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Sex Education for Young Children

You as a parent are your child's primary sex educator.

You may find it helpful to look through materials and think through your answers ahead of time. In addition, books that you and your child can read together are invaluable for opening up discussion.

Avoid overloading your child with too much information, but do answer all of your child's questions honestly. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, tell your child that you will look it up together.

Sex Education

By age 4, most children develop a healthy sexual curiosity. They usually ask a variety of questions and need honest, brief answers. If your child doesn't ask sexual questions by age 5, bring up the subject of sex yourself. For example, ask your child where he thinks babies come from or leave a children's sex ed book lying around. Otherwise your child may get misinformation from schoolmates.

Teach the differences in anatomy and proper names for body parts. This is easy to do when your child is taking a bath with siblings or friends.

Teach your child about pregnancy. Ask a pregnant friend if she will let your child feel the movements of her baby.

Explain the birth process. Tell your child that the baby comes out through a special passage called the vagina. Help your child understand the process by seeing the birth of puppies or kittens.

Explain sexual intercourse. Many parents who discuss everything else postpone this topic. Get past this hurdle by reading children's picture books about sex to your child.

A child who learns about these basic topics by age 5 will find it easy to ask you more about sex as he or she grows older.

Let your child see and experience physical affection. Warm hugs and friendly kisses between mom and dad and other family members convey feelings of love and caring. Your youngster learns that physical affection can be expressed in many ways.

Normal Sexual Play

In normal sexual development between ages 3 and 5, children commonly undress together and look at each other's genitals. This is their attempt to learn about sexual differences. You can help make this discovery a positive experience for your child.

After your child's friends have gone home, read your child a book about sex education. Help your child talk about how a boy's body is different from a girl's body.

Tell your child that genitals are private and that's why we wear clothes. Clarify basic rules: It's OK to see other people's genitals but not to touch them or stare at them. It's not acceptable to show someone your genitals deliberately.

In the future supervise your child's play more closely. If your child and friends occasionally expose their bodies to each other, ignore it. But if such exposure becomes frequent, tell the children it's not polite and they need to stop. If they continue this behavior despite your talking to them, give them a 5-minute time-out in separate rooms or send them home for the day. Don't give any major punishment or act horrified.

It's up to parents to put the brakes on undressing games. If you don't, they usually escalate into touching and poking. But keep your response low key.

Nudity and Your Child

Feelings about nudity vary from family to family. Exposure to nudity with siblings or the parent of the same sex is fine and continues indefinitely (for example, in locker rooms). Nudity with the parent or sibling of the opposite sex probably should be phased out when a child is between ages 4 and 5 for these reasons:

  • Your child will soon be entering school and nudity is not accepted at school.
  • Most families in our society practice modesty, so a child who is interested in looking at other people's bodies can get into trouble.
  • It is more comfortable for children to learn genital anatomy from siblings and friends of the same age than from seeing their parents nude.

If you agree with these reasons, try the following recommendations to begin to teach your child respect for privacy when he or she is 4 to 5 years old:

  • Stop showering and bathing with your child (especially if the child is of the opposite sex).
  • Close the bathroom door when you use the toilet.
  • Close the bedroom door when you get dressed and suggest that your child do the same.

Sexual Molestation

Emphasize that no one is allowed to touch your child's genitals or where his or her bathing suit covers. If anyone, even someone they know, touches them or makes them uncomfortable for any reason, they should tell you immediately regardless of what the person might have done or said to them.

Inform your child about sexual molestation sensitively but realistically. Stress that most people are kind and good, but some do not like children and will try to trick them. Warn your youngster never to go anywhere with a stranger—man or woman—even if the stranger says that you (or another familiar person) told him or her to come and get your child. Go through "What if" situations: "What if you were home and a stranger came to the door or called on the phone?" "What if a stranger called to you from a car or truck?"

Call your child's healthcare provider during office hours if:

  • Your child won't stop touching other children's genitals.
  • Your child won't stop exposing his genitals.
  • Your child has an excessive interest in sex or nudity.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-01-09
Last reviewed: 2012-05-14
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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