When we first started our family, my husband and I agreed we’d split the ‘sex talk’ according to gender. He’d explain it to our son and, a few years later, I’d discuss matters with our daughter.
That went out of the window when he was away on assignment. Our son, aged five, asked me what a wet dream was; he’d heard his best friend’s brother giggling about it.
Not how I’d planned to spend that particular Tuesday evening but I took a deep breath and plunged in. Five seemed very young to be having that kind of conversation, but apparently it was a good thing – experts say early discussions make it easier to talk about such topics with your kids in the future.
Sex educators also believe there are some subjects it’s better to address sooner rather than later. You don’t necessarily need to go into the nitty-gritty; just give your child some basic information and wait for them to come back with any supplementary questions.
So – what are the sex subjects we should be talking about with our younger children?
1Nobody touches your body unless you want them to
Arguably the most important sex education lesson we can teach our children. Their bodies are their own, they’re allowed to say ‘no’, and nobody – but nobody – has the right to demand otherwise.
It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘only’ a hug – if they’re not comfortable, they can refuse. Consent is the key word when it comes to all things physical.
Talk about how the doctor handles this when you visit, and how he or she remains respectful of your person while still doing their job.
You can also discuss how your child needs to respect others’ rights in the same way; if somebody doesn’t want to be hugged or tickled, they need to accept that.
2Sex, gender identity and sexual orientation
By introducing these topics at an early age, you’re making them commonplace for your child. They’ll grow up to be more understanding, aware and tolerant – and that’s a good thing.
Be prepared for a few awkward questions but answer honestly. Use language that includes all gender identities and sexual orientations. This will probably be an area you’ll have to revisit from time to time, especially as your children become increasingly exposed to pop culture and information from the internet as they get older.
By teaching diversity at a young age, our children will grow up comfortable with both themselves and those around them.
3Our body parts have proper names
Most families have names they use among themselves for male and female genitalia. It’s a way of making it easy to talk about them. The problem is, this makes the ‘real’ words somehow taboo or embarrassing.
But our kids should know the real names for their body parts, even if they’re not used in everyday conversation. It normalises them, and your children will feel more comfortable about hearing and using the right words. In the unthinkable event of a child having to report sexual abuse, it will also make it easier if they know the correct names to use.
4Porn is nothing like ‘real’ sex
Unfortunately, because it’s so easy to access porn in becomes it becomes one of the most common sources for kids who want to know more about sex. It’s not uncommon for porn to be a child’s first exposure to sexual activity, either accidentally or deliberately.
The problem is, it gives them unrealistic expectations in so many ways – of how bodies should look, how people behave, of the kinds of things they should enjoy.
It’s another reason why it’s important to talk to your kids about sex. If you don’t, when they get curious, then as long as they can spell reasonably and have internet access, porn could be their first port of call.
Explain that porn is intended for adults and that it doesn’t teach them anything about ‘real’ sex.
5Sex is more than a physical act
Good sex education isn’t just about the mechanics of our bodies and what happens – it covers so much more than that.
Body image and self-esteem, how to communicate, setting boundaries and what makes a healthy relationship are all part of sex education. Sexual violence and harassment, personal hygiene, contraception, pregnancy, pleasure – so many topics need to be covered.
Start the conversation when you can and be aware of opportunities as they arise. A story in the news, or what happens when a young woman walks past a group of men might equally offer a chance for discussion and learning.
6What you think is weird might be normal for someone else – and vice versa
Little kids often think anything to do with sex or bodies is disgusting. But it’s important they understand people have different views and preferences. That goes for everything from same-sex relationships, that it’s ok to have sex before getting married and even the institution of marriage itself, as well as people’s sexual preferences and how they express themselves.
Ultimately, the message is: If you don’t like it, that’s fine; but someone else might, and that’s fine too.
7It’s always ok to ask questions, and you will always give them an answer
Children often want to ask more about a subject, and the last thing you want is for them to feel embarrassed about doing so. The more clued up they are about sex, the less likely they are to indulge in risky behaviour as they get older.
I know someone whose mother – a strict Roman Catholic – told her the only ‘acceptable’ method of contraception was to not have sex. Discussion over.
For a teenager in the first flush of infatuation with her (secret) boyfriend and whose hormones were running riot, this wasn’t helpful. It meant she believed an older girl who told her that if she had a shower after sex, she wouldn’t get pregnant. Guess what happened?
If your child asks you a question, do your best to answer. It’s ok not to know everything – you can always say you’re unsure and suggest you find out together. And if you’re caught off-guard, you can buy yourself some time by asking your child what they think. It gives you an idea of where their knowledge level is, too.