In workshops, when we ask parents when sexuality education should begin, they often answer “age 10, 12 or more.” But it doesn’t take long before someone in the group will point out that it’s much too late. With some girls beginning puberty at age seven, and sexual images at every turn, we need to reconsider.
Sexuality begins at birth; even in the womb a male fetus will have erections. The moment a baby is born and held, the lessons have begun. “Someone who loves me is holding me. I like getting my back stroked. Is that a nipple in my mouth? Oh, heaven.”
Changing a baby, we talk to them. This is a great time to start using dictionary words for their genitals such as penis and vulva instead of wiener and flower. Building a vocabulary opens the door to communication about sexuality as they grow.
A six-month-old is likely to discover their genitals. How parents react to this may vary greatly; but the message needs to be clearly thought out. If you say, “Don’t touch!” you are telling them it is not okay to have access to that part of their body, and that the pleasure they feel is not okay. If you let them explore, they are learning about the pleasures of the body, and that every part belongs to them. There will be time for them to learn that it’s not okay to have that pleasure in the supermarket.
They may accept their gender, which is congruent with the way they look, or they may not. Current research suggests that parents/guardians should take the lead from the child when there is dramatic variation in their gender behaviour.
Sexual exploration (playing house, doctor, etc.) with other children often starts around age three. It is very common. Some parents/guardians wonder about the difference between expected and unexpected sexual exploration. For those who were sexually abused as children, they may feel even more protective. An important message is that there should never be any secret touching. Children also need to know that if they have that “uh-oh” feeling, they need to tell you. If a child reports unusual sexual behaviour with another child or with someone older that concerns you, call your local child protection agency for advice. (See: www.boostforkids.org for more information.)
By this age, children are also asking questions. The rule of thumb is: answer what they ask in age appropriate terms. Include your parental message along with the factual information. For example, an answer to, “What are balls for?” may be, “They’re called testicles. They make sperm. When you grow up, if you want to make a baby, that’s what you’d need.”
You may also want to find out what they already know. So when a child asks where babies come from, you may want to ask, “Where do you think they come from?” and work with their information.
If an older child asks, “When can I have sex?” your answer may be rooted in simple physiological facts, your religious values or your personal politics.
In part two, I’ll write about some key issues for children up to nine and then some more for children going through puberty.