Sunday, November 8th is National Parents as Teachers Day. The important role of parents in a child’s education should always be celebrated. This year more than ever, more and more parents are taking on the role of full-time educator to their kids, especially if their physical schools have been shut down due to the pandemic or parents have opted for online learning or homeschooling. One subject matter all parents need to consider as their child’s “first teacher” is that of sexual health education. All children need and deserve comprehensive, developmentally appropriate sexual health and sex education. If school doesn’t provide it, guess who needs to? Here’s looking at you, parents! Read on for tips and tricks for talking to your kids about sex and their bodies…I promise it’s not as scary as it sounds!
The love & support a child gets at home directly affects their performance in formal schooling and in all areas of their life. No matter what kind of school a child attends, or if they are homeschooled, parents are still the primary source of education and information a child receives, whether the parents realize it or not! It is vital, then, for parents to be strong role models and get comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics with their kids. While most kids get some exposure to sexual health, sexuality, and sex education topics through a public school education, the level, quality, and relevancy of the information presented can sometimes be questionable. Don’t blame the teachers for this, though…blame the system. Many schools are very limited by the state or local government or even school administration about what they can and cannot teach, and the teachers’ hands are literally tied by these limitations and the materials and resources they are provided with.
Think back to your own “sex ed” experiences in school growing up. Did you even have any? You’re lucky if you did, though they still may not have been the greatest. Speaking about my own personal experiences, I believe in Kindergarten, we learned the general words for our most basic body parts, and learned that our “bathing suit parts” were private. Not a bad start. I believe it was 4th or 5th grade when we did the ubiquitous “puberty lessons”, which consisted of the boys and girls splitting into two different rooms and mostly watching videos about our changing bodies…there may have been a nurse brought in to answer questions. That was too late though…many kids start going through puberty much earlier than that, and will have some major concerns if they’re not prepared! Middle school health class brought some basics about how babies are made and about STIs (though they were still called STDs back then!) and that because of these two issues, sex should basically be avoided at all costs until you’re old enough to accept the potential consequences…we’re bordering dangerously on “abstinence-only education” here, which is all many kids receive in schools. Yikes! A health class was required in high school, and I remember that we spent about one week on sex & sexuality. Again, lots of talk about preventing STIs and pregnancy, an awkward teacher that generated lots of giggles, and of course the “condom on the banana” trope. So…generally, not a great experience. I’d hazard a guess that it’s not an unfamiliar one, either, though. Most of my understanding about my body, puberty, love, sexuality, sex, and taking care of my own sexual health came from having supportive and understanding parents who spoke to me about these topics and answered my questions openly and appropriately for my age and understanding…and this is what you need to be prepared to do as parents as well. Let’s take a look at what kids should be learning about sex and their bodies at what age.
As children really begin to walk and talk, they learn a lot through play and observation and ask a lot of questions. Here’s what’s common, healthy, and perfectly normal, and how you should handle these teachable moments:
- Noticing bodies: Your toddler might point at things on their bodies or yours and ask about them. Don’t giggle, act embarrassed, or give things silly made-up names. This is an opportunity to teach them the correct names for their body parts – including their genitals – and what those body parts do, as well as talk about which body parts we consider private.
- Self-exploration: Little ones will often “discover” their genitals in this age range and may touch themselves down there. They’re not masturbating, they’re just exploring their own bodies and learning about them. Boys may tug at their penis and girls may rub their vulva. Don’t yell, shame them, or slap their hands away. The healthiest way to handle this is to teach your children that you understand they are curious, and this is okay to do sometimes, but they should do it privately in their own room, and that they should wash their hands before and after this type of play.
- Curiosity about others: Children in this age range learn through play and observation, and sometimes that play will generate some questions. When little kids see other bodies, whether they belong to parents, siblings, schoolmates, or even dolls, they’ll ask why they are different from their own. Answer these questions honestly and casually. Remember that you’re setting the stage for them to feel comfortable talking to you about the tough stuff later in life.
- Let them play: Remember that when small children are playing with other small children, there is almost never anything sexual or inappropriate about it. Even if boys and girls are playing doctor, playing dress-up together, or roughhousing and occasionally touching a private part, they’re really just playing and learning through these interactions. Supervise of course, but don’t make things sexual and scary when they’re not.
This age range is vital for children to develop healthy attitudes about their bodies. Most sexual health education in this age range is going to happen organically and led by your child’s questions about their own bodies or their friends’. Here’s what you want to make sure to cover as it comes up…or even if it doesn’t:
- Consent: This is a good age to start teaching children about bodily autonomy (that they can make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies) and consent (that they should always ask if it’s okay to do something with/to someone, listen to and respect their answer, and that they have the right to the same treatment). As the parent, you of course lay the ground rules, but allow them to make their own choices, too: they do have to see the doctor once a year for a physical to make sure they’re healthy, but they don’t have to hug Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving if they don’t want to. Talk to them about saying “no” to anything that makes them uncomfortable, and what to do if someone doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
- Beginning puberty: This talk needs to happen well before 4th or 5th grade. Children, especially girls, begin puberty and start having their periods even earlier these days. They need to know what’s going to happen to them, even in just the most basic terms, so they don’t think they’re dying if they go to the bathroom at school at find blood in their panties.
