Answering a Child's Questions About Sex
Any time after the age of about 2 1/2, your child will probably surprise you with the question, "Where do babies come from?" The question itself will not be so surprising, especially if you or someone close to your family is pregnant, but children have a knack for picking a most inconvenient time to ask.
The best answer, wherever and whenever the question comes up, is brief and factual: "They grow inside their mothers." Later, when your child has absorbed this bit of information and comes back with more questions, you should be equally matter-of-fact in explaining, probably in the following order, that the baby grows in the mother's uterus, a special place in the mother's body; comes out through a birth passage called the vagina; and is conceived when a cell from the father's body joins a cell in the mother's body.
This interest in reproduction did not spring up the instant before your child asked the first question. A child's education in sexuality begins at birth, with the mother's touch, and continues as he is held and cuddled while being fed, bathed, changed, and rocked. Shortly after a baby's discovery of hands and feet as the wonderful and ever-present entertainers they are, he finds the genitals, and the pleasures of self-stimulation are revealed. Toilet training is another milestone; a child handles the genitals frequently and discovers he can control some of the functions of that part of the body.
Toddlers go through a period of curiosity and concern about sexual identity at some point between the ages of two and three, and they have a good many questions. They ask about the differences between boys and girls, about the possibility of somehow losing a penis (or getting one), about why boys stand up to urinate and girls sit down. You must provide both facts and reassurance at this point. Your little girl may feel her comparatively plain sex organs are less special and needs to be comforted by learning that, because of the way they are organized, she, but not her brother or any other male person, can someday give birth to a baby. Your little boy may worry that somehow he may lose his penis and needs to be convinced this will not happen.
Children's questions are more easily answered if their parents have healthy attitudes about sex and nudity and are reasonably open about appearing naked before them. It's not necessary, or advisable, to run a nudist colony in your home, but showing alarm or disapproval about normal curiosity makes both you and your child uncomfortable about a natural subject. Curiosity about the opposite sex can be satisfied if the family consists of children of both sexes or if a child has opportunities to see other children going to the bathroom or being bathed.
In sharing the facts with your child, use the correct terminology for the body parts. Your child can handle the words penis, testes, breasts, vulva, vagina, and uterus as easily as any others and will not have to learn them later. Keep answers short and simple for toddlers; go into no more detail than the child asks for. Sometimes asking a question yourself to check on your child's comprehension may turn up an area that needs clarification. Small children often put isolated bits of information together to come up with some startling misconceptions about pregnancy: for example, mothers become pregnant by eating a lot or by swallowing a seed; a baby is born through the mother's anus or navel; and pregnancy is an illness.
Your hesitancy about explaining sexuality and reproduction to your child is natural and common among most parents. It disappears as you become more accustomed to answering the questions and giving the information so important for your child to have. Do remember to include the roles of love and intimacy and respect in your talks about reproduction with a child of any age. If you do not, you are telling only half the story.
It is important to be honest with your children, even with a subject as personal as conflicts with your spouse. Even happily married couples fight occasionally, and your children might have some questions about it. We'll look at some strategies for answering these questions in the next section.
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