Sex Ed for the Little Guy: How to Talk to Your Littlest Kids About S-E-X
Whenever I tell people that I teach sexuality education to kindergarteners and first graders they’re usually really confused. Many people don’t realize that from the moment they’re born kids are taking in information about sexuality. They learn from media, family, friends, classmates, and the internet. Because we live in a more tech savvy world, kids are much more likely to come upon messages about sexuality that aren’t healthy. Parents are the first sexuality educators and it’s important that we ensure that kids are introduced to sexuality subjects in a safe and controlled environment as much as possible. We can’t control when kids learn about sex, but we can control how. These conversations can be difficult, especially figuring out what topics are age appropriate and how to explain them in age appropriate ways. Luckily, their are sexuality education programs for young children. The one I teach is called Our Whole Lives, which is based on the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, developed by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The guide divides the information children from this age group into different categories.
One of the first topics we talk about in OWL, and one of the first topics you can start teaching your child when they’re young, is bodies. One of the first games many parents play when teaching children how to talk is pointing to body parts and having them say what they are, or naming a body part and having them point to it. A lot of families have cutesy names they call genitals, but studies have shown it’s important to use technical language like genitals, penis, vagina, testicles and vulva. This helps them learn how to communicate when something is wrong better and also makes them feel less embarrassed to talk about those parts of the body. Children don’t just need to know their parts on the outside but also the inside. It’s always easier to address some of these if they know someone who is pregnant. That gives you an opportunity to use more technical language by explaining that a pregnancy takes place in the uterus, not the “tummy”.
A huge part of what we teach when it comes to bodies is that they own their bodies. It’s their responsibility to take care of their bodies. As parents we teach that through teeth brushing, eating healthy, and bathing. It’s also important to teach them how to keep their genitals clean, and it helps give them ownership of their body to ask before you wash certain parts of their bodies or have them clean their genitals. Another aspect of “owning” their bodies is when we talk about consent. Consent is one of the first lessons children should learn, and is something that can be taught from birth. Don’t start with sexual consent, rather consent to touch in general. The main message to impart is that your body belongs to you and that it’s important to ask before touching a person or getting in their space. This is something you can practice with them by asking before touching them, whether that’s during bath time or during play. A part of that is pointing out that there are times a person must touch a child’s body for health or safety. For example, you’ll need to touch them to take care of them. When it comes to private parts in particular, discuss that parents and doctors may need to touch privates for health as well. Some parents talk with medical staff beforehand to ask them to ask before touching the child. Along with all this, you can model boundaries by asking the people around you before touching them or telling others when you don’t want to be touched, making sure that your child follows that rule as well. It can be difficult to get family members to follow that rule sometimes, but letting them know that no your child doesn’t need to give them a hug if they don’t want to is an important part. In classes, we ask children to come up with five different people they can go to if someone tries to touch them without their permission (especially the genitals), tries to show them sexual images, or if they feel uncomfortable being around someone. The last message they need is that it’s never their fault if someone touches them. They need to know that they can always come to you and you won’t be upset if they do. On the other side of things, it’s good to talk about how different people need different kinds of loving touches. There are many ways people show that they love each other. This can include hugs and high-fives and cuddles. Another type of loving touch includes masturbation. Talking to children about masturbation is taboo in our culture but the truth is it is very common for kids, infants, and even fetuses inside the womb to masturbate! They stimulate their genitals by rubbing up against things, using their hands, or bouncing up and down. It helps them explore their body and feel comfort. Although past generations may have taught children that masturbation is wrong all we need to teach is that it’s normal and it’s something to do in private.
A big goal in the Our Whole Lives class is to help build self-esteem. We talk about how every body is important and unique and how great that is. Children are asked what they like to do with their body whether it’s something active or being able to think or read or be creative. A way to bring those messages home is to look for different media like books or cartoons with a variety of bodies. Remember that kids are hyper-aware of your behavior. Model the behavior you want to see by never talking bad about your body or other people's bodies. Talk about the things you love about your body and compliment children not only on how they look but the things they do.
Another aspect of teaching about bodies is explaining gender and how gender does not mean genitals. This is a whole other article in itself. We were taught about sex with language like “When a mommy loves a daddy very much they have sex which is when a man puts his penis in her vagina.” This is limiting in a lot of ways, it doesn’t include the many ways a person can become pregnant or have a baby- like adoption. It is heteronormative, meaning it is just inclusive to straight couples and it isn’t inclusive towards trans or intersex individuals. It can be difficult to talk about sex in a way that is inclusive towards all. We are sure to explain the difference between gender, designated sex, and biology. We talk about body diversity when it comes to intersex people. We also talk about all the ways a family can be made including adoption and artificial insemination.
When it comes to family diversity media can be a big help again. One of the benefits of classes like Our Whole Lives is it gives the students an opportunity to share their experiences and to hear the experiences of other kids their age. This helps communicate the differences and similarities between experiences people have. For kids with younger or older siblings, we also ask them to share their experiences either with a pregnant parent, the feelings they have about their siblings, and if they have experiences around babies. Part of this is to discuss all the ways a family cares for each other and how much effort it takes to care for a baby. We hold space for other family changes as well like with divorce and the passing of a loved one. These topics can be emotional and it can help to talk about them in a safe place.
When it comes to puberty, you don’t need to go into a whole lot of detail with younger kids. It can be fun to point out all the differences between babies and elementary children, elementary children and teens, and teens and adults. Imparting the information that everyone matures differently can be really good, but try to avoid the cliche of girls maturing faster than boys as this comes with a lot of negative connotations. When talking about maturity, an important subject is media. Especially in this age when the internet makes it so easy for kids to come across media that’s not age appropriate, this can be an anxiety-producing conversation for parents. We emphasize talking to parents and trusted adults when they come across sexual media or things they don’t understand online.
The last big topic in OWL we discuss is how babies are made. Before we ever start classes we have an orientation with parents who come to a consensus about how much detail we should go into. We use a story to teach this topic and there are two versions of the story. One includes how the sperm gets into the uterus (in other words sexual intercourse) and one just mentions sperm meeting an egg. It’s up to the parents to decide how much they want their children to know about this subject. We do talk a little about fetal development and the birth process, it’s always fun when kids were present for a little sibling being born and can talk about their experiences.
The OWL program really emphasizes that parents are the first and most important sexuality educator. With this age group we give each child a journal with little homework assignments to take to parents. This helps provoke conversation and strengthens the line of communication. It also can make it easier to broach certain subjects when you have a starting place. We use a lot of different techniques in class including different art projects, stories, illustrations, songs, and discussions. It’s our hope that every student goes home and is excited to talk to their family about what they learned. We also are sure to keep the lines of communication between parents and teachers open, so that parents can come to us with questions and concerns. Starting sexuality education early in these simple and age appropriate ways can help prepare them for coming across misinformation or harmful messages they may get out in the world. It makes it easier for them to come to you when they have questions or are confused. It also makes it easier to build on these lessons as they get older and need more information about sex, puberty, and relationships.