Talking to young children about anatomy and sex
DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I have two children – a 3 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. My son is starting to pay more attention to his anatomy by touching his genitals and asking questions about his sister. He notices that her anatomy is different from his. He also asked how it got into and out of my body. I am wondering if you have any advice on how best to answer his questions and resolve other curious questions that may arise as a result?
ANSWER: Sex education often starts with children’s curiosity about their bodies. Here’s how to set the stage for sex education and how to answer your kids’ questions.
Sex education is a topic that many parents would rather avoid. If you have young children, you might think you don’t have a hook – at least for a while. But that’s not always the case, especially since your recent pregnancy has raised questions.
Generally speaking, sex education can be started at any time, but it’s best to let your kids set the pace with their questions.
As children learn to walk and talk, they also begin to learn about their body. Open the door to sex education by teaching your children the correct genital names, perhaps while bathing. You can use this information to answer your son’s questions about his younger sister.
If he is pointing to a body part, just tell him what it is. This is also a good time to talk about which parts of the body are personal.
When your kids ask questions about their body or yours, don’t giggle, laugh, or be embarrassed. Take questions at face value and offer direct, age-appropriate answers. If your children want to know more, they will ask.
Many toddlers express their natural sexual curiosity through self-stimulation. Boys can pull their penises while girls rub their genitals. Teach your children that masturbation is normal but personal.
If your kids start masturbating in public, try to distract them. If that doesn’t work, take the children aside to remind them of the importance of privacy.
Frequent masturbation can sometimes indicate a problem. Children may be anxious or not receiving enough attention at home. It could even be a sign of sexual abuse.
Teach children that no one is allowed to touch their private parts without permission. If you are concerned about the behavior of your children, consult their doctor.
Curiosity about others
By the age of 3-4, children often realize that boys and girls have different genitals. As your son remarked, his sister is different. It is helpful to offer a simple explanation, for example, “The bodies of boys and girls are differently constructed.”
As natural curiosity develops, you may find that your child is playing doctor or examining another child’s genitals. While such research is far from adult sexual activity – and is harmless when only young children are involved – from a family perspective, you can set limits on such research.
Everyday moments are key
Sex education is not a straightforward discussion. Instead, use everyday opportunities to discuss sex.
For example, if there is a pregnancy in the family, tell your children that babies grow in a special place inside the mother called the womb. If your children want more information about how the baby was born or how it will be born, please provide that information.
Consider these examples:
- How do babies get into mommy’s tummy? You can say, “Mom and Dad give birth to a baby by holding each other in a special way.”
- How are babies born? For some babies, it may be enough to say, “Doctors and nurses help babies who are ready for birth.” If your child wants more information, you can say, “Usually the mother pushes the baby out of the vagina.
As your child matures and asks more detailed questions, you will be able to provide more detailed answers. Answer specific questions using the correct terminology.
Even if you are uncomfortable, move forward. Remember that you are setting the stage for open and honest discussion in the years to come. – Compiled by the Mayo Clinic staff.
(The Mayo Clinic Q&A is an educational resource and does not replace routine medical care. Send your question to MayoClinicQ&[email protected] For more information, visit www.mayoclinic.org.)
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