Young children are notorious for asking questions that make parents squirm, especially when it comes to sexuality. From "Mommy, where's your penis?" to "Did Mrs. Richards poop out her new baby?", difficult questions often come much earlier than you might have anticipated — and sometimes at inopportune times. It's useful to remind yourself that when your child asks about sex, he is simply trying to make sense of his world. Discussing the biological facts of sex with him when he is young will help begin the process of open discussions about sexuality — and other tough issues — as your child ages. The editors of Scholastic's Parent & Child interviewed Steven C. Atkins, Psy.D., a clinical associate at Dartmouth Medical School's department of child psychiatry and the coauthor of Talking to Your Kids About Sex From Toddlers to Preteens, who says that answering questions matter-of-factly and honestly is the best policy: "We want children to understand the whole body and all of its amazing features." Dr. Atkins's best advice: Maintain a sense of humor!
Parent & Child: At what age is it appropriate to start talking about gender differences and sexuality?
Dr. Atkins: Each child is different, but you can expect to hear questions very early on, when children are naturally curious about everything. By helping children to be aware of all of their body parts at a very early age, say 3, and by having them know words like penis and vagina, you're helping them become more comfortable with themselves. As they get older, sex will be easier to talk about.
P&C: What kind of language should I use when explaining body parts to my little one?
Dr. Atkins: Use the proper names for all body parts: penis, vagina, anus, vulva, and so on. Otherwise, children will use the wrong ones, which can interfere with their understanding of body parts and function. Not to mention, some people find slang words to be offensive. If they do start using words that are inappropriate — words they hear on the playground, for example — stop them and say, "We consider that word bad manners and we don't use it in our home."
P&C: My child is asking personal questions about private parts in public. What should I do?
Dr. Atkins: If your child asks, "Mommy, can I see your vagina?" in the middle of the grocery store, it's just because kids say whatever pops into their heads. I suggest that you don't respond with anger or shame; the important thing is to confirm the factually correct information and give her skills for understanding situations. Try this response: "You're right, girls do have vaginas and boys have penises."
Then, start setting boundaries. Tell your child that there are places for this kind of conversation: in private. Ask your child, "Where do we talk about our bodies? At home and at the doctor's office. And when do we talk about them? In private. Who do we talk about them with? With family." And so on.
P&C: My 3-year-old son is sometimes in the bathroom when I get out of the shower and has started asking questions about my body. Is it okay to be nude in front of him?
Dr. Atkins: Listen to your internal voice. Do what makes you comfortable. If you do feel comfortable, use it as a learning opportunity and simply answer his questions honestly and directly. If you feel uncomfortable being nude in front of your child, use a book to show him different body parts. A good parent recognizes her own limitations.
P&C: I notice that my toddler touches himself a lot. Why is he doing this and what should I do about it?
Dr. Atkins: Let's just talk biology. The number of nerve receptors on our sexual organs is off the charts. When small kids realize that rubbing their sexual organs feels much better than rubbing their toes, they're going to do it. When children touch these parts, it is self-stimulation that isn't directed toward any goal. It just feels good.
Instead of saying "Stop," you can tell your child that there are places to do that — at home and in private. It takes a long time for children to develop this awareness, but they will do it in time. Kids are self-focused, and it's very hard for them to recognize that there are other people in the world and that appropriate behavior depends on where you are.
P&C: How should I handle the "Where do babies come from?" question?
Dr. Atkins: With this, and most of the questions kids ask in this realm, you need to do some active listening, which means finding out why your child is curious about this concept. You can ask gentle questions to help tease out what your child really wants to know. We always think the child wants to know the mechanics or the graphic details involved in conception, but he might want to know something basic, such as which hospital he was born in. Answering, "Babies come from their moms" might tell them all they need to know.
Let your child's questions be your guide. Give too much information to a 5 year old, for example, and you will see her eyes glaze over. Then again, when we told my 4-year-old cousin, Hunter, that my pregnant sister had a baby in her belly, he thought she ate a baby. If your child seems confused, it's a good time to talk about how the baby got there. That is where you start to talk about sex.
Just make sure your child always knows you are glad he asked you and that you welcome his questions. Hopefully, he will do the same thing as he gets older.
P&C: What should I do if my child goes to school and shares information from our family discussions about sexuality with other kids who have not yet had this conversation?
Dr. Atkins: When you start having these discussions with your child, tell him that you are sharing this information with him, but that it shouldn't be shared with his friends because this is something for each child to talk about with his own family. He may do it anyway, but it's important to convey that these conversations should stay at home.
P&C: My 5-year-old daughter is very affectionate and loves to kiss. At school, she always tries to kiss another little boy, who gets upset about it. How should the teacher and I handle this situation?
Dr. Atkins: This is a good question because it is important that parents and teachers work together on these issues. Children are naturally affectionate and will inevitably want to kiss and snuggle. But you need to tell your child that not everyone wants to be kissed or touched and that she needs to respect the little boy's feelings, just as she wants others to respect hers.
It's also a good time to discuss boundaries for appropriate and inappropriate touching. You and the teacher should make sure the children know what to do if someone tries to touch them in a way they don't like. They should say, "No!" and go tell the teacher. Be sure to give your child permission to come to you with complaints.