The “birds and the bees” talk is one that parents often put off as long as possible. But learning about sexuality is a normal part of child development, and answering your child’s questions in an honest, age-appropriate way is the best strategy. Read on for tips on what to say, and when.
What kids can understand, age by age
Ages 2 to 3: The right words for private body parts, such as “penis” and “vagina”
Ages 3 to 4: Where a baby comes from. But they won’t understand all the details of reproduction—so a simple “Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born” is fine.
Ages 4 to 5: How a baby is born. Stick with the literal response: “When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy’s vagina.”
Ages 5 to 6: A general idea of how babies are made. (“Mom and Dad made you.”) Or if your child demands more details: “A tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm joined together with a tiny cell inside Mom called an egg.”
Ages 6 to 7: A basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, “Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through the penis and up to the egg.” Explain what you think about sex and relationships. For instance: “Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other.”
Ages 8 to 9: That sex is important, which your child has probably picked up from the media and her peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic, including rape. (“Remember when we talked about sex being part of a loving relationship? Rape is when someone forces another person to have sex, and that’s wrong.”)
Ages 9 to 11: Which changes happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.
Age 12: By now, kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information your child’s getting. But avoid overkill or you’ll be tuned out.
Handling specific questions
Your child’s questions about sex don’t always come up at convenient times or in predictable ways. Some common scenarios that can catch you off guard.
Here are tips on how to respond.
Your 3-year-old is fascinated by her baby brother’s diaper changes. “what’s that?” she asks, pointing to his penis.
How to respond: You may be tempted to change the subject quickly, and fasten that diaper even faster, but that can give kids the idea that talking about private parts is taboo. Instead, be matter-of-fact and say, “That’s how you can tell the difference between a girl and a boy. It’s called a penis. You have a vagina.” Don’t be surprised if the question comes up again and again while your child sorts it all out.
You’re in line at the grocery store when your preschooler looks up and asks, “why is my penis getting hard?”
How to respond: If a question arises at an inopportune moment, it’s okay to give an incomplete answer, along with a promise to fill in the rest later on. In this case, you can say quietly, “Oh, that happens sometimes. It will get soft again soon.” Or, if the question requires a more involved answer, you can reply with “That’s a really great question. We can talk more about it in the car if you want.” But it’s important to come back to it later and answer any questions your child has.
Hoping to demystify the potty for your toddler, you let her watch you pee. she asks, “why do you have hair down there?”
How to respond: Just say that it’s natural for grown-ups to have hair in places that children don’t, especially under their arms, between their legs, and, for men, on their faces. You can also add that when she gets to be a big girl like her mother and her aunts, she’ll have hair covering her private parts, too.