Small Talk About Sex

What you should say to your kids and when to say it.

Mom and young daughter talking on couch
Photo: Kinga/Shutterstock

"How can I teach my daughter to have a healthy attitude toward sex but prevent her from having any?" That question from a father led Justin Richardson, M.D., and Mark A. Schuster, M.D., Ph.D., to write the new book Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child's Sexual Development From Birth to the Teens.

"We felt he was voicing the dilemma of today's parents," says Dr. Richardson, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell universities. "Parents want to be cooler about sex than their parents were but don't know how." Packing their book with the latest studies and information about children's sexual development, Drs. Richardson and Schuster, an associate professor of pediatrics and of public health at the University of California at Los Angeles and a researcher at RAND, a Santa Monica think tank, argue that the best way to help kids develop a healthy attitude toward sex is to talk with them early and often. In an interview with Child, they explained how to start the conversation -- and keep it going.

Why is it so important to begin talking about sex when your children are babies, and what should you say to them?

Dr. Schuster: From the time children are infants, they are creating mental maps of their bodies. They are touching their genitals, and if their parents never talk about these body parts or only giggle about them using cutesy nicknames, we are concerned that it could start a bad pattern in which sex is never discussed. So we tell parents: When you're teaching your baby the names of his body parts, teach him the proper names for his genitals.

We suggest talking about sex from the day you take your child home from the hospital. It's a lot easier to teach your 1-year-old what his scrotum is than to start talking about it to an 8-year-old.

But is there any evidence that talking to your kids about sex when they're young will help them during the teen years and beyond?

Dr. Richardson: Plenty of research shows that children who feel close to their parents become sexually active later than kids who don't. And when they do start having sex, they tend to have it less often and with fewer partners. No one has studied whether these kids' parents talked about sex with them when they were young, but it stands to reason that one part of building closeness with your child is finding a way to discuss difficult subjects, like sex.

You say it's common for young kids to play with their genitals. How should parents address this when children do it in public -- and frequently?

Dr. Richardson: Try to distract her. With a toddler, you can try singing a song or removing her from the situation. Sometimes babies and toddlers masturbate because they're in an overstimulating setting -- such as a room that is noisy, with lots of kids running around -- and they want to calm themselves down.

If your child is older than 2, acknowledge that touching herself feels good; you don't want her to get the message that her genitals or genital pleasure is bad. But also say that she should do that only in private -- and by that you mean alone in her bedroom, with the door closed. If she constantly breaks your house rules or frequently touches her genitals when she could be playing with other kids, look for other signs of stress. Is she more irritable or withdrawn, for instance? Perhaps a new sibling or your marital problems are worrying her; if so, you need to have a conversation with her. If you can't detect the source of stress, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health specialist.

Should parents be concerned if they catch their children playing doctor?

Dr. Richardson: Sex play can be a perfectly safe, happy exploration for kids. In reviewing the research, we found that there are only two situations in which sex play can be harmful. One is if your child is being coerced, which can happen if, for instance, an older child is involved. (If the older child wouldn't normally play with your son, then he shouldn't play doctor with him either.) The other is if a parent humiliates the child or other kids tease him about the sex play.

So if you catch your son and his friend with their clothes off, don't yell or make them feel ashamed. Suggest they play another game, and then, when you're feeling calm, talk with your son to make sure he wasn't pressured to play doctor. Let him know that if anyone touches him in a way he doesn't like or tells him that he has to keep it secret, he should definitely tell you and you will protect him. If he was comfortable with the game, we believe you can tell him it's fine to play like this with a friend his own age, but never with an older child or an adult.

But if you are troubled by the sex play, say, "We don't want you to play this game anymore. It's not something we feel kids should do." In either case, be sure to call the parents of your child's friend so they can set their own rules, too.

When do you stop your kids from parading around naked? When should parents cover up?

Dr. Schuster: What's most important is for parents to figure out how they feel and raise their kids in a way that is comfortable and safe for everyone. If your child seems to become stimulated or upset by the nudity -- your daughter suddenly is fascinated or agitated at the sight of her mom's naked body -- it's time to cover up. If you feel uneasy being naked around your kids, put your clothes on. Otherwise, you may end up conveying your nervousness to them.

Dr. Richardson: The same applies to kids' nudity. If you feel ill at ease having your child naked in the living room, but the bedroom and bathroom are fine, make that the rule. Just be sure there is a place for your child to feel that his naked body is acceptable to you. By the time kids are 6 or 7, most of them become modest on their own anyway.

Is bathing with siblings always okay? What if they're the opposite sex?

Dr. Schuster: A loving, fun time in the tub is usually just fine. But as they grow older, some children do start to feel uncomfortable bathing together. A 6-year-old, for instance, may suddenly announce that her brother is yucky and she wants to take her bath alone, or you might notice that she is getting overstimulated -- becoming overly rambunctious or persistently giggly. These are signs that it's time for separate baths. Tell your 6-year-old, "Now that you're growing up, you deserve to have your own bath." Turn it into a privilege instead of a punishment so that she doesn't feel her desire for privacy is wrong.

How should you handle it when your daughter suddenly declares she wants to marry Daddy or your son starts flirting with Mommy?

Dr. Richardson: When you're the object of your child's adoration, enjoy it! It's one of the perks of parenthood. Sooner or later, you will no longer be idealized. When they're between 2 and 6, many children develop the so-called Oedipus complex, an attraction for a parent. By the way, a child can be attracted to either parent; it doesn't have any bearing on sexual orientation. Just make sure you don't require your child's adoration. When it wanes, as it inevitably will, don't try to keep it going by insisting on kisses or hugs he doesn't want to give.

What should you do if your child walks in on you and your mate in an intimate moment?

Dr. Schuster: How you react at the moment is probably the strongest predictor of whether the experience will be traumatic for your child. If you act horrified, he probably will become more frightened than he already is and might even think that you were hurting each other. Instead, try to reassure him: "Everything is fine. We were just doing what two adults do when they love each other." Then give him a little lesson in privacy. Tell him it's fine for him to come to your room in the middle of the night if he's scared or if he needs a drink of water, but that next time, he should knock first.

You say parents should tell their kids the facts of life when they're between the ages of 4 and 8, regardless of whether they ask. Why?

Dr. Schuster: You don't need to take your 7-year-old through every aspect of ovulation. A simple sentence or two about the sperm and the egg and the penis going into the vagina is fine. If she thinks it's disgusting, explain that you thought so, too, when you were her age, but that it feels good when you're two adults in love. Your child will let you know how much more she wants to know by either asking lots of follow-up questions or just letting her eyes glaze over.

If you feel uncomfortable with sex, we recommend What's the Big Secret? Talking About Sex With Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown for pre-schoolers. Robie Harris's It's So Amazing is an excellent book for kids 5 and up.

Should you answer your children's questions whenever and wherever they ask?

Dr. Schuster: No. If you want to think about them a bit, say, "Great questions. Let's talk later when we finish shopping." Or "I really want to think about your questions, and I know Daddy would like to help me answer them. Let's talk tonight."

Dr. Richardson: Honesty is always a good policy. If you're uncomfortable, say, "I feel a little embarrassed talking about this. Isn't that silly?" Helping your child develop a healthy attitude toward sex is a long-term project; the opportunity to talk will come again and again, if you're open to it.

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