How to talk to your children about sex: the early years

talk to your children about sex

It’s the topic that makes many of us inwardly cringe about, yet it’s also the most natural thing in the world. But when it comes to how to talk to your children about sex, many of us draw a blank. Myself included! But here’s the thing – early and honest communication about sex is important, and keeping that conversation as they grow up, is just as much so. So to help us fight the inner cringe, I’ve teamed up with Erika Lust, founder of The Porn Conversation, to put together a series of age by age guides on how to talk to your children about sex. Today, we’re kicking off with the early years, because according to the experts you should be talking to your children about sex much earlier than you think!

Why talk about it?

At this age there may be very little that you can explain to your child about sex and sexuality. However these early years can still provide parents with numerous opportunities to introduce your child to ideas that will be extremely important as they get older.

What to talk about and how to talk about it?

In my experience (and I’m sure many of yours!)  it is incredibly common for young children and toddlers to show an interest in their bodies and their genitals. Infantile masturbation may be alarming for some parents but, as with everything, if done in moderation it is completely normal and healthy! Furthermore, I found that these instances provided me with the perfect opportunity to introduce the idea of privacy and consent to my children.

Hello genitals

Studies show that by the age of 5 or 6 most children are touching their genitals fairly regularly. This starts before many children have a solid grasp on the notion of privacy. So it’s not unusual for young children to begin touching themselves in public. When this happens it is important not to shame your child, or make them feel like what they are doing is wrong.Remember it is perfectly natural and by punishing your child for this you may negatively impact their view of sex going forward.

Private vs public

Instead use this as an opportunity to remind your child about the difference between public and private activities. You can remind them that things like having a bath, or going to the toilet are things we do in private. And that exploring their body is similarly so. Discussions of privacy can also lead to basic discussions of consent. When you explain to your child that their genitals are private you can also explain that this means that other people are not allowed to touch them without their permission. Explain to your child the importance of personal boundaries And that whilst no one should touch them without their permission they should also not try to touch other people without their permission.

Having this kind of conversation with your child at such a young age not only helps in safeguarding. By allowing them to recognise when boundaries are crossed, it also lays the foundations for having more in depth discussions of consent as they get older.

On gender stereotypes

As a mother of 2 girls I am also particularly conscious of the impact of gendered stereotypes on their development. The idea of gender identity is so complex. But I found that there were small ways that I, as a mother, could try to ensure that my girls didn’t grow up feeling constrained by societal conceptions of what it is to be a ´girl´ or a ´boy.  For instance, we don’t bombard them with dolls and other traditionally feminine toys. Instead, my husband and I ensured that they had a wide selection of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ and more gender neutral toys to play with.

Studies show that different kinds of toys teach young children different kinds of skills, so everyone loses out when toys are segregated by gender! Similarly when reading our children stories we always tried to select ones containing less gendered narratives. Luckily there are lots of fabulous gender neutral books readily available. However when reading some of the older children’s classics my husband and I even used to swap round pronouns to ensure that the hero wasn’t always a man and the damsel in distress always a woman.

Laying the foundations

As a mother I want my children to have everything. Ensuring that they can play and have fun in whatever way they want, irrespective of gender, just seems to me like another way of ensuring that your child has access to all the best opportunities. The first 5 years of a child’s life are the most important, developmentally speaking.So introducing your children to complex topics like gender and consent will make your child better able to tackle these issues. A big help as conversations begin to get more nuanced moving forward.

Do you have an early years child? What are your thoughts on the above? Do share in a comment below. And stay tuned for the next part in our talk “How to talk to your children about sex” series – next up 6-10 year olds!

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About Erika Lust

Erika Lust (erikalust.com) is an award-winning indie adult filmmaker, mother of two daughters and founder of the non profit The Porn Conversation, a project she set up with her husband to help parents broach the topic of pornography with their children.

Picture credit People photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

14 comments

  1. This is a really powerful blog, I think we really should be much more open with my child.

    My son at 11 is always happy to communicate any questions or issues around his body and sex with me.

    His school also run a great program across the whole primary age groups x

  2. I have a 6 year old daughter, we have recently been talking about her body and that nobody should touch it if she doesn’t want them to. We also talked about her private areas not being shown to other people and why.

  3. We’ve always been quite open and chatty about things like this with my kids, my son is now 14 and can happily chat to us about stuff. I want him to be able to and not be embarrassed.

  4. We have always gone down the route that if they ask we will answer honestly but keep it as age appropriate as we can. Some kids are less embarrassed to share thoughts than others.

  5. It is always an embarrassing subject – I think sometimes when they are younger they are actually less embarrassed to ask questions, so it is a good time to start talking.

  6. We are just starting to enter the world of embarrassing questions, but I think it is important to be honest and open. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I love this post! My parents never discussed sex with us at all so being open with my kids has always been very important to me. There is nothing worse than feeling embarrassed and ashamed about it x

  8. It’s really interesting to see how much we’ve all progressed since our parent’s day. It sounds like most people are honest and open which is great! Thanks for taking the time to comment x

  9. I have daughters that are currently 4.7 & 6.11. I’ve always followed their lead on learning, so don’t withhold info about sex and bodies, but wait for them to ask. My older daughter one day came home and started parroting back some really sex-negative stuff to me and I realized I was behind in the information game with her. So, I started having open dialogues with her about sex, sexuality, anatomy, reproduction, pleasure, and pride. Turns out, she was ready and rearing to go. She had been hearing and noticing all kinds of things she needed an outlet to talk about, and I’m super glad I showed up to fill that void with positive messages. My 4.7 y/o is also very interested, but only in a subset of content. She finds the discussions about sex to be electrifying because she can sense something in the air that makes it special, but her attention span is too short to have complex conversations. Instead, I find myself boiling lessons down into helpful one-liners such as “you don’t have to hide your body” or “the stuff you find between your legs is called a vulva”, “it’s okay to touch and explore all of your body”. I could really use an age-linked sex Ed checklist to work from. This blog article was a great start. For example, I didn’t realize I was overlooking consent, which is very complex and so could definitely benefit from discussions as an early age. Thanks for writing.

  10. I would love to take Sabrina to see Adrian Mole, she’s a yummy mummy and we would identify with the play, as we both have two boys! We both love the books too! Thank you. x

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