In fact, while we don’t often discuss it, children are sexual beings from birth. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that touching themselves in certain ways feels good. For those of us who aren’t comfortable talking about sex, our bodies or body parts, this can set us to squirming. But, experts say, it’s important for parents to understand that their children’s sexuality is normal. Our role as parents is to be the primary source of information for children—to help them get to know those body parts, learn their names and understand their functions.
Experts suggest parents make talking about sexuality a natural part of life. So instead of gearing up for that one big discussion, parents should talk about the topic whenever questions arise, regardless of a child’s age.
"For the benefit of their emotional health, and to help them grow up feeling good about themselves and about their bodies, the groundwork for that communication needs to start as early as possible," says Robie H. Harris, author of three books that demystify sexuality for elementary-age to teenagers.
It’s not easy
Barb Grady, an author and counselor who founded and manages the Parenting Plus Web site (www.parenting-plus.com), shares the apprehensions many parents feel when it comes to sexuality and their children.
"Many of us were taught sex is ‘dirty,’ we are afraid we don’t have all the answers, it is difficult for some of us to admit that our children are sexual, it is difficult for some of us to admit that we are sexual … [and] many of us fear the normal sexual feelings between our children and ourselves," she writes.
Harris, who wrote It’s So Amazing, It’s Not the Stork and It’s Perfectly Normal, says it is important that parents not let their own fears get in the way of talking to their kids. "We all need to take sexuality out of our own lens, and instead look at it through the eyes of our children. To them, how bodies work it is simply a curiosity; touching themselves may simply feel good."
Kids may know more about sex than you think and learn it sooner than you expected. "From an early age, children know there is something called ‘sex,’ but their idea of what it means may vary from kissing or hugging to some hazy idea about bodies rubbing together," Grady says on her Web site.
Some parents would rather keep their children in the dark, but experts recommend the opposite: Meet your child at his or her point of interest, and stake your ground as a credible source of information who is always available.
"I often get asked why children need to know about their sexuality and I always answer, ‘Because they are curious, and because they have a right to know,’ " Grady says. "Talking to children about their sexuality is complicated for parents but not for children—especially when they are at the ages of 3, 4, 5 and 6. If parents brush them off, they send the negative message that a part of their body is secret or bad."
The chain reaction can be serious. Children may just clam up about all things physical and parents lose the chance to help form their child’s view of sexuality both when they are young and during those critical puberty years, says Rebecca Holbrook, director of community education for the Chicago branch of Planned Parenthood.
"What we have learned is that if parents do not establish communication from the time the child is very young, the opportunity can be lost," she says. "As a result, as those children grow older they are at a greater risk of experiencing unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and unhealthy intimate relationships."
Start sex ed before school
Harris encourages parents to make their child’s sexuality a pragmatic part of everyday conversation. That means parents should start at toilet-training time or even before, when children first become fascinated with their bodies.
"Ideally it starts with naming the parts," she says. "A parent might want to say, ‘Do you know where your pee comes out? Here is the opening … ’ and if it is a girl mention that they have another opening, called the vagina," Harris says.
"That could open the door to more information … you could say a vagina is where babies come out, that they came out of Mommy’s vagina—if that is the case. Little girls could learn that a vagina is a stretchy opening that babies come out of from that conversation, and that little girls have three openings and little boys have two."
It sounds simple. But even in families where communication comes easy, there can be uneasy moments. When my daughter, Isabel, was 2 and realized her older brother had a penis, she started grabbing the front of her crotch and saying, "This is my penis." Not wanting to mislead her, I had to search for the right terminology before I shared the private part she was touching was not her penis, it was her vulva.
My husband, while being comfortable with calling his son’s private part a penis, wasn’t as comfortable with "vulva." "It sounds as if she is saying she has a Volvo," he laughed uneasily. "Do we have to be so specific?"
Yes, you do, says Holbrook: "Using the correct name for all body parts is important. A penis is a penis, not a wee-wee or anything else, and girls have a vagina." And girls have vulvas, too, not Volvos.
Experts agree that questions beyond the names of body parts should be answered in a concise, simple, truthful way. At the same time, it is OK to ask for some personal privacy when answering your child’s questions.
