How to Talk to Your Preschooler About Sex

Do your preschooler's questions leave you stuttering? These smart answers make "the talk" as easy as possible.

Don't Be Caught Off-Guard

Last summer, my 5-year-old son, Jonah, and I were chatting at a local cafe. Keenly interested in the human body and how it works, he already knew that an egg from a woman and a "seed" from a man make a baby. But now he wanted specifics. "How do the egg and seed get together?" he asked. Gulp. People at nearby tables put down their coffee and waited, also dying to hear my response.

I shouldn't have been shocked. Preschoolers are notoriously inquisitive, and many develop a healthy sexual curiosity. What's surprising is how sophisticated their questions can be -- and that's when parents may stumble and give kids the brush-off. But it's important to provide answers. "You need to reassure children that they can always ask you a delicate question and get a sensitive and honest answer," says Justin Richardson, MD, coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask). This way, your child will be more likely to come to you later in life when sex conversations have broader implications. Keep your cool by having these smart responses at the ready.

The scenario: Your child asks a question about how a woman's egg is fertilized.

The solution: If your child catches you unprepared, it's okay to stall. Say, "Let me think about it because it's a great question," says Robie H. Harris, author of It's NOT the Stork! Ideally, you should get back to him with an answer as soon as possible. Explain that when grown-ups want to make a baby, there's a special kind of love called "making love," or sex. It happens when the daddy puts sperm (lots of "seeds") inside the mommy; if a sperm and an egg meet, a baby can grow. That answer may be enough and he'll drop the subject. If he presses you for more info, it's fine to say that the man's penis goes inside the woman's vagina -- but always use proper names for body parts. Harris adds that it's important to explain to your child that only grown-ups share this kind of love.

    The Tough Questions

    The scenario: Your child hears the word "sexy" on TV and wants to know what it means.

    The solution: Approach the conversation by asking her what she thinks it means, says Debra W. Haffner, author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children from Infancy to Middle School. You may need to correct some serious misinformation first! Explain that it's a grown-up word that people use when they think somebody is attractive. Then, use this as an opportunity to talk about your family's values. For example, if your daughter saw a young character on TV talking about how she wants to look "sexy," you can tell her that you don't like it when children try to look attractive in a grown-up way.

    The scenario: Your child finds your tampons or condom stash (or sees a dispenser in a public bathroom) and asks what they are.

    The solution: Simply supplying the names may be enough. "Most of the time, kids are satisfied with basic answers," says Haffner. If he's curious about tampons or pads, say that they're health products and leave it at that. Similarly, if condoms caught his eye and your child doesn't know what sex is yet, you can do the same and change the subject. If you've had "the talk," explain that condoms are something grown-ups use when making love to avoid having a baby, says Stanton L. Jones, PhD, coauthor of How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex.

    The scenario: Your child barges into your bedroom while you and your husband are having sex. Stunned, she yells, "What are you doing?"

    The solution: Yes, this is mortifying, but it doesn't mean your child will spend the next decade dissecting the event on a psychiatrist's couch. Tell her to step outside while you get dressed. Then talk to her about why she came to your room in the first place. As you chat, say something like, "When you walked in, Daddy and I were having private time."

    Sometimes kids get scared when they catch you in the act because they think that your husband was hurting you. Or they react that way out of confusion -- they mistake your shocked and embarrassed faces for angry ones. Reassure your child that you were touching each other out of love and that you and Daddy are fine. "Your child probably won't want to know anything else," says Dr. Richardson. Phew!

      Have a Sensitive Sex Talk

      Keep these strategies in mind when you talk about sex with your preschooler.

        • Be reassuring. Always say, "That's a very good question." Your child should feel good about coming to you for answers.
        • Make sure you understand every question. For example, "Where did I come from?" may simply mean "Where was I born?"
        • Give a simple response. If you're unhappy with your answer, don't hesitate to go back and clarify it.
        • Keep the lines of communication open. After you've given an answer, ask your child whether you cleared up her confusion.

          Playing Doctor: Uh-Oh or Okay?

          You think your daughter and the boy next door are watching a DVD in your den, but when you stick your head in, your child is inspecting her half-dressed neighbor!

          Fortunately, playing doctor is normal for preschoolers -- unless your child was coerced, says Dr. Justin Richardson. Don't freak out and start yelling, which will make your child feel ashamed. Instead, after you've made sure that she wasn't forced into the game, simply suggest that the kids do something else ("Why don't you get out your new puzzle instead?"). Later, tell your child there are better ways to learn about the differences between boys' and girls' bodies, and show her a picture book about them. If you did get hysterical, apologize and say, "I thought you were watching TV, so I was surprised, but I'm not angry," says Dr. Richardson.

            Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the December 2006 issue of Parents magazine.

              All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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