I grew up in a conservative household where topics on puberty, sex, sexuality, etc. were not part of our family discussions. I found it awkward to even speak about it with my friends in college and later also ask questions to my own gynaecologist! Imagine my embarrassment when my 7 year old, along with her mixed age group of friends, encountered the use of the ‘F’ word and showing the middle finger. She, being curious, wanted to know what they meant and was utterly disgusted by the explanation that she received from an 8-year-old schoolmate! I couldn’t leave her to deal with it on her own, thus prompting myself to explore the subject.
Some of us may be wondering what the need is to talk about sex to children as young as 6 or 8 years. I understood from other parents that the onset of puberty in girls could be as early as 8 years. Girls and boys, after the age of 10, who have not had their conversations about puberty and sex with parents, feel awkward to have them and they want to explore the topic by surfing the net and chatting with their peers. Hence, it is vital to start conversations with our children, age-appropriately.
I would like to share personal examples on how I went about it.
The first step: Exploring oneself
I sensed a discomfort within myself around these topics and felt inadequate to have conversations with my daughter. And, I knew that if I didn't talk about this subject, my daughter would seek information from friends or the internet and she would not have the healthy awareness I wanted for her.
I reflected that my unease was stemming from my childhood experiences. Like many others, my parents did not speak about these topics with me. Parents of the previous generations had their own reasons to avoid these topics and did their best with the knowledge they had. We can't blame them. But now, as a parent myself, I felt the need to support my child in building a healthy sexuality. For this, I realized I needed to learn from the resources available and first get comfortable, myself.
The second step: Shared understanding with the co-parent
I found the need to have candid conversations with my husband so that we could understand each other's belief system, based on our upbringing. Respecting and honouring the beliefs of significant adults in the family was paramount to be on the same page when dealing with a sensitive topic such as this with our child.
Living in the world of hypersexualized media, it is important for both parents to read and update themselves on practically navigating discussions on sex and sexuality with our children.
The co-parent may be comfortable or uncomfortable, willing or not willing to be part of the conversations. In any case, even one parent can take up the task of conversing with the child. Thankfully, now, a lot of books and websites on sexuality education are available and parents can use these as aids to explain things to their child.
The third step: A few conversation starters with our child
- We are mindful to be free of judgements or shame. Whenever our child asks us a question pertaining to sex or sexuality, our first response is always “Good question! I’m glad you asked me.”
- We listen attentively and respond patiently in an age appropriate manner. We keep it short with younger children. “Where did you hear about this? What would you like to know...?”
- We find neutral moments and day to day situations to build their awareness and attitudes e.g. observing animals around, having conversations about movies watched “How do you think this happened?” , sensitively responding to an outlandish story she heard on the playground. “So-and-so said you get pregnant when you kiss.”
- We reassure and acknowledge our child's feelings. I found this helped to make her feel comfortable to discuss with me. “It sounds like you are confused.”, “Looks like it made you feel embarrassed”, “I hear you. You didn’t like the way it was spoken.”, “You can come and ask me whatever you want to know.”
-“I shared some funny incidents with my child of how as a tween I was ignorant around topics of puberty. This really made her open up to me later!”. When we share our childhood crushes, stories and vulnerabilities with our children, they are less embarrassed and feel free to share their feelings and thoughts around sexuality and preferences.
- I was delighted to find numerous books for young children on topics such as puberty and sexuality. I experienced, first hand, that sharing and reading together, age-appropriate books, was an excellent way to approach my tween. The books on puberty introduce both physiological and psychological(emotional) aspects which are equally important and help parents in sensitising their children.
-The child may ask a lot of questions and we know it’s not a one-time read/talk. “It may also look like they are bombarding us with questions which makes us wonder if the child is getting a mini Ph.d !!” There may be times when we feel we are in a spot with their hypothetical questions and may not be able to give age-appropriate responses at that very moment! We can communicate honestly that we need time to answer their questions, and undoubtedly get back.
- Parent can also sensitise the child that not all family members may be comfortable about this, and that they are free to come and ask separately anytime.
“Where do babies come from?”
This is a common question children ask at different ages in their life. Our answer can be age appropriate.
For a 3 year old - From mummy's tummy. Mummy will go to the hospital and the doctor will help deliver the baby.
For a 4-7 year old - Mamas and Papas show love to each other in a special way and make a baby.
For a 8-10 year old - The male reproductive organ(penis) puts the sperm inside the female reproductive organ(vagina) and the baby grows in the uterus.
Finally one may explain the actual act of intercourse once children are older, which might sound bizarre to the child who is hearing it for the first time. There could be many other follow-up questions as well! Reading up online helped me a lot to be prepared for this.
Furthermore, kids who know the correct terminology for genitalia are more equipped to disclose sexual abuse. "Using proper terminology is protective," says Audrey Rastin, a manager at Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention in Toronto. "Kids who are comfortable talking about their bodies are more likely to be able to disclose when something worrisome or uncomfortable is happening to them."
Humorous moment: when the child calculates the “X” number of times the parent had sex in their lifetime (depending on the number of children the parent has at present)😊
The discussion with a teenager could be different - that sex is not only for reproduction but is also a pleasurable activity. This would be a good opportunity to mention consent, respect and protection.
Digital surfing may lead children to unwanted websites as well. “CultureReframed” is a website to aid parents navigate topics around pornography and help children be porn-resilient and resistant too.
Robin Grille, Australian psychologist, in his book ‘Parenting for a peaceful world’ examines the child’s stages of development and growing capacity for love, passion and sensuality. It gives us an understanding that children becoming curious about their bodies is quite a natural phenomenon.
Finally, as stated by Robin Grille, ‘Continued warmth and non-interference, support the child to develop the basis for an adult sexual self-identity that is free of shame, guilt, or fear as well as an inclination to be respectful of his own and other’s sexual boundaries.’
Meet the Author
Subha H is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.