Moomah the Magazine
The Sex Talk

The Sex Talk

My girlfriends and I were enjoying a glorious fit of laughter whilst looking through the book Mummy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole, before an abrupt and awkward silence fell upon us. This children's book is designed to help explain where babies come from (the illustrations of how Mommy and Daddy connect their parts being especially entertaining).

The laughs were hardy until we all realized; we were going to have to broach this subject matter with our own kids, as the uncomfortable questions were coming on fast and furious.

None of us had any idea when, what or how much to say. I acted fast and reached out to Dr. Matthew Goldfine, realizing we couldn’t be alone in all this wondering...

Teaching your kids where babies come from

“Well…you see…when a man and a woman love each other…the man puts his um…I mean, there’s an egg and…a baby grows inside the mommy’s belly and um…9 months later…a stork comes and…maybe we should talk about this when you’re older.”

“Where do babies come from?” It sends a chill down every parent’s spine to even imagine those five words coming out of their child’s mouth. As a child psychologist, parents frequently confess to me how surprising it was when their sweet, innocent son or daughter blindsided them by asking about the birds and the bees. While it would be easy to just keep our heads in the sand and avoid discussing the topic altogether, we know that speaking to our children about the (pardon the pun) ins-and-outs of sex is part of being a responsible parent.

So how do we have this incredibly uncomfortable conversation? First, I would encourage parents to think about when your own parents had the sex talk with you. What do you wish they would have done differently? What good information has stuck with you through the years? There is clearly no “right” way to discuss sex with your children, but thinking about your experiences as a child and what you wish your parents would have told you can be a good jumping off point for deciding what to tell your little one. So in an effort to help moms and dads overcome their fears, I’ve put together five of my most helpful tips for having the sex talk with your child.

1: Too early is better than too late 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your child probably knows a lot more about sex than you may think. Granted it is filled with tons of misinformation and innuendo, but even the most sheltered child has seen or heard of the topic from friends or the media. And let’s not overlook that kids may also be curious about their own bodies. So why not get in on the ground floor and correct any misconceptions before they hear about it from their older cousin who knows way too much about bra sizes? While we want to make sure our language is age-appropriate and presented in a way that our children can best understand, realize there’s no such thing as a child being “too young” to talk about sex, anatomy, and their bodies. Rather, the earlier and more openly you discuss sex with your children, the better prepared they will be for the sexual issues that arise when they get older. Lay the foundation early and be pleasantly surprised when you have a knowledgeable and self-confident teenager who makes smart decisions about his or her sexual health.

2: Penis and vagina are not dirty words

I remember working with a single mother on having this very talk with her two sons. The mom would get so flustered that she couldn’t even bear to say the word “penis,” let alone have a mature discussion with her sons about sex. Thankfully, she eventually overcame her embarrassment, but imagine the message she would have sent to her sons in speaking about their bodies as being something to be ashamed of. Using nicknames for body parts or discouraging their curiosity about sex can give our kids the impression that there is something inherently naughty about the topic. How you speak to your children about sex is how they will start to approach it themselves. Is sex something to be afraid of? Is it dirty? Does it need to be done responsibly? You are the most powerful role model that your children will ever have. The tone of how you speak about sex—and yes, even using the correct names for the male and female anatomy—will impact how your children perceive sex and whether they approach you in the future with their own sexual concerns.

3: Don’t just have one sex talk, have many

When working with families, it can be a sight for me to observe how parents will transition from being incredibly timid around the topic of sex to suddenly wanting to impart every last bit of wisdom onto their child. “I want my son to learn to respect women…” “I want my daughter to realize that there are emotional consequences of having sex…” “I want my child to be aware of contraception so I don’t become a way-too-young grandparent!” Slow down! The sex talk doesn’t have to be a daunting, one-time-only discussion that is never spoken of ever again. Rather, it should be an ongoing discussion, made up of numerous conversations over the years. Take some pressure off of yourself and start with just the basics. As your child matures, he or she will be more receptive to a nuanced understanding of sex. Being a parent is a marathon, not a 100 yard dash. Pace yourself.

4: Keep it light

Earlier, I recommended thinking back to when your parents had the sex talk with you. One detail that probably crossed your mind was how incredibly awkward that experience was. In all likelihood, it was because your parents felt uncomfortable, which made you, the child, feel the same way. Let’s not make that same mistake. If I know one thing about Moomah parents, it’s that they have personality! So why not use it? There’s no reason why you can’t explain sex creatively or have some laughs along the way. Sex can be a funny topic, after all. Joke about how silly our bodies can look or how cramped it must have been to live in mommy’s belly. Chances are, a little bit of humor will make the sex talk that much easier for you, not to mention more effective for your little one. One of the benefits of having these conversations when your child is young is that your son or daughter doesn’t have the same type of inhibitions tied to the topic of sex that an older child or teenager would. Do you still think that sex is a taboo topic? Get over it! This only becomes an awkward conversation if you make it awkward.

5: When in doubt, trust your instincts (and your partner)

Remember that you are not alone in this. Besides your own parental instincts, you have a partner likely overflowing with good ideas to add to the mix. That is exactly the reason why having the sex talk as a family is a wise plan. Doing so can alleviate some of the embarrassment and allow you to hand off the conversation to your partner if needed. Similarly, realize that you are far better prepared than you may give yourself credit for. The fact that you are reading these recommendations right now demonstrates that you are a thoughtful parent who wants to do what is best for your child. That sounds like a parent who makes good decisions. If you get the feeling that the talk is going over your child’s head or you should hold back on some of the finer details about sex, listen to yourself. Trust your judgment on how to communicate most effectively and, above all, do what you think is best for your child.

