My six year old asked me the other day whether men’s bodies store sperm or make it continually. She qualified the question by pointing out that she knew baby girls were born with all their eggs.
As we talked we got on to the subject of what happens once a month when an egg isn’t fertilised, how you insert a menstrual cup and why I’m not menstruating at the moment (ie lactational amenorrhea).
She wandered off, seamlessly losing interest and moving on to something else but I paused, grateful that we’re able to have conversations like these. I’m also aware that talking openly about bodies, sex and relationships isn’t standard fare for many families with younger children. Personally, I think it should be.
For a start, whether we’re aware of it or not, we communicate with our children about intimacy and physicality from birth. Asking to pick a baby up and allowing them to indicate, even if only subtly, teaches the beginnings of consent. I wish I’d advocated for my older two when people picked them up without warning, let alone without asking.
By parenting babies responsively – cuddling them when they cry, and perhaps breastfeeding and bedsharing – we prime them to expect physical touch to be positive. We’re also modelling the empathy we hope they’ll show others someday. Can you imagine a generation whose sexual experience is characterised by empathy?
As toddlers, we help them redirect from accidentally hurting others. We work at making time and space so we can respect their body autonomy around nappy changes, potty training, leaving places or getting dressed. We also talk to older children about respecting younger siblings by making sure they are playing in a way that everyone’s happy with. My three year old is very good at telling me, “It’s her body, what she says goes!” if she thinks that I’m coercing my 16 month old.
But many of us can wrap our heads around these respectful parenting practices and still balk at the idea of talking to under-10s frankly about puberty and sex. Heck, a lot of us even cringe at the idea of using anatomically correct names for genitals with our kids.
I just want to encourage you that with practise, you can comfortably use the words “vulva”, “vagina”, “clitoris”, “anus”, “penis” and “scrotum”. If it feels awkward it could be worth asking why. Is there something inherently scary or dirty about genitals, to your mind? Or is it simply a lack of practice?
This is really worth challenging in ourselves, from babyhood if possible. Using correct names tells children that these are just body parts and that we can talk about them just as we would talk about anything else, no shame attached. Yes they are private but they aren’t off limits for discussion.
It could also deter sexual predators, who are less likely to target children who use these terms. And should the unthinkable happen, children who can accurately name their body parts could more effectively aid an investigation.
A brilliant side effect of getting comfortable with using these words early on is that by the time your kids are asking, “Where do babies come from?” you may already feel a lot more comfortable talking about bodies.
To work out how to respond to a question like that in an age appropriate way, I’ve tried to follow my children’s lead. I’ve asked, “Do you want to know how the baby gets inside the mummy or how the baby gets out?” Or I might give a short answer and let them ask for more details. My saying, “An egg from the mummy meets a sperm from the daddy and that grows into a baby” was followed up by the question, “How does the sperm get there?” which gave me the opening to talk about the mechanics of sex in a very straightforward way. No “special cuddles” here.
My eldest may have been five when we had this particular conversation. She thought it was hilarious but it was all very matter of fact.
This actually wasn’t the first time we’d talked about how a baby was conceived through sex but she hadn’t remembered. In fact, I feel like I’ve had loads of these conversations with my six and three year olds, which I find pretty interesting. Any extraneous information I supply tends to get naturally discarded. So I don’t really worry about going into “too much” detail because they take hold of what they need and lose interest in the rest.
Like many parents, chats like these are new territory for us so we find reading books to the children a really helpful way to open up conversations and give us the language we need to create a positive script around bodies and sexuality for our family. We’ve read How You Were Born over and over, a sweet home birth story that talks positively about pregnancy and birth. My eldest loves it even though she knows she was born in a hospital. More recently, we’ve read It’s My Body, What I Say Goes (clue in my three year old’s refrain to me), which talks about safe and unsafe touch and trusting your instincts.
My six and three year olds just love It’s Not the Stork. It’s an extremely thorough book looking at bodies, gender stereotypes, conception, sex, safe touch – the works. There’s also a section on different families like single parent, fostering or same sex parent families. I’m reading my eldest the next one up from that, It’s So Amazing, which goes into more detail.
I think it’s so important not to wait to have “the talk” someday. It’s so much easier to create a family culture where sex is a comfortable topic when your children are young than trying to introduce it when preteens are already undergoing body changes and have possibly received misinformation from other sources. You also don’t know in advance whether your child might undergo puberty early or late. If you inadvertently communicate from early on that you find talking about sex and bodies awkward, they may find it unnatural to bring you their questions.
I am so aware that my children may not always want to talk to me about these things. I can only hope that I’m laying a foundation of trust and respect so that they feel able to. And beyond that, that I’m helping them accrue a mental library that they can draw upon. That way they can test the messages they get about sex from elsewhere as they develop their own values and make their own decisions.