When to Talk About the Birds and the Bees

General guidelines for talking to your kids about sex

Not long ago, Toronto mom Karen Bridson-Boyczuk’s then three-year-old son Adlai looked lovingly up into her eyes and declared, “Mommy, I wish you had a penis.”

“Why do you want me to have a penis?” she asked, genuinely curious.

“Because I just love you so much.”

Sensing a perfect opportunity to cover a little sex ed, she jumped in to explain the differences between mommies and daddies. Adlai seemed to take the conversation in stride, but Bridson-Boyczuk still worries.

“I’m terrified that in all of these conversations, I’ve got to say the right things and not horrify him,” she says.

If you’re like most parents of preschoolers who ask about their genitals or play doctor with their equally curious pals (both completely common behaviours for this age group, by the way) chances are you’re the one who’s feeling squeamish.

“Parents are really afraid to talk about it because they didn’t talk about sex when they were growing up,” says Margaret Cameron, a public health nurse in Windsor, Ont., who teaches a course on explaining the birds and the bees to kids up to age six.

Isn’t it a little early for this? Not necessarily, say the many sex educators who encourage the current trend toward talking about sex early on. An avalanche of inappropriate sexual messages hits kids before they reach kindergarten, via movies, television, radio, magazines, billboard ads and video games, experts maintain, so it’s important that parents become the first source of healthy, correct information.

The trick is to understand what young children want to hear. And it’s probably not what you think ““ or dread, says Cameron. She recalls one mom whose young son asked her where babies come from. After a long, convoluted lecture about vaginas, sperm and ova, her son, looking wide-eyed and worried, answered, “Oh, because Connor came from Chatham.”

Deborah Roffman, sex educator and author of But How’d I Get in There
in the First Place: Talking to your Young Child About Sex
(Perseus Publishing), agrees that it’s important to look at sex-ed from your child’s perspective. In fact, age and cognitive development has everything to do with how you need to frame your answers. Here’s a general idea of what you can expect at each age.

A three-year-old wants to know…

WHAT’S THIS CALLED? When you’re bathing your child, or taking him to the potty, don’t say, “That’s your pee-pee.”

ANSWER “This is your elbow. This is your bellybutton. This is your penis.” Always use correct terms.

A four-year-old wants to know…

WHERE DID I COME FROM? For the first time, a four-year-old understands the phrase “before I was born.” So where was she?

ANSWER “You were inside Mom’s body in a special place called the uterus.”

A five-year-old wants to know…

HOW DID I GET OUT? Five-year-olds are very focused on when and where things happen, so naturally they want to understand exactly how they were born.

ANSWER “You used to be inside my body in my uterus. Right next to my uterus is a vagina. It’s like a tunnel. When you were ready to be born, my uterus, which is like a muscle, pushed you out of my vagina.”

But what about the mother of all sex-ed questions: “How did you make me?” Try, “You came together when a tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm got together with a tiny cell inside Mom called an egg.” And if he wants more information? You could use Roffman’s puzzle analogy: “Males have penises and females have vaginas. They fit together like puzzle pieces. That’s how sperm leave his body and go into another body.”

But don’t worry. Most kids don’t ponder that part of the equation until they’re six or older. You’ve still got at least a year before you tackle that one. Now breathe…

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