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Talking to Your Infant About Sexuality

The notice arrives from the nurse at your child’s elementary school.

“The Talk” will be held at some point during fifth grade. Your eyes bug out, your heart pounds, sweat beads down your chest (okay, maybe that was a hot flash), and you suddenly have a need for a glass of red. Or white. And friends!

Little thought bubbles begin exploding around your head:

Wait, I want to talk to my child before the school does.
No way do I want to talk to my child about this!

My child knows nothing about this, why now?
Oh my gosh, what does my child already know?!

My partner and I need to approach our child as a team.
I am in charge of meals, let my partner deal with this!

My child isn’t old enough for this!
Is my child old enough for this?

The best age to begin talking about sexuality is….your child’s current age.

Your child is about ten years old, and they are going to learn about puberty. Very, very soon. 
It begs the question? When IS the best time to begin talking to your child about S-E-X?

First we have to understand what the conversations about sex look like.

Whether you realize it or not, you have been talking about sexual health with your child for many years already. Have you discussed values important to your family? Have you shared your ideas on love and relationships? Have you asked your child “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Guess what? That’s all part of the package! Values, relationships, decision-making, goal-setting all lay the foundation for a person’s sexuality health. So, take a deep breath! You have already begun ‘The Talks” without even realizing it!

Understandably, it is much easier to talk about family and personal values than penises and vaginas. However, there are ways to gently work your way into these more intimate conversations without creating an environment of awkwardness. Yours - not theirs, that is.

  • Start at birth. Even though your sweet little infant has no clue what you are talking about, they do understand the affectionate inflection in your voice. As you gently clean their cute little bums during a diaper change, be sure to casually and sweetly use proper terminology. Penis. Vagina. Scrotum. Labia. Anus. “Let’s clean your vagina!” It seems really weird, I know, but as you continue to name these body parts, you will become comfortable verbalizing these words and your child will become accustomed to hearing them. These anatomical labels will seem no less awkward to say than patella, humerus, or tibia. Okay…knee, arm, or leg. I know that many professionals feel using only proper terminology is the best approach. I am a bit more laid back about it. As an adult I use slang for certain body parts myself. (“Save the Ta-Ta’s”, for example.) There is a time and a place for everything. So, if you want to call their penis a “wee-wee” once in a while, that is okay. Just be sure proper terminology is commonly used as well. Once you have normalized conversation about genitalia, you have laid the groundwork for open and honest communication with your child.
  • Explain good touch/bad touch with your child. Introduce the concept of personal boundaries. Explain how to honor one’s instinct/gut feeling to discern uncomfortable situations. This conversation can begin to take place very simply during the preschool years. However as your child grows older, the discussions will grow in complexity. Certainly we do not want our children to become fearful; the objective is to empower your child with intrinsic guidance. 
  • Answer the questions they ask, not the questions you hear. For example, if they ask what a penis is and your response involves a long discussion on erections (no pun intended), you have probably freaked them out a bit and totally missed what they really wanted to know; whether boys AND girls have a penis - not what the penis is used for. No need to go into too much detail. If they want to know more, they will pursue the line of questioning.
  • As your child grows and becomes more aware of the world around him, especially with media being so open, there will be opportunities to discuss deeper sexuality issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual activity. Looking for ways to broach certain topics? Listen to their music, watch their TV shows, and offer to drive carpool in which you “innocently” listen in on peer discussions. Use those experiences and topics in which to engage conversation with your child. However, as Heidi Stevens wrote in her recent article, Parenting Lessons Gleaned in a Decade, do not ruin the bonding moment by moaning and lecturing during the program, song, or taxi duty. Just wait and hit them later with it - otherwise you may not be invited into their world again anytime soon.
  • As teenagers, you can bet they are becoming quite informed about sex from their peers. The question is, how accurate is the information being shared? I promise, if you bring up the topic of sex to your adolescent, their ears will not spontaneously combust anymore than they will walk out the door to find someone with whom to do the horizontal bop. They are pretty much aware of how they came to be on this earth - by now they have not spotted any pink or blue storks flying around with bundles hanging from their beaks. The time for honesty and openness is now.

Do not fret.

Rest assured. The program your school nurses are preparing is not as explicit as the students seem to think it will be. You will likely be offered an opportunity to preview the program with other dazed parents. The nurses will be there to answer your questions - and provide medical support if you begin to hyperventilate. Parents typically have the opportunity to “opt out” their child from the program, however I would advise against that. The other students will have all this great information that they will be giggling about on the school bus. Wouldn’t you rather your child have learned the facts directly from then nurse than second-hand from their peers on the bus?

Yes, jumping into the conversation when your child is ten might feel awkward at first. Trust me on this one, the kids are ready to talk. They are trying to figure out why this particular topic is sooooo important that parents actually have to have letters asking parent approval. They want to know why the boys are separated from the girls. They want to know…what’s the big deal? Tell them. After all, the nurses can give the reproductive facts, but only you can instill the values that you hope your child adopts.

No worries. “The Talk” is really just about puberty and the physical, emotional, and social changes they can expect to experience.

They will leave the sex part of the talk up to you.  (Wink)

Kim Cook's picture

Kim Cook is a registered nurse (RN) who spent several years happily employed as an elementary school nurse. Broadening her
interests into the colorful world of adolescence, Kim returned to school to become a middle and high school health education teacher.  She also graduated with a minor in psychology and a certification in LGBT Studies. Kim is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).

Fueling her passion for comprehensive adolescent sexuality health education, Kim writes an informational blog for parents: Teen World Confidential. With a humorous perspective, she offers medically- accurate information in a non-judgmental approach about all things S-E-X and the adolescent. Kim is currently...