It might be hard for you to imagine that the baby you once held in your arms has grown up enough to start asking questions about the differences between male and female anatomy, the functions of various body parts, and more.
Many parents feel uncomfortable initiating sexual education for their children and would prefer to leave it to educators at school or other institutions. But the reason many experts, from pediatricians to child psychologists, emphasize parents’ involvement in sexual education is that parents’ roles in their children’s lives extend beyond educating kids in specific areas. We, as parents, are tasked with guiding and teaching our kids to develop adequate skills for navigating their lives later on. The parent-child bond and the unique role of parents make them the primary educators in their children’s lives.
Research conducted by Ellya Rakhmawati et al. on Roles of Family in Introducing Early Sexual Education to Children, published on Atlantis Press, stresses how crucial the family’s role is in initiating & supplementing sexual education, by demonstrating the importance of building bonds and trusting relationships. The article, published as part of the 2020 International Conference on Psychological Studies, highlights the long-term damage that can result when families aren’t open to honest conversation with children on the facts of life.
How to approach the talk about the birds and the bees with your kids
1. Strengthen bonds with your children
No matter what type of conversation you have with your kids, conveying wisdom or knowledge with any hope of them retaining it will be a lost cause without adequate affection. Why should your children care to listen to what you have to say—let alone heed it—if they feel distant, or even hostile towards you?
Before getting into any informative or caring conversation, spend some time bonding with your kids, to melt any built ice or knock down any walls that might have built up between you. This is especially true if you are about to dive into a sensitive topic, particularly with older children.
2. Teach the physical body parts to an age-appropriate extent
Using proper terms for each body part when you approach sexual education is crucial. Avoid using cute terms like peeper, fanny, brown star, etc. Instead, teach the proper anatomical terms for each body part such as anus, vagina, penis, and testicle, with a simple explanation of their functions.
According to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Dennis Scolnik et al., children used correct anatomical terms to describe the sexual body parts about 15% of the time, while caregivers used the correct terms about 29% of the time when talking with their children.
Sex health educators advise parents and caregivers to name body parts with proper terms when they educate and discuss the subject, as this will empower children against being sexually victimized. Teaching children proper anatomical terminology in an open and informative way enables them to get help quickly in a crisis, by building a sense of security and trust within the family. This makes children less hesitant about asking questions and discussing sexual matters with their parents. Using incorrect terms or nicknames, by contrast, often creates misunderstanding and builds barriers to communication, since it implies that discussing sexual matters with their parents is inappropriate.
3. Sexual education is not about explaining sexual acts
One of the reasons parents shy away or are nervous about getting into a conversation with their kids about sexual education is that they think about how to explain sexual activities to their own kids.
When you initiate your kid’s sexual education, the fundamental thing children should learn is the anatomical term and function of each private body part. This can be explained within the context of other natural functions, such as how hairs inside our nostrils filter pollutants or how our eyebrows prevent sweat from falling into our eyes.
4. How far should the explanation go?
Your children’s age will likely play a large part in how many questions they might have on the subject, as well as how much knowledge they may already have on sexual body parts and their functions. If your child has questions based on what they already know, you can explore the subject further, such as explaining how the ovum is released from the ovary, what a period is, or how sperms are released from the testicles, et cetera.
You can also explain things like how a baby is conceived by the combination of a sperm and ovum, how the baby grows inside the womb, and how long it all takes.
Parents can educate their children without blushing, as long as they are focusing on using proper anatomical terms and explaining physical function. This will benefit their children by enabling them to understand their own bodies and the concept of gender.
5. What subjects to focus on
Many parents make the mistake of focusing on the negative consequences and dangers of sexual activity. Although we want to let our children know the dangers of unprotected sexual activity, for younger children, the focus should be on the terms and functions of sexual parts.
However, if your child is old enough to explore the actual sexual act, it makes sense to raise caution and explain why it is important to prepare before jumping into the action, to avoid repercussions. But be cautious not to over-emphasize the negative consequences of the sexual act in an attempt to prevent or delay your child from experiencing it.
Whenever your child shows signs of curiosity about the sexual act, you can explain its fundamental meaning and manner. You can explain that sexual activity is between people who love and care for each other, by mutual agreement—it is never okay to force on anyone.
More specifically, if your child throws “why bombs” at you, stick to basic explanations like, “Because, when two people are in love, they want to be close.” As long as you focus on essential, fundamental truths and avoid the technical details of the sexual act, there will be no awkwardness or embarrassment.
Children may show interest in becoming more involved with certain friends as they approach adolescence. Having a close relationship as your child develops feelings toward someone is a natural thing.
When your child grows curious about a relationship and starts to explore, let him or her know it is vital to respect each other mutually. It means that what each person wants or doesn’t want should always be respected and never imposed. Also, help your child to understand that if he or she feels pressured or ignored in the relationship but is unable to reach a compromise on the issue with that person, that is a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
7. Should you educate children about adult sexual content
With easy access to the internet and its overflowing varieties of content, children will most likely be exposed to sexual content, whether it is intentional or not. So it is essential for your child to be aware and have certain expectations and knowledge about sexual content, and what to do when they encounter it. Preparing your child before they are exposed to sexual materials will minimize their confusion and reduce the possibility of them making the wrong choices.
8. What to do if a young child touches their genitals habitually
When children touch their genitalia habitually, without any concept of sexuality or sexual acts, it is often due to anxiety. It is common for children to use sensory stimulation, especially using their bodies as a way to calm themselves, in much the same way that they might use a soft blanket or a stuffy toy.
While some body parts are more socially acceptable means of self-soothing than others, such as nail-biting and hair-twirling, genitals are not among them. In this case, rather than focus negatively on the touching itself, it is recommended for parents to focus on the child’s feelings that might be the cause of the genital touching—whether it is anxiety-related or boredom—and then remind them that touching private parts is not acceptable in public.
And then, look for an object that your child can use to get similar comfort and soothe themselves. Help your child, with constant reminders and encouragement, to transition from touching body parts to handling a soothing object.
Pediatricians believe the best person to initiate a child’s sexual education is a parent. But many parents tend to avoid the subject or delegate the matter to their child’s school, feeling uncomfortable about it. Due to their special bonds and relationships, parents can effectively teach many subjects to their children along the way throughout childhood, including sexual education. As long as parents use proper anatomical terms, explain each body part and their functions, and stick to the fundamental sexual role, rather than the act, there will be no need for awkward moments that make them blush.
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