When I was about my son’s age, my mother enlisted my father to read the illustrated book Where Did I Come From? to me and my little sister. We giggled, my mother giggled, and my father probably turned a lovely shade of crimson. The book lays out proper names for body parts and the process of fertilization with 1970s-era cartoon characters engaging in the beginnings of sex. To be clear, they never used the word “sex” in the book, nor intercourse. This was designed to be what they thought was a kid-friendly, family-friendly way to explain the birds and the bees and the closest thing they showed to the deed is of a cartoon Reubenesque man and woman in a sans-clothing embrace in bed. (The book looks to have been updated and I don’t know if my analysis of the book’s current version stands.)
I discovered later that my parents were not typical, in that many of my friends never had a talk about sex education with their parents, or it consisted of everything from “nice girls don’t have sex until they get married” to a throwaway “Dear God please use a condom if you’re having sex”.
“One of the issues for most parents in this country is we tend to think – or project from our own anxieties – that we shouldn’t approach sex education with young children. We’re stuck there,” says Debbie Roffman, a consultant for educators and sex education teacher at a school in Baltimore. “When they are little, these questions are not about sex. They are scientific questions about normal cognitive development. Adults get caught up in their own emotional connections to sex and that frightens them and they back off.”
Exactly, you might be thinking. I can’t talk to my young child about adult sex. But that’s not what it’s about, Roffman says.
“We have a cultural heritage that has led us to believe that talking about sex and related topics could be potentially harmful, but the data shows the opposite of that,” says Roffman. “Children who are raised in a family in which this is part of normal discussion delay sexual engagement for longer than kids who didn’t have this support.”
I’m seeing this already, both with my son and with other families who have already covered what might be uncomfortable subjects for some parents. Imagine, for instance, the shock and fear a girl would experience with no preparation for what happens to her body when menstruation begins. Knowing what is going to happen and what to do mitigates fear and also prevents kids from assuming that incorrect information is the truth. Further, repeating that message more than once in various ways is what it takes for children to learn it and understand it.
What happens with many parents, Roffman says, is that they freeze up when their children start asking questions related to sex. What escapes the parents is that at developmental ages, kids aren’t asking about sex the way adults understand it, complete with their own experiences and emotional connections. They want to know how things work. They’re asking how something gets from point A to point B: What is the cause and effect that results in a baby?
If you break it down into segments that kids understand, what they’re asking are questions about transportation, causation, and geography. Kids start learning about the concept of time in preschool and they realize, “Hey, I wasn’t always here. There are photos of my family without me in it – why is that?” They’re naturally curious. The answer, Roffman says, is the truth: babies come from a uterus. It’s the same thing as asking, “Where is the car?” and the answer is “It’s in the garage.” Straightforward. Logical.
The key, experts say, is to build a “scaffolding of knowledge” upon which your kids can build comfort. For you and for them, in fact. Conversations can start with the labeling of body parts, which is something many parents shy away from due to embarrassment or lack of experience in talking about it.