"If you talk about intercourse with them and your child asks things like, ‘Does Daddy put his penis into your vagina?’ it is perfectly fine to say, ‘Those things are private and between Daddy and me,’ " says Harris.
Reading your child a book on the subject is often a good way to start the conversation because it makes the subject a bit less personal and can offer a wide range of answers.
Even if you don’t choose to go by the book, Harris says, it’s OK if you don’t have all of the answers.
"When a teachable moment comes up, and your child asks you a question … you can always say, "That’s a great question—I want to think about it for awhile first before I answer.’ " Then, she says, parents are beholden to find an answer—whether that means calling the pediatrician, rehearsing the way they want to respond or talking with a friend before revisiting the subject.
"There will be some parents who have had a sexual experience themselves that was violent or abusive that won’t be able to talk to their children about their sexuality at all … or others who have a cultural or religious reason that makes it difficult," says Harris. "In this case they need to find someone to stand in for them … and that is OK. But parents need to make sure that someone answers their child’s questions knowledgeably—it is crucial to their emotional and physical health."
Dr. Alyna Chien, a pediatrician with the University of Chicago and former Healthy Child columnist for Chicago Parent, has two children, ages 9 and 11. She says she has always addressed sexuality as normal and answered any questions that have come up both directly and honestly.
"They know how the reproductive process works because I told them," she says. "I don’t know if they realize what it has to do with sexual arousal, because that hasn’t come up yet. But if it doesn’t soon, I will bring it up."
Chien says she talks to parents about using the correct names for body parts, and also helps them understand that genital curiosity, or masturbation, is normal in young children. "More parents come in concerned about their daughter touching herself than parents of sons," she says. "Either way, it should be expected."
Holbrook says masturbation is another golden opportunity to talk to your young child—this time about the definition of good touch vs. bad touch. "We need to get the message across that it is OK for them to touch themselves, but that it is not OK for someone else to do so."
That may mean explaining that only a doctor or parent may touch their private parts, and then only during a medical examination, during bathing or when they are helping them dress.
And reassuring kids that it’s OK to touch themselves doesn’t mean giving them carte blanche. "While it is their right to touch their own body for pleasure, it is up to parents to set the boundaries," says Harris. "We can tell them that it is OK to do so in their own room when they are alone, but not at the supermarket."
That’s how one west suburban mom handled it when her 4-year-old son starting walking around the house with his hands down his pants. She says she was surprised how quickly he got the message. "He started saying that he needed to be alone, and would run to his room," she says. "I knew what it was about … and he seemed to be OK having it be a private thing."
Even so, she says she went to her son’s doctor to learn more. "I was wondering if he could actually ejaculate and scare himself," the mom says.
Chien has answered similar questions about erections in little boys. "While usually an erection denotes specific sexual arousal, little boys do not get an erection in that sense," she says. "They can have an erection simply because there is more blood concentrated in the penis area for a variety of reasons. It isn’t until they start going through puberty that they start having erections that are linked to specific sexual feelings."
What about sexual exploration between young children? Parents often discover their preschool-age child "playing doctor" with a friend.
"It is just the same curiosity played out on a different level," says Harris. "But again, parents need to teach their children what is appropriate. They can talk to their child about what it means to be a good friend … and in this case, it means not asking to look at someone else’s private parts, or not showing your private parts to them."
Very often parents reject the concept of open communication regarding sexuality, simply because they believe their child isn’t ready. But Harris says that if the child is asking questions, he or she is ready. "Parents don’t need to be afraid that they are sharing too much," she says. "Kids will intuitively tune out, or walk away, if it is more than they want to know."
That’s what happened to a mom Harris met. The woman, a lawyer, had prepared notes to follow while having the sex talk with her 6-year-old daughter. "She began reading her notes and said that at page one she was nervous … but by page four she thought she was doing great," laughs Harris. "At page seven she looked up and realized that her daughter had left the room. She had shut off because it was too much."
"Underneath it all, kids are trying to find out about themselves and their body, at the same time that they are trying to figure out their place in the world," says Harris. "If we can give them an upfront, comforting narrative regarding sexuality, it will help them find their way."
Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer who lives in Batavia and writes frequently on health and parenting issues.