In parenting workshops, we like to use practice questions as a group to discuss possible answers. Here are a few examples for children aged 3 to 9.
Mummy, why are you bleeding?
Even if you close the door when you’re changing your pad, tampon or washing out your cup, three-year-olds haven’t quite grasped the concept of privacy. Although common guidelines suggest just answering what is asked, in this case, you may want to consider what is not being asked; namely, “are you hurt?”
“Honey, I didn’t cut myself. I’m not hurt. The blood is coming from inside and will stop in a few days. It’s normal.”
Of course, that still doesn’t answer the question: “Why?” Until recently, I was suggesting, “Because my body is showing me I’m not going to have a baby”; but that doesn’t cover every woman’s situation.
In the same way, “Where do babies come from?” can be a minefield. Cory Silverberg’s book, What Makes a Baby? speaks to everyone, no matter how their child was “made.” LGBTQ parents who use assisted reproduction or adopt will appreciate the way he leaves the details to the parent, while sticking to some very basic notions about sperm and egg.
Some people like to start with, “Where do you think they come from?” to tease out the correct information from the bizarre. In my experience, for a three-year-old, “They grow inside their mummy’s body” seems to be generally acceptable. If the next question is, “Where?” the answer can be, “In a special place called the uterus.”
“How does it get inside?”
“It grows from something very small.”
“To make a baby, you need something from a man and something from a woman.”
When you get to the part where the sperm and egg actually get together, you have some options besides sending your child to bed and calling your best friend. For those parents who specifically explain vaginal intercourse, some may want to emphasize choice and consent; for others, it’s love; for still others, it is based in norms around marriage. Whatever the option, what’s important is clarity, but not graphic detail. Many parents prefer telling the story in the third person. A biological child may not want those images in their heads.
“Why did the man in the park want to show me his penis?”
Again, the explanation may have to wait until you have dealt with the situation.
“He wasn’t supposed to do that. You didn’t do anything wrong, but we need to call the police. Do you remember what he looked like?”
After the dust settles, the explanation needs to avoid the suggestion of mental illness. Many parents say “he’s sick”, which is statistically not true. “He does it because it gives him pleasure” is more accurate; “but people can’t do everything that gives them pleasure, especially when it hurts others.”
“Why don’t girls have penises?” used to be a slam dunk before we became more aware of variations in gender. “Girls have something like a penis, but you can only see the tip of it and they don’t pee out of it” still works. For some of us, it’s an opportunity to laud the clitoris. (Personally, I used to go on ad nauseum about how excellent this organ is.)
I did promise to cover, “When can I have sex?” which is a question more likely to come up when a child is entering puberty. The answer really depends on your philosophy. Do any of these answers sound like what you might say?
For girls who are likely to have sex with guys:
“You can have sex when your body is ready and you are ready to protect your body. That means waiting until about age 18 and using protection every time.”
For any child:
“You can have sex when you can talk openly and freely with your partner about your feelings, about the risks and about what you would do if there was a problem.”
“You can have sex when you’re married.”
“I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘sex’. There are some sexual things you can do that are quite safe and others that are higher risk.”
This is a good opportunity to start thinking about what you hope for your child in terms of their sexual life, and what kind of discussions will help get them there safely.