When is the right age to start talking to your kids about sex? Every parent thinks about this question at some point during their child’s development. But, most parents never actually talk to their kids about sex, or anything regarding sexuality. The ways we experience our sexuality are innate and related to who we are and how we navigate our bodies throughout our lives. That’s why it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about sex. Here are some simple ways to start off on the right foot when talking to your kids about sex(uality).
Use the Correct Language
Some of the best ways to start talking to your kids about sex are using the correct words for their genitals. Vulva, Penis, Vagina, Testicles… get to know those words and feel comfortable saying them aloud to yourself, and then use them with your kids. It is so easy to use infantilizing words – like “wee-wee” or “who-ha” – but these words teach kids those parts aren’t worth the respect other body parts get. When kids grow up to be sexual adults, they need to understand and respect the power of their genitals and how important it is to show the same respect to their partners. Of course, sometimes this is embarrassing, like when my son yelled “VULVA” at the top of his lungs in the market one day.
Let Them Know it’s Okay
As every parent knows, our kids find their penis, or vulva, or variation thereof at an incredibly young age. They touch, pull, and rub because it feels good. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It feels good for the vast majority of humans, and young kids figure this out early. By ignoring our kids, or telling them to stop touching themselves, or worse, we are telling them these parts of their body that bring them pleasure are somehow different, bad, or even wrong. It may seem difficult to muster, but in affirming your child’s desire to touch themselves, you are affirming a part of their personhood which is just beginning to develop.
Let me give you an example: One day, my 18-month-old son started pulling on his penis while I was changing his diaper. Rather than swatting his hand away, or telling him to stop, I simply said “that must feel good.” He smiled at me, touched it some more, and then let me put on his diaper. I allowed him the space to discover his body, with no direction, just for the sake of him getting to know himself. Imagine how different he would feel about his penis if every time I saw him touching himself I told him to “stop it.” He would grow up thinking his penis was something wrong or dirty or bad, which is the last thing I want him to think about any part of his body.
Set Boundaries on Their Behavior
Obviously, as our babies turn into toddlers and little kids, we must set boundaries on their behavior. This allows them to understand their place and feel safe in their world. This goes for touching oneself too. As much as I want my son to feel comfortable with all parts of his body, there are times and places to touch his penis, just like blowing his nose, or kicking his legs.
In setting boundaries with your kids touching themselves, you are helping them develop a sense of safety in their bodies. Whether it be “Honey, we touch ourselves in our bedrooms” or something as simple as “No touching your penis at the table, please,” we are teaching our kids how to properly care for their bodies and where different activities can take place. By using neutral words, there’s no shame involved in their actions and they can continue to develop a healthy relationship with their whole body.
So when should you start talking to your kids about sex? Early and often. Answer their questions honestly and age appropriately, and allow them the space to develop in their bodies. That’s the best place to start.
Amy Soper is a graduate student at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work and is on the Board of Directors at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.