I have tried to make the "sex talk" a conversation that started when my boys started noticing that they have penises (I have only boys). My oldest, at six years old, could probably tell you more about how babies are made than a lot of teenagers. I talked to teenage girl once who honestly asked me after looking at the plastic pelvis model, "So, exactly how many holes do I have down there?". Seriously. That's not happening on my watch.
In this ongoing, and often comical, conversation with my boys, I've learned some basic rules for talking to little kids about pleasure, function and reproduction.
Here's what I've learned about how to have these talks:
1. When they have a question about sex/reproduction, I try to start the discussion by asking what made them ask the question. Then I can better figure out what type of answer is needed.
2. Keep things as honest but simple as possible (mostly… see below).
3. No shaming or suggesting guilt associated with sexuality.
4. Suggest "private time" instead of "don't do that".
5. When they're little and you see them playing with themselves, mention it, and acknowledge that they do it because it feels good. Give them words for understanding that function of their body.
6. I teach about the similar little girl parts as I teach them about their very own parts.
7. I make sure I introduce the variabilities so that they already start to have an understanding that being gay and being transgender is normal for some kids and adults. I'm hoping that lays a pretty natural foundation for compassion without having that barrier of misunderstanding that comes from ignorance.
8. I have persistent and curious kids who don't often let a vague answer slide by. If questions go past what I want to share with them at this point in their lives, I go for the super nerdy, anatomical, scientific version of the explanation until their eyes cross and they stop asking questions.
9. I always talk about consent with them and how they have the right to their own bodies. Even little things like when they're upset and I want to hug them, I try to ask them first to make sure my hug is welcome (sometimes it's not). My hope is that they'll understand that just because I want to hug them doesn't mean that it's necessarily what they want, and that it's okay and their feelings are to be respected.
Here's the basic content that I cover with them:
While it may seem to some a little crazy to teach a 3 year old about a clitoris (especially when there are still women out there who don't know where to find their own), I think it's kind of critical for understanding about sex and relationships as adults. It's just setting good foundational understanding for their own bodies and understanding that there's a parallel process going on for little girls. Girls don't lack the ability to have the pleasure of playing with themselves because they don't have a penis, they just have different bits that feel equally good.
For example, being progressive and teaching "Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina" with the proper anatomical terms is great. However, those parts are not really functionally analogous for little kids. What is a penis to a boy? It pees. It feels good to play with. It has a curious way of getting bigger and smaller. None of those things are what a vagina does. Girls don't pee out of their vagina and the little feel-good-wiggles and rubbing that little girls do are not vaginal, they're clitoral.
My approach is to teach functional similarities. Boys and girls both store urine in bladders and pee out of urethras. A boy's urethra happens to be in his penis and that's why he can pee standing. A girl's urethra is in her vulva but it is in front of her vagina and that's why little girls squat or sit to pee.
Testicles and ovaries make a nice teaching pair, of course. Ovaries are the factories where mommy's egg are made. Testicles are the factories where daddy's sperm are made. Here's a really cool video to show fertilization. You can even keep it on mute and explain it yourself with video game sounds and name the sperm pirate names. The kiddos get the idea.
The penis has the big function of "feeling good when it's played with" and that's actually like what a little girl's clitoris and vulva do. Similar functions in similar locations. No big deal. They even all get bigger when they are played with!
Babies grow in the mommy's uterus to make her tummy big and then come out of her vagina. They easily understand that babies grow in mommy's tummy because they've seen pregnant women or pictures of mommy when she was pregnant with them. Actually using the words "uterus" and "placenta" can be a way to make "mommy's tummy" a thing that they can actually see on an anatomy chart and start to understand how it works. When looking at a diagram like the one below, it's fairly self-explanatory that the vagina is the exit for the baby.
Both boys and girls have anuses, that's an easy similarity. And poop is always funny with little boys. So are farts. This is an easy one and often gets them off topic if you're looking for an exit from the conversation.
The trickier part, perhaps, is the part you have to figure out for yourself. Understanding your own personal philosophies about sexuality and what you wish to teach about the relationship part of it is a more personal choice for parents. It's kind of important that we all do our work to know what is true for us (not just passing forward the hang-ups we were given) and start thinking about how we can convey our own message.
The anatomy and function is the easy part. That part doesn't really change no matter how we feel about it!
When kids start asking more questions about the specifics than what you're prepared to answer (like my oldest trying really hard to get me to explain the entire method in which the sperm gets from daddy to mommy within a few months after baby brother was born), I go for a few different options.
1. If possible, I go for more information than necessary and make it super scientific and boring. For example: "Mommy, can I see what a vagina looks like?". I say, SURE!! And show them this picture:
or another one from Pelvic Guru's Pelvic Anatomy Resource
It's accurate, honest, and entirely boring and usually ends questioning in our household.
2. Go with an answer that just flat out admits, "Yes. You are right. There's more to the story, but you have to be at least ____ years old to learn that part. Stay tuned!" We did that at age 4. then he asked again at 6 and could tell me the whole process with only that one tiny detail left out and really wanted to know how it happened. We pulled up the anatomical pictures (like the one above) of the female pelvis and one of the male pelvis and I let him figure out from what he knows of his own body and what he's learned of the fertilization process and he figured it out without much prompting. Then he realized that it meant that two grown ups had to have their pants off in close proximity to each other and started cracking up. "That's so weird!!!". Yup. It is. Only adults do such weird things, son. You don't have to worry about it for a very long time.
3. I find a way to segway into talking about the amazingness of another body system, like digestion… which creates poop… and poop is always a crowd pleaser in our house.
Educate yourself so you'll be prepared for the questions kids ask. Remember, this isn't dirty stuff. If you can talk about how blood flows through the body or how air goes in and out of our lungs, you can talk about how mammals' reproductive systems work. If they ask questions that are pretty detailed, ask them how they came up with that question to see where they are coming from to better steer what type of an answer is needed in the situation. It's so good for them to get the right info from you before they get the wrong info somewhere else.
More resources for talking to your kids about sex:
www.scarleteen.com For every question you could image your kid asking about sex/gender/relationships/periods/anything. It's a great resource to give your teen kiddo.
http://www.plannedparenthood.org/parents/talking-kids-about-sex-sexuality This has some good suggestions and little videos with some stats on why it's important to be able to talk to your kids about sex.
http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Sex_education_primary_school_children For more information on talking to primary school kids about sex and what to address and when.
http://www.tulsakids.com/January-2012/Age-Appropriate-Books-to-talk-to-your-Kids-about-Sex/ I have not read any of these books, but if this is something you are looking for, there are some nice suggestions of some books to check out for little kids.