- Diet & hygiene: Explain to your kids that as their bodies are starting to change, it’s more important than ever that they keep their body clean and healthy. Encourage them to bathe or shower daily so they can look and smell good and feel good about themselves. Guiding them toward eating a healthy diet is better for their physical and emotional health, too, and will help them see healthy food as a positive thing that their bodies need to live and grow. Lead by example…if they see you eating lots of fruits and veggies, trying new foods, and being active, they are more likely to do the same.
Ages 10 – 14
This is probably the first time your kids will begin to get any real sexual health education exposure at school. It’s important to chat with them about what they are learning, and guide them through the questions they will inevitably have. Here’s what to expect in this age range and how to handle it:
- The throes of puberty: This is the age when most boys and girls will really begin going through puberty (others may have already started). It’s important to talk to them about what to expect in their own bodies, and those of their opposite sex peers…even when we just watched videos in same-sex classrooms for sex ed, we still switched and had the girls watch the boys video and vice versa! Take them shopping for bras, deodorant, feminine hygiene, or shaving products as needed to maintain healthy hygiene and self-image, and teach them how to use them properly!
- Hormonal changes: Their hormones are fluctuating like crazy as they are starting to become grown-ups. Explain, but don’t blame, that hormones might be responsible for them being in a very bad mood or feeling sick or exhausted sometimes. Support them through their bodily changes and mood swings, and answer their questions honestly. They’re going through a lot!
- Body image: This is a big age for bullying and self-esteem issues, so support your kids in building confidence and a healthy body image, and always encourage them to be kind to others. If your child expresses concerns about their weight or body, it might be a good time to start working out with them, demonstrating that you both want to be healthier!
- Masturbation: Sure, they are still kids, but if your kids have gone through puberty, they’re technically sexually mature. This means they will have the same urges and needs you do as an adult, and may often take care of those needs through masturbation. They will probably not need reminders that this is a private behavior, and they may even try to keep it super secretive. If you notice your son regularly throwing away socks, just have a casual talk with him about how you would prefer him to handle the mess. If your daughter talks to you about having feelings of sexual urges or needs, and you think she’s mature enough, it may even be appropriate to buy her a simple, non-phallic vibrator. Self-exploration & seeking pleasure through touching their own genitals is normal and common at this age for boys and girls!
Ages 14 +
Sexual health education at home will truly be organic and self-guided by your particular child and their needs and interests. The most important thing in this age range is to keep an open mind, be honest, and listen. If you don’t know how to answer your kid’s questions, look it up so you are giving them the most accurate and scientific answers possible. Healthline, The Mayo Clinic, and Scarleteen are all great sources. It’s time for you to give them the tools, then trust them to make the right decisions.
- “The Talk”: If your child is in this age range and starting to date or be curious about dating, it is important to sit them down for “The Talk”. Calmly discuss your concerns and listen to theirs. Discuss the risks of pregnancy and STIs and how condoms are so, so important for preventing both. Boys and girls both need to hear about that. Then be that cool parent and provide the condoms for your kid – male or female – or take your daughter to the doctor to discuss birth control options if that’s appropriate for them. Everyone should understand the repercussions and be prepared for anything. Consent is another important topic to review here, and that it applies to everybody and must be checked about for every act, every time.
- Get on the same page: It’s crucial to talk to your spouse or parenting partner about how to handle ground rules about your teenager dating and mating…can they be in their room to watch TV and cuddle with a partner, but need to leave the door open? These are things you need to discuss. Laying firm but comfortable rules will help your teen be less likely to rebel and engage in potentially dangerous sexual behavior out from under your watchful eye.
- Be their biggest support system: Friends are vitally important in a teen’s life, so it’s important that you know that your kid is hanging around with good ones, but you need to be there for your kid, too. They should feel as comfortable talking to you as they would their best friend…maybe even more so, and you ideally want it to be you giving them the answers and advice they seek, not a potentially misguided or misinformed friend.
- Love them, no matter what: It’s important to remember that teens are still not fully mature adults, but they are learning and growing and finding their way through their new experiences. Remember to be supportive and never discount their feelings…their first love, even if you don’t think it’s real love, is very real to them, and the heartbreak that may come with the end of that relationship will be just as devastating. Love them through whatever they’re going through, and remember to tell them that you love them often. Even if it seems to embarrass them or they don’t say it back, they need to know you are still there for them through their break-ups, make-ups, and challenges. This applies to their sexuality, too. If your child hasn’t already started expressing their true self, in this age range they will definitely begin to cement their sexual orientation and gender identity. This is who they are; it cannot be changed and it is not a choice. Be open and supportive of whoever they may love and however they present themselves to the world…we don’t need any more generations of LGBTQ+ kids being disowned by their parents because of who they love or how they dress. Just love them.