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Be the one to talk to your toddler about sex (and 7 ways to start the conversation)

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I did not participate in the sex education offered at my elementary school. I remember for one day a year in the upper elementary grades they would divide us up into boys and girls and give us a talk on what it meant to become a woman or a man. My mom would sign a slip that would exempt me from sitting through that conversation. Her reasoning was insightful and continues to inform my decisions on this topic with my kids. She told me, “You already know all those things because I’ve taught you. They aren’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but it’s not their job.” I fully believe she was right in both of those areas.

My mom was always very open with us about sex and the development of our bodies. She read us educational books about where babies came from and we always knew she was open to answering our questions. It was an education that started before I was even old enough remember. I can’t think back to a time where I didn’t know where babies came from, although it was always an age-appropriate knowledge. This process continued all the way up until the months before my wedding when she talked with me about birth control options and what it means to be a wife.

While there were other places I inadvertently gathered information about the human body, it wasn’t the school’s job to teach me about such an important topic. It was my mom’s job and she took it very seriously. I’m not speaking to you as an educator or expert, I’m speaking to you as a fellow mom. This topic can make you anxious, but I think there are some practical ways to make it part of your normal life. Through my experience as a foster parent and housemom in a group home, I have dealt with kids who have seen things children should never see and had really sad life experiences when it came to sex and their own bodies, and these children also didn’t have a functional understanding of reproduction or God’s design for sex. Keeping kids from age-appropriate factual knowledge doesn’t mean you’re going to keep them from sexual harm. I believe by giving them accurate information you are actually helping to protect them from becoming an accidental victim.

I know some mothers are concerned about talking to their kids about sex. They’re afraid of piquing their children’s curiosity or giving them more information than they’re ready to handle. I want to encourage you to just open the door to the conversation. Sex isn’t shameful within God’s beautiful design, so we don’t need to behave shamefully when talking to our kids about it. There are lots of natural opportunities to let your kids ask their questions if you’re being an intentional parent. I know there are great parents who handle this topic in a great diversity of ways, but I wanted to share with you how I’ve managed to incorporate it into my parenting without dying of embarrassment or having a stress-related heart attack.

Use potty-training as an educational time– Take that time you’re waiting for them to piddle to talk to them about who is allowed to see those areas of their bodies and under what circumstances (mom, dad, the doctor if mom or dad is with you, a caretaker who might have to bathe them, etc.). Talk to them about good hygiene, how wonderfully made they are, and how God designed boys and girls differently.

Teach them the right names–  I have no problem with kids having slang terms for their body parts, but please also teach them the real words. If something should happen to them, they need to have words to express it and they need to know YOU aren’t uncomfortable with those words or those parts of the body.

Emphasize privacy–  Establish some privacy boundaries around yourself (bathroom times, changing clothes, etc.) and teach your kids to be private about their bodies. This isn’t about being shameful, just about emphasizing that these parts are special so we don’t take our pants off during play-dates and if someone takes their pants off, we go tell Mom.

Give them some power-  I have told my kids if somebody tries to touch their private parts that is the one time Mommy is okay with you punching and running away. I tell them they need to talk to me if they ever see something they know they shouldn’t.  This has opened up some interesting conversations in the check-out line (where my son has been known to turn magazines around so he can’t see the ladies in the swimsuits) and while walking by Victoria’s Secret (where my son yelled at the poster, “I don’t need to see that!  That’s privacy!”). We can’t totally protect them from that kind of visual input, but we can tell them they can talk to us about it and we’ll do what we can to put safeguards in place.

Use examples from the natural world–  We opened our kitchen window one morning and saw two squirrels doing what squirrels like to do. I had the strong urge to shut the blinds, but instead said, “Kids, those two squirrels are trying to make a baby squirrel.” They were fascinated. This is God’s creation and it’s okay for kids to know what’s going on especially when you can frame it in the context of reproduction.

Be open to questions– Kids are going to ask stuff. Answer them honestly at a level they can understand and then let it go.  They may have fifteen follow-up questions or none. If you give them an honest answer that’s a little light on details you’ll give them the ability to let you know what they’re really interested in by  leading with their next question. There have definitely been times I thought my child was asking a much deeper question than he actually was, but by letting him lead the way he got the answer he needed when he was ready for it.

Have a good book–  There are lots of good books that will appeal to different parenting styles and different parents for different reasons. I’m not going to recommend a particular book, just recommend that you do some homework and find one you’ll be comfortable reading and explaining. It’s okay to just put it in with the regular bedtime reading and not make a big deal about it.

