When should you have the discussion about sex with your kid?
According to Ho Shee Wai, a psychologist and director at The Counselling Place, the issue is not so much about whether your child is mature or old enough to know about sex, but more about whether you and your spouse are ready to have the discussion.
“As parents, you should ask yourselves if you’re comfortable talking about sex with your child,” says Shee Wai. “You have to be willing to broach the subject. And when you do, you have to ensure that the information you’re sharing is accurate and age-appropriate.”
If your child asks about sex when you least expect it, however, you should do your best to answer her.
“Never dismiss her curiosity about the subject,” says Hershey Regaya, programme manager at the Education & Outreach Department of the Family Life Society.
“Questions should be answered as they arise so that her natural curiosity is satisfied as she matures. Make her feel that you’re an approachable parent, so she won’t solely rely on friends or the media for answers about any sexual issues.”
You shouldn’t make your child feel bad for asking questions about sex, either, or she will think that talking about it is off-limits.
Instead, affirm her interest and express appreciation that she raised the topic with you.
“She should walk away with the impression that you and your spouse are the people to approach for questions about sex and sexuality,” Hershey adds.
You should also remember these rules when explaining awkward and complex topics:
1. Sex education is not a one-off discussion
The earlier you start discussing sex with your kid, the more likely she will be able to make sound and healthy decisions on her own about sexuality. But the talk shouldn’t stop at one conversation; it should be ongoing.
Shee Wai advises you to use teachable moments to discuss various sex-related issues.
A teachable moment is not planned; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized.
“If, for example, you’re at the zoo with your child, and you see a female chimpanzee with her young, you can relate it to how human babies are made,” Hershey offers.
“Or, if you’re changing your baby son’s diaper and your daughter points to his penis and asks why she doesn’t have one as well, you can use the opportunity to teach her the names of the various male and female body parts.”
2. Anchor the talk with references to family or religious values
This is important no matter what your child’s age, says Shee Wai. Discussions about issues like forming healthy relationships, self-control, love, respecting others, and so on, should be grounded in the values your family subscribes to.
And be sure to use scientific explanations where needed – no nicknames or slang terms.
Using anatomical terms de-stigmatises those body parts and helps your child develop a body image that is positive and free of shame.
3. Use age-appropriate language
If your child is a preschooler, it’s okay to come up with creative, simple ways to explain different aspects of sex. For instance, Hershey suggests using words like “seed”, “egg” and “planting”, which serve as good analogies to the process of conception.
Remember to emphasise the concept of love between Daddy and Mummy when explaining this process to your child.
Shee Wai suggests saying something like, “Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other and feel close to each other.”
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4. If you don’t know, say so
Be honest and say, “I don’t have the answer to that right now, but I’ll find out and get back to you”. And make sure that you do get back to your child, so that she understands she can rely on you if she ever has other questions relating to sex or sexuality.
Hershey suggests building a tool kit of a list of sound and reliable web sources, books and magazines as early as possible, so you will know have the answers when she approaches you at any age.
5. Ask your child what she means
“No matter how old your child is, it’s always wise to respond with ‘What do you mean?’ so as to avoid confusion,” says Hershey.
“For example, a question like ‘Where did I come from?’ could be a geographical one, or, if she heard her teacher tell her class to ‘line up by sex’ she could just be asking for a vocabulary clarification when asking what ‘sex’ means.”
Hershey continues: “In asking ‘What do you mean?’, your child will have to give you an answer one way or another.
From this, you’ll be able to tell what generated her question in the first place. Once it’s clear that she really wants to know what sexual intercourse means, you can dive into the subject.”
A version of this article first appeared in Simply Her.