keep a cool head, and don't make the kids feel ashamed or guilty. Calmly wind up the play by getting all the clothes back on and getting the children interested in something else. At some point later on, you might want to talk to your child again about the idea that private parts are best kept private. Encourage your child to ask you questions (even if you'd rather he didn't!), and reassure him that his interest in his body and those of other people is natural. Cross-dressing is equally natural at this age, and doesn't mean your child has any gender confusion.

These days heightened concerns about molestation have made a lot of us feel extra jumpy about sexual exploration. Indeed, many professionals who work with young children now believe that an unusually intense preoccupation with sex may be a tip-off that a child is being sexually abused. But the key here is the word intense: If your child seems extremely preoccupied with sexual play, you should speak to his pediatrician about it. But if his interest has surfaced in just a few episodes, there's no cause for alarm. You might even look at this as an opportunity to let go of a few of those hang-ups most of us have!

Further Resources

Children Now. Talking with Kids About Tough Issues: Sex and Relationships.
http://www.talkingwithkids.org/sex.html

This site also has booklets available online from groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Parent Information Network.

References

Children Now. Talking with Kids About Tough Issues: Sex and Relationships. http://www.talkingwithkids.org/sex.html

Arlene Eisenberg, et al. What to Expect: The Toddler Years. Workman Publishing Company. 1994: 443-44.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Facts for Families. 2005.

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