Our kids are going to be exposed to sex. We really need to ask ourselves who we want teaching them about it.  If you want your kids to share your viewpoint on sex and their bodies, it’s important that YOU are the one teaching them in an age-appropriate way as early as possible.  If you don’t do it, somebody else will and probably way before you thought they would. Take the initiative and be an intentional parent.

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12 Comments

  1. AMEN. But then you already know how I feel about this. 🙂

  2. Great post! I look forward to implementing some of these (new to me) ideas!

  3. I totally agree. And for those who are squeamish and feel toddlers are too young, they should be aware that most sexual abuse starts at age 3. It’s important to have these conversations with our little children.

  4. Excellant! Great job Maralee. My parents also did a wonderful job with this and like you I never remember not knowing about sex. Being in Africa with animals all around provided many learning opportunities! Being too private doesn’t protect, but harms.

  5. Great post! Where we live, there is so much negative exposure on a daily basis, that we have to start young. Good to read your experience and prepare now!

  6. Great post, M. Might I add that it’s also wise to talk to boys about porn early on. I thought my husband’s approach w our 8 yr old was insightful. He taught our son that just as his private parts are private, so are everyone else’s and that we demean that specialness by looking at naked or nearly naked women. The women of this world were not put here for our gratification and we honor women and God by refusing to make them an object of our visual/sexual pleasure.

  7. Great post. Also want to add that research says that for “safe touch”, about others not touching our kids inappropriately, to be effective the conversation needs to start around age 3. I also try and bring the topic up casually every couple of months too- just to check. Often making it clear to my kids that no matter what another person might tell them, ie they would harm them or mommy and daddy, to always tell us. When one of our children had an experience with inappropriate touching they told us the day of. As a social worker I was really grateful!

  8. When it comes to issues of sexual abuse and children, I have a hot spot. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know the damage it can inflict on a child’s innocence, security, and the new lens it can give a person for the rest of their life through which they will see everything. I never, never want my children to experience this. I’d like to add a few things to this discussion that go down that specific road just a little bit. Please, moms and dads, be very careful who you choose to leave your children with. Ask God for discernment on this. Be the voice of leadership in your church to make them safe places for kids. Every church should have protocol in place (and actually FOLLOW it) to prevent abuse. Background checks, always two adults together, windows in doors, etc. Common sense stuff that is actually followed.

    Besides telling your children what is OK touch and not OK touch, be very specific about things like if someone wants to show them their own body or see your child’s body. Or show them pictures of people who aren’t wearing clothes. Role play–what would you do if… We recoil at this because it feels as though we are stealing our children’s innocence. But children who are armed with this kind of knowledge are powerful to put a stop to it.

    Go over it often. Not to the point where you are scaring your child, but don’t mention it once and figure you’ve covered it forever. It’s definitely a topic that needs revisiting. And be sure to tell your child what you want them to do if it ever does happen. The fact is that we may not be able to prevent every inappropriate touch or scary scenario (frightening, right?). BUT, we can very likely make sure that it only happens that one dang time and as soon as they tell us we are going to make it stop and protect them. Unfortunately, most sexual abuse comes from those we do trust–us and our children. But if they feel safe to tell us, to know that we will be so proud of them for telling us, to know that we will make it stop if it happens, to know that we will believe them…this is so important.

    My mom and dad loved me very much, but it still took me years to tell about what was happening to me. I knew it was wrong, but I needed to hear them say, “If this ever happens to you, TELL US! We will believe you. We will keep you safe.”

  9. Sorry, to clarify: role play what they should do if someone wants to show them pictures of someone with no clothes on. My wording wasn’t clear.

  10. Excellent Maralee! We had a speaker come to MOPS at our church a few months ago and I almost couldn’t write fast enough to get down all of her thoughts and suggestions about approaching this topic with children. Excellent stuff and it made me feel very empowered to “open the door” as you said and to even be intentional about it. This is such an important topic and I believe that being intentional is the key-we owe it to our children to share God’s beautiful design for sex within marriage so that they can understand it but also combat the twisted worldviews that will be hurled at them. Well written…

  11. I know this is a couple of years old, but I think it’s ironic that I found it today. For the last six or so months my four year old has been asking how babies get in the mommy’s tummy. She’s very precocious and very tenacious. We would tell her that we’d talk about it later. She would accept that, but out of nowhere, at the most random times, she would ask again. It was almost like she thought that if she caught us off guard we’d blurt it out. So last night I took the plunge and explained how sacred it is and what God’s design is. We’ve used the correct anatomical terms since she was tiny, so it wasn’t nearly as awkward as I thought. I fully believe that to protect our kids we need to empower them with knowledge. Thank you for this one!

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