The birds and the bees – Part 2: Having “the talk” with young children

How to overcome the awkwardness and talk seriously about sexuality development.

Show respect when talking with young children about sexuality and sexual health.
Show respect when talking with young children about sexuality and sexual health.

Talking to children about sexuality is a difficult and often dreaded part of being a parent. But having “the talk” is such an important part of a child’s healthy development. It prepares them to handle their own sexuality development, learn appropriate behaviors and helps prepare them for romantic relationships well into their adulthood.

So, how can you accomplish this task of educating your young child about sexuality and sexual health? It all starts with being “askable.” According to the American Sexual Health Association, being an “askable parent” involves:

  • Showing respect, value and love.
  • Realizing every difficult situation is not a crisis.
  • Wanting communication, but not expecting to have all the answers.
  • Knowing the most important part of communication is listening.
  • Not laughing when a child asks a question, even in reaction to the child’s cuteness.
  • Not expecting to be perfect, and knowing that admitting mistakes is a valuable lesson for the child.
  • Sometimes being embarrassed by questions about sex, but acknowledging the discomfort and explaining it to the child.

Michigan State University Extension has some suggestions for parents and caregivers about discussing sexuality with young children, and having “the talk:”

Set the scene

You can start preparing for “the talk” long before your child is actually ready to have it. By setting the scene for two-way communication with your child and being prepared, you cannot only help facilitate difficult conversations about sex, but you can set the tone for open and honest communication for other difficult discussions that will come up throughout your child’s life.

  • Be prepared. Curiosity and exploration about sexuality is inevitable, but by being prepared for questions your children might have, you quell any strong emotional reactions on your part and help teach your child that it’s OK to ask questions about sex and sexuality. Not only that, but you are opening up the doors to honest and true communication with your child.
  • Build open communication. Demonstrate the value of open communication by being open with your child. Be willing to discuss issues that are sometimes uncomfortable, be available and check in regularly with your child to see if there’s anything they want to talk about.
  • Really listen. This step sounds simple, but it is perhaps the most important thing you can do. It can be easy to be quick to respond when children ask questions, especially if the topic makes adults uncomfortable. By actively listening and hearing your child, you demonstrate not only how much you value them and their questions, but also how seriously you take your relationship and communication with your child.

Having “the talk”

This should actually be referred to as “the talks” as there will be multiple discussions about lots of different issues regarding healthy sexuality development throughout your child’s life.

  • Confirm the question. It is so important to make sure you are answering the right questions. Check in with your child to find out what they are really asking. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you are giving your child the answer they are looking for.
  • Be clear. Using correct terminology is important, even if it feels awkward. When we use nicknames or slang to essentially avoid the awkwardness or intimidation of using the correct terms, we are sending a message to children that we are uncomfortable talking about it and they should be too. Children should learn there’s no need to be embarrassed about their anatomy.
  • Keep your cool. If your kids see you are embarrassed or uncomfortable, they might learn they should be embarrassed and uncomfortable talking about these issues. Children are very perceptive, so if they see you are embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about sex or sexuality development, they will pick up on that and may act the same way.
  • Be accepting. It’s important to accept their questions without judgement or laughing. Their questions and curiosity are a perfectly normal and healthy part of development and should be treated as such.
  • Start small. Sometimes young children ask big questions, but aren’t necessarily looking for or ready to understand all the details. When a 3-year-old asks where babies come from, they most likely aren’t looking for a detailed lesson in anatomy or the act of making a baby. Start by sharing small bits of information with your child and continue adding more details until your child feels their question is answered. You could also try providing information a little bit beyond a child’s understanding to set the scene for future questions.
  • Check in. Review your discussion with your child and ask if they have any additional questions. Check in with your child after the fact to remind them you are willing and able to continue the conversation or ask any follow-up questions.

By being open, honest and purposeful about communicating with your child about sexuality development, you are showing them they can come to you with any question or problem, big or small. As their problems mature from playground arguments to grown-up proportions, they will feel safe and comfortable turning to you for advice.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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