Talking to your kids about anything relating to sex can be awkward. Talking about sensitive topics like sexuality isn’t easy, especially if you weren’t raised in a family that had these conversations. But awkward as you might feel, there are plenty of good reasons for diving into conversations about sex, reproduction and consent as early as preschool.
“Preschoolers have bodies and they are aware that there are societal rules in terms of which parts of your body you may display and you may not in public,” explains Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different. She has also written two books for children, Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts and Changing You! A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality.
It's important for parents to be the first source of information on topics related to sexuality according to Saltz. Kids begin talking about these topics early, and if you're there to provide correct information, you may avoid them learning things that aren’t true — and you can also establish yourself as a trusted source of information. Having these conversations early and often communicates to your child that they don’t have to be embarrassed to come to you with questions.
Starting the conversation isn’t easy, so don’t feel bad if you are a little embarrassed to bring it up or worry about saying too much on the topic. It is helpful to remember that the way you are thinking about sexuality isn’t the way your preschooler is thinking about it.
“Most parents end up feeling nervous because they are thinking with their adult mind and imagining things that they would not want their child to know yet,” says Saltz. “You are somehow imagining that this would be the information your child would be privy to, when they won’t. If you feel uncomfortable in the moment answering a question, it's OK to say, 'I’m not really sure but I will come back to you with information' and get yourself comfortable.”
So, how much do preschoolers need to know about sex? The good news is that it isn’t much — and that you can allow them to lead the conversation with their questions.
“Young preschoolers probably aren’t ready to hear about intercourse yet.” explains Saltz. “They’re not necessarily ready to hear about intercourse until it occurs to them that an egg is over here and a sperm is over there and they couldn’t really magically come together without something going on."
While Saltz says that developmentally, this idea doesn’t occur to most kids until later in elementary school, she also encourages parents to feel comfortable answering their questions if it does — because that's your child's way of telling you they're ready for a little more information.
Lastly, kids should really know that certain parts of their body are private and should only be touched by them. And if your kids want to touch their private parts, let them know that is OK, but it should be done in a private place.
Are you ready to get started? Using a book as a tool is a simple way to start open conversations. Saltz recommends using these books as a script if you are feeling especially uncomfortable.
Saltz's book, Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, is a great place to start talking about body parts with preschoolers. It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris offers age-appropriate answers for any questions your child might have about the differences between girls and boys and how babies are made. If you are looking for an option for elementary-aged children, What’s the Big Secret?: Talking about Sex with Boys and Girls uses illustrations and age-appropriate language to talk about everything from body parts to masturbation.
As your kids approach late elementary, it is a good idea to get a head start on talks about puberty. According to Saltz, kids are experiencing changes in their body earlier — and these can be alarming if they aren’t expecting them. It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Saltz’s book Changing You! A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality are both incredible resources for parents who need a little help approaching the topic of puberty.
Talking about puberty, sexuality and consent can feel uncomfortable at first, but talking with a preschooler or young elementary student is bound to be easier than bringing up the topic for the very first time with a tween. So crack open a book and set the record straight before a classmate beats you to it.