On a cool December morning when I was 38 weeks pregnant, I stepped out of bed and, with an audible, movie-perfect pop, felt my water break and begin to gush. As I grasped my belly and shouted for my husband with joy and a little bit of panic, my three-year-old dashed into the room and asked, with excitement in his eyes, “Mommy, is it time for my brother to come out of your vagina?!”
While my son’s language might come as a surprise to some, we were accustomed to him talking about birth in practical, real-life terms—after all, that’s how we’d always discussed it with him. As a certified health education specialist with a master’s degree in public health who has experience teaching sex education to pregnant and parenting teens, I know how important it is to talk to children early and often about sex, reproduction and relationships. Often, grown-up ideas of what innocence should entail or adult awkwardness about sex and reproduction prevent parents from having the kind of important conversations with their children that lay the groundwork for healthy relationships and safe sex down the line.
In the nearly two years since my second son came into the world, the quantity and depth of the conversations we’ve had as a family about sex and relationships have grown as much as he has. Check out the list below for four things that my four-year-old knows about sex that I think every preschooler should, too.
While some people might find it jarring to hear tiny voices saying words like “penis,” “vulva” and “vagina,” health professionals warn that using nicknames or leaving these body parts unnamed can lead to danger for children. When kids are unable to name their body parts, they’re less likely to be able to describe any pain or discomfort accurately if they need to tell you or a healthcare provider that there’s an issue, and that could make them more vulnerable to abuse. Knowing the proper terms for their body parts “enables children to properly communicate if someone is touching them inappropriately,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and author of Protecting Your Child From Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep Your Kids Safe. Not naming body parts, or giving them silly nicknames, can also give kids the inadvertent message that their private parts are something to be ashamed of. “Using correct anatomical names conveys to a child that our sexual organs are no different than other body parts and that there is nothing shameful about them,” says Jeglic. “We tell our children the correct anatomical names for all other body parts, so why should the penis, breasts and vagina be any different?”
Many little ones begin to wonder about how babies are made when they get wind that they’re going to be an older sibling or see other growing families in their community, but parents are often caught off guard by their child’s frank questions. Even if it feels awkward, telling kids the basic truth about reproduction matters. When kids ask questions and receive factual, non-judgmental answers from their parents, they begin to deeply trust them as a source of information—something that will be well worth a little parental embarrassment as a child grows and begins to have more complex questions.
The first time my son asked where his soon-to-be-born brother came from, I explained that he was growing in my uterus—an organ in my tummy. A few weeks later, when he followed up to ask how the baby got in my uterus, I explained that there was an egg in my tummy and that when his father’s sperm met the egg, it began to grow into a baby. My son was satisfied with that answer for a few more weeks before he asked the big question, “How did the sperm get to the egg?” I kept my answer short and sweet: “Your dad put his penis in my vagina and the sperm came out and made its way to the egg. That’s called sex.” My son nodded, mulled this new information over for a moment and then quickly when back to colouring.
Parents are often apprehensive about letting their young children know that sex is enjoyable because they’re wary that they may want to experiment well before they're ready. While young children probably won’t understand the complexities of sexual behaviour, they may have questions about how sex feels after their parent explains the mechanics of it. After my son learned how sperm meets the egg, he asked if sex hurts. I answered by letting him know that when two people care about each other, they make sure that it doesn’t hurt and that it feels nice for both of them. “Preschoolers are naturally curious,” says Jeglic. Just keep it age-appropriate. “If they ask more questions, answer them honestly and factually,” she says. “Remember, the way that you convey this message is how they will understand sexual behaviour. If you talk about it matter-of-factly, then it will be no big deal—you don’t want to make it secretive or shameful.”
When parents and caregivers aren’t intentional about teaching consent, they may inadvertently teach their children that their consent—and the consent of others—doesn’t matter. Parents can teach consent from birth by talking a baby through the way they’re going to touch them as they dress and take care of them. As a child grows, parents can begin to ask their child for permission to chase or tickle them or pick them up and then respect their answer. Showing a child that you respect their physical autonomy is an important first step towards raising a child who respects the physical autonomy of others, but it’s also important to give a child the words they need to stand up for themselves. In our home, “My body, my choice” is declared by my children (and myself!) when anyone encroaches on their space in a way they find uncomfortable.
Identifying age-appropriate ways to talk with your children about sex can be challenging, but as they grow and their questions become more complex, you’ll be glad you got the practice when they were little.
This article was originally published online in September 2018.
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