We know that you are probably cringing at the thought of talking to your toddler about sex. Parents tend to view sex education as one big talk that shares the basics, somewhere closer to the onset of puberty, never to be repeated.
But the truth is that children start discovering and wondering about their bodies and the facts of life from very early on. Most experts agree that sex education actually starts in the very early years and that parents should constantly provide information which they slowly layer and increase as children grow older.
Talking to your toddler about sex – here’s how
Sex education is about far more than telling them about the actual deed. It is about shaping their deep-set ideas and emotions around intimacy and sex later in life, and about helping them build gender identity. Being well informed also helps to protect children against abuse.
Firstly, understand that you cannot keep it away
Our children are exposed to sex everywhere. You drive by adverts to adult stores and the Sexpo on the highway. Most TV series include love scenes of sorts. At some stage, they realise that those two people are kissing differently, or that someone’s clothes or movements look different than usual. This is going to get them wondering. When they get to school and start making friends they are exposed to other children’s exposures and wonderings.
If you don’t start talking to your toddler about sex, someone else will. You need to equip them to make sense of all of this healthily.
Avoid The Purple Face (or at least try to, it’s not easy)
If you haven’t experienced it yet, you soon will. Despite planning to treat sex education like any other topic (why do birds fly, for example), the first time you child asks a tough question something inside you choke up, and you don’t know if you should burst out laughing or simply run away and hide.
It’s important that you treat this topic like any other. If your non-verbal queues portray shock and horror your child will link this topic to something ‘wrong’ or something to be ashamed of. This may stop him from feeling comfortable to talk openly to you about sex. It also starts building emotions around intimacy and sex in their minds, which one day will play a role in their sexual well-being and behaviour (no pressure mom).
Use proper names
All experts agree that you should from the very start call body parts by their proper names. Some people have penises and scrotums, while others have vaginas, vulvas and clitorises. These are normal body parts like any other. Children should eventually be able to accurately describe where they had an injury, for example.
This also protects them to a degree, because if your child uses proper body names a child predator will immediately know that this child is well-informed and that the topic is being discussed with a grown-up. This will make the predator less likely to try anything.
Talk to your children about sex from birth
This sounds unheard of. But think about it – you clean a nappy and say ‘let’s clean your mouse’. Non-verbally you pull up your nose and make a funny face. You are already portraying a certain image of your child’s genital parts. Rather say ‘let’s clean your bum’ and carry on with your normal conversation and interaction.
In the same way, your little one’s nappy comes loose and he comes crawling naked into the room. Our first response is often ‘oh no, you’re naked, we can all see your bum’ – he now knows that he should feel ashamed.
Around two years the touching starts
Your child is now discovering some body parts, and have noticed that it feels different from the rest. Some children may have a tendency to touch their genitals, which have millions of nerve endings, so this is just normal. It’s important for you to know that though they may feel a pleasant sensation, they do not have a sexual connotation to this at all.
Say ‘you are allowed to touch your own body, but use the privacy of your room, and be sure to be gentle’. Don’t make them feel that they are doing something wrong.
Between the ages of 2-5 years, you should start teaching your children about boundaries and consent. This is very difficult, as it is mostly intuitive. It is perhaps OK for you to tickle your child, but not for a stranger. And then in the same breath, remember that it is seldom strangers that molest children. Mostly the predator is a friend of or family member that actually knows the child well.
Help your child to identify a few safe people that they can always talk to and that can touch them if necessary. But they should know that for all the rest (friends included) their private parts (which you can identify as parts covered by their clothes) are off-limits. They must also know that they should not touch other’s private areas and that they should ask for permission and respect a ‘no’.
Children should know about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ secrets. A good secret makes them and someone else happy, and it makes them feel excited. An example would be a surprise gift for mommy’s birthday. A ‘bad’ secret will make them feel scared and anxious. They must always be allowed to tell you a secret, even if they have kept it for a while, and they must know that you will never be angry with them for doing so.
At this point, it is important to note that you should of course teach your child to say no, but that this is not the main way how you protect them from predators. A child cannot out-reason a grown-up. He may say no, but child molesters will know how to manipulate them. Keep your children out of situations where they may be at risk. If you notice someone showing behaving in a way that you feel uncomfortable with, make it loud and clear to them that you have strict rules with your kids and touch, and that you would prefer for them not to touch them. This way you show them clearly that you and your child is not a victim. If they want to take offence, so be it.
“Mom, where do babies come from?”
This is a question they will start wondering about towards the age of five years. You or someone in your circle may well have a second baby on the way. The information that you provide will be adapted to what you think your child can comprehend. It’s important though that you don’t lie tell them some fictional story. You should also not refuse to talk to them about it. You can stick to ‘a mom and dad comes together and provide sperm and an egg cell that meets and grows in mom’s tummy’. Most children will be completely satisfied with this explanation. If they have more questions you can go into more detail.
Get help if you feel that you need it
There are nice books available to help parents share information about sex with their toddlers. If you really struggle or worry that your child has been exposed to something inappropriately, seek the assistance of a play therapist specialising in child sexuality. Talking to your children about sex is such an important topic with such far-reaching effects that it is worthwhile not risking unnecessary mistakes.