Now that our son is 4 1/2, he’s started to ask more questions about the birds and the bees.
When I was a kid, most parents would wait as long as they could before having a Big Talk with their children (usually way after it would have been useful). Or, they would completely avoid the topic until school covered it in Sex Ed.
These days though, the official recommendations are a bit different. Instead of waiting for one Big Talk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you have a series of small talks starting from a very early age. They have a great list of recommendations by age, which I stuck into a graphic for easier reference:
One of their first recommendations is to use the proper names for genitalia: penis and vagina. Before I started researching this stuff, I usually used euphemisms like “pee pee” with the kids (or just didn’t use the words at all). But I finally bit the bullet, and started using anatomical terms. There were three reasons that convinced me:
1) Reporting cases of molestation
This story from an child sex abuse prevention advocacy group is a chilling reminder of why using anatomical words can help kids report abuse:
[I] heard about a small toddler who told parents and other family members that a certain person had touched her pocketbook. It took too long for her parents to finally realize that “pocketbook” was the nickname that they had taught their child for vagina.
Source: Stop It Now
I’ve also read online that if kids report to the police that someone touched their “weewee,” that’s less likely to hold up in court. The defense lawyer may cast doubt on the report, and claim that we can’t know for sure what a weewee is. It’s supposedly for this reason that some pedophiles use “cute” names for genitalia, so that any information from the child won’t be as damning. Now I have Googled the heck out of this stuff, and most of the mentions of pedophliles and defense lawyers are on message boards and blog posts (without a source or citation). So take it for what it’s worth; but I figure, why risk it? Both kids know the names for their body parts, and we’ve completely eliminated euphemisms from our house.
Please note: if your kids are bilingual, you may also want to make sure your kids know the English terms for body parts. This is especially important if they ever need to report something unthinkable to a teacher or police officer.
2) Reducing embarrassment of terms for adults
Even as an adult, I used to get a little embarrassed when I said the words penis and vagina. I got over it when I saw the episode of Scrubs where even as an adult, Dr. Elliott Reed insisted on using the term “bajingo” to describe her vagina. Her situation was so absurd, it forever cured me of any lingering embarrassment that might’ve been left over.
3) Reducing shame of terms for kids
If you don’t use the proper names for body parts, some people say that it implies to your kids that the names are somehow shameful. Or worse, that their body parts themselves are shameful. We definitely don’t want the kids to have that impression, which helped us decide to just use the proper names like recommended.
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However, there’s a downside to using the proper anatomical terms. Now my son feels free to say the words penis and vagina loudly in public. This has led to some extremely embarrassing moments, where he’ll loudly make a casual comment about someone’s genitalia.
Now normally when kids do something we don’t want to encourage, they say that you should just ignore it and not give the kid power by making a big deal over it. I think that makes a lot of sense, but it also creates a pretty painful transition period where your child is speaking loudly about people’s private parts.
So we recently came up with the concept of “private words.” We’ve already established the concept of “private parts” with our kids: the parts of the body that are covered by a swimsuit. The flip side of private parts is that it’s okay for your mom and dad (or a trusted caregiver) to see private parts when you’re at home. Our older son definitely understands what private parts are, and that it’s not always appropriate for everyone to see them.
Extending this concept to “private words” turned out to be a natural extension. Just like you wouldn’t usually show your private parts in public, we encourage our kids to not use “private words” casually in public either. But of course, we emphasize that it’s totally okay and encouraged to use any private words at home and to ask any questions you might have about them at home.
There is a bit of a balance here because we do want our kids to feel comfortable talking about this stuff with teachers or police officers, if something terrible were to happen. That’s a pretty natural caveat to add, just by saying, “it’s okay to use these words when you’re talking with a teacher or a police officer or if someone does a bad touch.”
. . . . .
Parenting Magazine also has a detailed breakdown on how to talk to your kids about sex, broken apart by age. There’s a lot more detail here, which is great – although I should warn that the language they use to describe things doesn’t always hold true for adoptive parents, sperm donor families, c-section parents, families that used a pregnancy surrogate, transgender families, same-sex parents, and others. So you definitely will have to adjust the language to fit your particular family.
Here are their suggested guidelines going up to 12 years of age, to give a sense for how conversations about sex might evolve over time.
All in all, I’m a fan of the “small talks” approach to sex education. It delivers information to kids when they can use it, and as early as possible – which is very useful in today’s sex-saturated world. The one major downside for us – the casual and loud discussion of private parts in public – has been greatly mitigated by the concept of private words. Now that the kids have got the basics down, then we plan to shift our focus to answering questions about sex as they come up.
Are you planning to have a Big Talk about the birds and the bees with your kids, or to break it into smaller talks over the years?