Some of the best opportunities to discuss sex with your child involve using what is happening in and around your child’s life to spark a conversation. This could be a pregnancy in the family, your child seeing their older cousin skinny dip, hearing of a political infidelity scandal, or a classmate having same-sex parents. It’s much easier for you to bring these issues up with your child than being taken aback by a sex question. So here are some general guidelines for those moms and dads wondering when they should start to discuss sexual issues with their child and how detailed they should be. And just to make sure you’re the best equipped parent in the neighborhood, there are even some specific questions to be prepared for and talking points to help start a conversation. 

2 to 4 years old
What do I explain?
Just the basics
Questions to expect:
“Tommy said that I can’t play with the boys because I have a vagina, is that true?”
“Why does mommy sit down when she goes to the bathroom?”
Talking Points:
“Boys and girls are the same in many ways. We both have two eyes and ten fingers. But boys’ and girls’ bodies are different, too…” 
“Do you notice when we change your little brother’s diaper, his body looks different than yours? That’s because boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. That’s how we tell the difference.”
“This is your private part. That means that no one is allowed to see or touch it but Mommy, Daddy, and the doctor.”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
This is the penis and vagina talk. At this point, you’re only talking about how boys and girls have different body parts. This is your chance to get comfortable with these sorts of talks and introduce the concept of private parts.

4 or 5
What do I explain?
How babies are made…but keep it simple!
Questions to expect:
“Why is Aunt Becky getting so fat in her belly?”
“How come Jacob gets to have a baby brother and I don’t?”
Talking Points:
“When mommy and daddy were ready to have a baby, you started to grow in Mommy’s belly.”
“You started small, but grew fast. When you were ready to come out, Mommy pushed you out of her stomach.”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
Don’t go into graphic detail here. Introduce that a Mommy and Daddy are needed to make a baby and that babies grow inside of the Mommy. If your child is still curious, you can move on to the next step.

5 or 6
What do I explain?
What is sex? Part I.
Questions to expect:
“Why is Sparky having puppies?”
“Why can’t we all sleep in the same bed anymore?”
Talking Points:
“The reason that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina is that when they grow up, those pieces fit together like a puzzle.”
“When a Mommy and Daddy fit together, that is called sex and that is what makes a baby.”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
This is the time where you can start to give your child an understanding of sex and pregnancy. You should use terms like “sperm” and “egg,” but feel free to elaborate by comparing it to seeds or pods, which may be easier for your child to understand.

7 or 8
What do I explain?
What is sex? Part II.
Questions to expect:
“Olivia’s older sister is pregnant, but she’s not married.”
“I heard you and Daddy making noise last night. Were you having sex? Are you going to have a baby?”
Talking Points:
“Sometimes grown-ups can show that they love each other by having sex…” 
“When the man’s penis goes inside the woman’s vagina, little tadpoles called sperm come out and meets with the woman’s egg to make a baby.”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
This is the age when you can be more detailed with the concept of sex. Notice how you are also transitioning from talking about “Mommies and Daddies” to “Men and Women.” We’re also providing more information about sex and elaborating on what we have discussed with our child in the past.

8, 9, or 10
What do I explain?
Puberty, body differences in children and adults, sexuality.
Questions to expect:
“Why does Daddy have more hair than I do?”
“What is a tampon?”
“Jimmy said that his uncle is gay. What does that mean?”
Talking Points:
“You’ll start to notice hair will grow around your penis (or vagina) and in your armpits. It happens whenever your body is ready and at a different time for everybody.”
“Our bodies know when we are getting older and changes so we can grow big and strong and be a Mommy or Daddy one day.”
“Sometimes people fall in love with boys and sometimes people fall in love with girls.”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
In the same pro-active manner, the plan is to have this conversation before your child hits puberty. Maybe your daughter develops before her peers. Maybe your son is the shortest in his class. Either way, it will be pretty obvious to them. Let them know what to expect. As girls physically mature faster than boys, I would encourage an earlier puberty discussion with daughters along with an explanation of menstruation.

11 and beyond
What do I explain?
Dating, contraception, masturbation…the “big” sex issues.
Questions to expect:
“Lucas showed me a website with lots of naked people on it.”
“What is a condom?”
“If I have oral sex, does that mean that I will get pregnant?”
Talking Points:
“Other girls or boys may try to pressure you to doing things with your body. Let’s practice what to say and do if you don’t want to.”
“When the time comes that you are grown up and ready to have sex, it is important that you do it with someone who you love and that you do it safely. Here are some ways to have safe sex.”
“When I was in high school, boys would make fun of me because I was a late bloomer, too. What I did to feel better was…”
Tips from Dr. Goldfine:
This is where all of your hard work (and overcoming your own anxiety) has really paid off. Beyond just informing your child, you are now helping them understand complex sexual issues, their own personal boundaries, and how to prevent STDs, early pregnancy, and unhealthy relationships. The more open and informative you can be with your child about sex, the better prepared they will be for any and all sexual issues in the future.

As adults, some of us are still learning about the intricacies of sex and intimacy. It is a topic that can be confusing, wonderful, scary, and frustrating all at the same time. It’s no wonder that discussing these issues with our children can be so difficult. While there is no one-size-fits-all way to do so, there are some guidelines that can make the sex talk go smoothly and help your kids navigate through a tricky subject. It is tough being a parent and even tougher having to overcome your own anxieties about sex to discuss it with your child. But by starting early and often, and maybe using a little bit of humor, you will realize that there is nothing to fear about having the sex talk. Good luck!

--Dr. Matthew Goldfine
The Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD)

Posted in: Parenting   

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