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  3. Sexual development

Sex education and talking about sex to children: 0-8 years

0-8 years

Talking about sex, sexuality, bodies and relationships in an open, honest way plays a big role in your young child’s sex education and sexual development. It’s also important to be prepared for answering your child’s questions about sex.

Talking about sex and sexuality with young children

It’s never too early to talk about sex with your child. Talking about sex, sexuality and bodies from when your child is young can help your child understand that sex and sexuality are normal, healthy parts of life. It can also make later conversations easier. 

The main message to get across to your child from early on is that he can come to you for open, honest and reliable information, and that he shouldn’t feel scared or embarrassed to ask you about sex and sexuality. 

And the good news is that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t a one-off conversation that you have to get exactly right. It’s a conversation that continues and evolves as your child grows up. 

Sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s also the way your child feels about her developing body. And it’s how your child understands and expresses feelings of intimacy, attraction and affection for others, and how she develops and maintains respectful relationships.

Three steps for talking about sex

Three basic steps can help you talk with your child about sex.

First, find out what your child already knows – for example, ‘Where do you think babies come from?’

Second, correct any misinformation and give the facts – for example, ‘No babies don’t grow in their mummy’s tummy. They grow in a special place inside their mummy called a uterus’.

Third, use the conversation as an opportunity to convey your family values – for example, ‘It’s wonderful to be pregnant when you’re ready to take care of a baby’.

Tips for talking about sex

These tips can make it easier to talk with your child about sex.

Keep language simple and honest
Explain things at a level that your child can understand. A six-year old won’t want a long explanation of ovulation, although he might be fascinated to know that women have very small eggs (or ova) that can make a baby.

It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’
Your child doesn’t need you to be an expert – she just needs to know that she can ask you anything she needs to.

If you don’t know what to say, tell your child you’re glad he asked, that you don’t know how to answer, and that you’ll look for some information and get back to him. And then make sure you do get back to him. Or you could suggest looking for information together.

Get all parents involved
In families with two or more parents, it’s good for all parents to get involved in discussions about sex. When all parents get involved in discussions about sex, they show children that it’s OK to talk about sex and sexuality. This can help all children to feel more comfortable talking about their bodies, to take responsibility for sexual feelings, and to communicate in intimate relationships when they’re older.

Start a conversation
Some children never ask questions. You might need to start the conversation. It’s a good idea to think about what to say beforehand, then pick a good time to bring the subject up. For example, if someone is talking about pregnancy on TV you could say, ‘They were talking about pregnancy on the TV earlier. It got me wondering if you know what that is?’

Prepare yourself
You might feel embarrassed talking about sexuality, or you might feel uncomfortable using words like ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ to talk about bodies. That’s normal. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself by thinking about what you’re comfortable with and building on that. For example, if you’re OK with talking about bottoms but not breasts, try using the word ‘bottom’ in conversation to start with.

Talking about sex, sexuality and bodies: tips for different ages

You’ll need to tailor what you say to your child to suit her age and level of understanding.

0-2 years
Using the correct words for body parts helps your child learn about his body, so use these words from the start – vulva, vagina, breasts, nipples, penis, scrotum, testes. You can use everyday moments to do this – for example, bath time or while you’re helping your child get dressed are good times to introduce the names of body parts.

2-3 years
Most children aged 2-3 years are very curious about their own and other children’s’ bodies. They’ll also notice that boys’ and girls’ bodies are different. Your child might ask you why or say, ‘What’s that?’ You can teach your child that every body part has a name and its own ‘job’ to do. For example, boys have a penis, and girls have a vulva.

You might find that looking at a book with your child is helpful. You can use the pictures to help your child learn the names for body parts and understand the differences between boys and girls.

4-5 years
Children aged 4-5 years often ask where babies come from. They can understand that a baby grows in a mother’s uterus, and that to make a baby you need a sperm (like a tiny seed) from a man and an ovum (like a tiny egg) from a woman.

If your child asks ‘Where do I come from?’ you could ask, ‘What do you think?’ This helps you work out what she’s really asking and how much she understands. You could give a simple explanation like ‘Babies grow in a place inside their mother called the uterus’.

If you’re pregnant your child might ask, ‘Where does the baby come out?’ Give a simple but accurate answer like ‘Your little brother is growing in my uterus. When he’s finished growing, he’ll squeeze through the birth canal, which is called the vagina’.

6-8 years
By six years old, many children are interested in how babies are made and might ask questions.

If your child asks, ‘How did the baby get into your uterus?’ ask him what he thinks. This will help you understand what your child already knows. You can explain simply, giving as much information as you’re comfortable with. For example you could say, ‘To make a baby, a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman join together.’

You could also explain that this happens when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, which is when the man puts his penis inside the woman’s vagina.

You don’t have to wait for your child to ask you a question. You could start a conversation by asking, ‘Have you ever wondered how you were born and where you came from?’ Or you might see a pregnant woman and say to your child, ‘That woman has a baby growing inside her. Do you know how the baby got there?’

You could also read a book together about where babies come from.

Talking about puberty
It’s a good idea to start talking to your child about puberty and how bodies change in puberty well before she starts puberty.

You could explain to your child that puberty is when a person’s body starts changing from a child’s body to an adult one. For example, ‘You’ll start to grow hair around your genitals and under your arms, your penis will get larger and your voice will get deeper’. 

You could ask your child if he’s noticed any older children – for example, older siblings – developing breasts, getting deeper voices or having ‘growth spurts’.

You could also read a book together to help your child understand physical and emotional changes during puberty.

It’s important for children to know the difference between touching that’s OK and touching that’s not OK. Make sure your child knows that she can say ‘No’ to any touching that she doesn’t want and to tell a trusted adult about confusing touch. Personal safety skills will help keep your child safe.

Media influences on talking about sex to children

Children are constantly exposed to media messages about sexuality, some positive and some negative.

Not all media messages about sex are negative, but many of them link being lovable and popular with being sexy or sexually aggressive (demanding or  bossy) or with a particular type of sexiness that suggests being ready to have sex.

What you can do
Use these opportunities to talk about sexuality or other important topics. For example, you could use a scene in a TV show as an opportunity to share your own family values about relationships.

Take some practical internet safety precautions – for example, check what your child is watching on YouTube, talk about rules for using the internet, and make sure you can see your child when he’s online if possible.

Check the age-ratings for movies and games and help your child make sense of what she sees in the media.

If your child does look up or come across pornography, try to stay calm. You could use this as an opportunity to talk to your child about what he’s seen and say that it’s OK to be curious about sex. You could also use it as an opportunity to talk about your family values – for example, ‘Sex is something adults can do in private’.

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Last updated or reviewed
14-06-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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