Teaching a young child about sex and relationships may seem daunting but it’s easier than you think.
“Where do babies come from?” How would you answer this question? Would you tell your child in a straightforward manner or would you say something along the lines of, “When a mummy loves a daddy, a stork will bring them a baby”?
It definitely isn’t easy explaining something as complex as sex or relationships to another person what more, a small child. It’s only natural to worry that the child will not understand or that if you don’t explain it well, the child’s future attitude towards sex and relationships will be adversely affected. Sunway Medical Centre’s Clinical Psychologist, Jessie Foo gives her expert opinion on the best way to introduce your young child to the facts of life.
Urban Health: What is a good age for a child to learn about sex and reproduction?
Jessie Foo: Start when your child is pre-schooler, with age-appropriate information about sex and reproduction. Curiosity about sex is a natural next step from learning about the body. Sex education helps children understand their bodies, feel positive about their bodies, and provides an opportunity to instil family values in children.
UH: What should parents be mindful of when they speak to their children about sex?
JF: With pre-schoolers, focus on teaching them the different body parts and proper names of each body part. You should also help them understand that other people can touch them but only in a non-sexual way. Lower primary school children should know the basic social conventions of privacy, nudity, and gender respect while upper primary school children should be taught about puberty including the role of sexual intercourse in human reproduction.
UH: What are the possible negative effects of not teaching the proper facts about reproduction and sex to your children?
JF: Children will learn about reproduction and sex from somewhere else, if their parents do not teach them. When this happens, the main drawback is that parents’ will not have control over what and how their children learn about sex. Talk to your children about what was taught in school. Research shows that children who receive sex education at home are actually less likely to engage in risky sexual activity.
UH: How should we phrase things so children will be able to understand how their bodies work?
JF: Start by asking what your child understands about his or her body, then correct and clarify if their information is incorrect or incomplete. Parents can also introduce books that approach sexuality on a developmentally appropriate level. While parents often have trouble finding the right words, many excellent books are available to help.
UH: How do we tell children where another person shouldn’t touch them?
JF: First of all, teach children the correct names of all their different body parts, including their private body parts. Teach children that they are the boss of their body by letting them know that they are in control of who touches their bodies and how. Do not insist that your children give or receive hugs or kisses from relatives and friends if they do not wish to.
Next, explain about touching ‘safety rules’. For a young child you might say, “An unsafe touch is when a bigger person touches you on your private body parts when it is not to keep you clean or healthy.” ‘Clean’ applies to young children when an adult helps them with diaper changing, going to the toilet, or bathing and ‘healthy’ refers to doctor visits where an adult family member is always present.
Besides that, it is equally important to teach children that it is not okay:
- To touch someone else’s private body parts
- For someone to touch his or her own private body parts in front of the child
- For someone to ask the child to touch his or her private body parts
- For someone to ask the child to take their clothes off
- For someone to take photos or videos of the child without their clothes
- For someone to show them photos or videos of people without their clothes on
Encourage children to say no if they don’t want someone to touch, kiss or hug them and not to keep secrets that make them feel uncomfortable. Teach them to go to a person they trust such as a parent, relative or teacher and if the person they go to doesn’t believe them, go to another adult until someone believes and helps them.
UH: What aspects of sex and reproduction should we simplify when talking to children?
JF: When children ask where babies come from, parents of children below the age of six can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to be close to one another. Tell them that the man’s sperm joins the woman’s egg and then the baby begins to grow. Age-appropriate books on the subject are also helpful. Answer the question in a straightforward manner, and parents will probably find that their child is satisfied with just a little information at a time.
UH: Who should be in charge of teaching children about sex and reproduction?
JF: Often it is easier for children to relate to their same sex parent about the changes in their body. That being said, both parents should be involved instead of leaving the teaching to teachers. Learning about sex should be more of a gradual process, where children learn over time what they need to know. Questions should be answered as they arise so that their natural curiosity is satisfied as they mature.
UH: What kind of action should a parent take if they find out their child had access to pornography and regularly peruses it?
JF: Parents need to remain calm if they find out that their child looked at pornography instead of overreacting when they witness or hear of such behaviour. A harsh, impulsive interrogation will most likely just cause the child to pull away and not respond. An unhealthy shame often leads to more acting-out with pornography. Sit down with your child for a talk. Communicate the core values of sexuality, the multifaceted risks of sex outside of marriage, and their ongoing compassion for what it must be like to grow up in their culture.
Learn how your child found pornography and if this was his first exposure to pornography. If you learn that your child has developed a habit of viewing pornography, it is important to seek the services of a psychologist who is trained to facilitate recovery. By having a psychologist discussing the issue with the child, it helps safeguard the parent-child relationship by not making the child feel interrogated or ashamed when the parents asks difficult questions.
Additionally, parents can move the computer to the family room where others can easily view the screen, limit time on the computer, and set rules that directs the family’s use of the computer and the internet.
UH: What is your advice to parents who may feel shy?
JF: First, parents often need to brush up on some basic facts and ensure that they have accurate knowledge, such as masturbation, intercourse, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Those who are uncomfortable hearing or speaking sexual words can practice them with their partner, or in conversations with a friend or counsellor until they feel natural and comfortable. This is important because children are sensitive to the emotional value parents give to certain words or may pick up what their parents feel rather than what their parents say.