I am a mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 5, I have a Master’s degree in Public Health Education, and I have over ten years experience as a sex educator. Yes, I’m that mom who can’t wait until her kids ask where babies come from.
The term “sex education” is widely misunderstood. What most people don’t understand is that sex education is built upon a foundation of anatomical and emotional vocabulary, self-respect, self-exploration, body image, family values, communication and negotiation skills – and that’s just in the toddler/preschool years!
Sex education begins when you look into your baby’s eyes, meet their basic needs, and start to build a safe and secure attachment. The baby will cry, communicating the only way it knows how, and you’ll meet its needs, which is how your child starts to trust you.
Diapering is another of those early opportunities you have to create positive experiences and foster brain development. Use gentle touches. Use positive language. Don’t use words like gross, disgusting, and stinky because remember that you are applying those words to their genital area and they need to have a positive relationship with their private parts. If they reach for their genitals while you’re changing them, don’t swat their hand away because that gives them the sense that there’s something wrong with them, that somehow touching their own body is wrong. Instead, gently move their hand to the side.
Before you know it, your 12-18 month old seems to be picking up a new word every day. By this time, you’re asking her where her nose, elbows, ears, and toes are so why not include the rest of the anatomical parts? Your son doesn’t have a “birdie” or a “ding dong,” he has a penis, scrotum and testicles. Your daughter doesn’t have a “vajajay” or a “potty maker,” she has a vulva and a vagina. Your daughters can’t see their vaginas so it is best to use the correct term for the part they can see and touch (vulva). You may feel weird saying these words especially if your parents didn’t raise you using these words, but practice makes perfect. An elbow is an elbow, a back is a back, and a penis is a penis. Send the message that you are comfortable talking about their bodies because after words come sentences. And questions. Oh, the questions.
Seize questions and teachable moments like they are winning lotto tickets floating from the sky. If you aren’t sure how to answer their questions, follow these tips.
Using that technique, here’s a conversation I had with my almost-three year old:
Daughter: “How did the baby get out?”
Me: “How do you think it happened?”
Daughter: “It boomed out of her mouth.”
Me: “Well, that’s interesting.”
And maybe you’re wondering why the sex educator mom didn’t tell her daughter the whole truth… well, I know my child best. I knew her body of knowledge and vocabulary about the topic and she was still 2 years old. I did not think it was age-appropriate to tell her the whole truth at that time. Lucky for me, she asked me again recently and I told her that a baby comes out either through the vagina or by surgery. Children ask more sexuality-related questions by 8 years old than they will the rest of their childhood and adolescence. Take advantage!
My two year old is starting to sit up on the changing table with legs spread apart to examine her vulva. I let her. I say, “that is your vulva.” She repeats after me. And just like that, a valuable teachable moment occurs.
When my oldest was three she had some questions about pregnancy. A well-intentioned friend told her that her baby was in the tummy, but she knew the tummy to be the stomach, where food goes. I clarified for her, “the baby actually grows inside of a very strong muscle called the uterus.” Teachable moment.
Messages about privacy and self-exploration are now working their way into conversations with my four year old. She has discovered that it “tickles” when she touches herself. I tell her it is ok as long as she does it in private. We also teach her that other people want privacy when they are in the bathroom and changing rooms.
My husband and I avoid using the f word. Not the swear word, the FAT word. We are both aware that early adoption of a healthy body image will directly influence her sexual decision making later in life. If she values and respects her body, she’ll hold her future partners to the same standard.
A lot of the messaging about family values at this age is unspoken. Do you shower or get dressed in front of your little one? Do you show affection to your spouse and/or extended family members? Do you look at yourself in the mirror with appreciation or disdain? What role does your faith play? Do you and your spouse argue respectfully or not? And much of it is spoken, hopefully loud and clear.
So the next time someone tells you that your child is too young to receive sex education, tell them they are wrong. In the beginning, sex education isn’t about sex at all. It’s about giving your child a solid foundation to stand on. Help them learn to love, respect, and trust during the early years because it’ll make a huge difference during their adolescence. Be open, be honest, and don’t fear THE BIG TALK. You know you’re doing it right if you’re having many little talks. You can do this!