by Chrystal de Freitas, M.D.
Sooner or later, every child realizes that boys and girls have different body parts. And that some of those parts should be kept private. As a parent, when is it the right time to start talking to your child about these topics?
The topic of sexuality often makes parents feel uneasy, especially when it comes to discussing it with children. You may not be sure how to talk to your child about his or her body. You may be hesitant to even bring up the subject unless your child asks. Maybe you should wait until it is taught in school?
If you can relate to these concerns, you’re not alone. I speak to many families about how to broach the subject of the birds and the bees with their children. With a few basic guidelines, you’ll find it is easier than you may have thought to discuss these topics. Moreover, you’re establishing a foundation for open, honest communication with your kids in the years ahead.
When to Start?
Start teaching kids about their bodies at age four or five. Many parents are startled to learn that these conversations should begin at such a young age. However, the earlier you start the easier it will be. Research has shown us that children at this age have a very healthy curiosity about how their bodies work. As a result, this may be the most comfortable time to initiate the conversation.
This is a conversation every family should have at home. Don’t wait for your children to learn it in school or from their friends. By the time sexual education is covered in school, most kids have already heard plenty of misinformation in the playground. Start early with conversations at home. Not only will you be setting them straight from the start, you’ll teach your kids to come to you when they have questions or want more information.
How to Start?
So how do you bring up the subject? I encourage parents to take advantage of “teachable moments.” These are events in our everyday lives that open the doors to initiating conversation. For example, if your daughter sees a baby boy’s diaper being changed, or your son notices differences between his body and his sister’s, you can start to talk about parts of the body and how boys and girls are different. (And please, don’t worry that if you talk to your kids about their sexuality, they will go out and experiment. This has not proven to be true.)
I strongly recommend that parents teach their children the correct names for body parts from the start; for example, “penis” instead of a childish nickname. Why? For one, this eliminates confusion that can occur when a child has learned a nickname for a body part and then learns there is another (and correct) name for it later on. Also, learning the proper names encourages children to view their body parts with healthy respect, and helps them feel more comfortable about discussing their bodies.
Make it a point to teach children which body parts are private. One simple way is to explain that their private parts are the ones covered by their bathing suit. Explain to your kids that it is not okay for anyone else to see or touch their private parts. Let them know that if someone does try to touch their private parts, they need to tell someone. Who? While a “trusted adult” is a common choice, many young children may not understand that concept. Sadly, a “trusted adult” may have been the one who tried to touch them. Reassure your child that he or she can tell you anything, no matter what. Or, designate a family member or friend to be the person that your child should go to if anything happens.
Myths & Misinformation
Unfortunately, it is common for kids to get the wrong information from their friends at school or the soccer field. Say your son comes home and shares some inaccurate news he heard about where babies come from. Don’t panic. First, ask him where he heard the information and who else knows this, so that you can alert other families if necessary. Second, ask him what he thinks about what he heard. This gives him a chance to explain what he understood, and opens the door for you to initiate further conversation and share the facts.
If what your child heard is correct but goes against your family values, let him or her know that your family does not agree. This is a good opportunity to help instill your family’s principles and morals in your child.
Above all, you want to teach children a healthy appreciation for their bodies, and build a foundation for ongoing dialogue in the future.
Dr. de Freitas is a pediatrician with Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. To register for one of Dr. de Freitas’ classes on speaking to your children about the “birds and the bees” orfor physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).