It seems as though all conversations with my kids, some of which make me the most uncomfortable, happen in the car. Recently, my five-year-old shared something about herself that made me question how open-minded I truly am as a parent. It also made me reevaluate my own idea of what sexual behavior (and health) is. She told me that a simple blanket between her legs during bedtime felt good to her — like, physically good. My baby was telling me something sexual in nature that I’d never thought my kid would tell me. I am grateful we can have this conversation in particular and I (and she) can educate her on what sexual health looks like even at five years old. What she shared with me certainly was unexpected, but as I am learning, completely normal, healthy and age-appropriate.
“Sexual behavior” is a term I am learning to incorporate into my toolbox as a parent. There is no better person (aside from my wife) for our kids to learn about sexual health from than us. Your child’s age and their development will inform how they explore their own bodies, understand sexual behavior, and — through your guidance — understand what sexual health is.
When our twin daughters were three years old and learning about body parts, they began to call penises “peanuts” and it was just so darn cute, I waited to correct them. Today, they are five years old, and I know the importance of using anatomically correct names, so they know the correct way to say “penis.” Their new questions are more practical, like “why do boys wear different underwear than girls?” — that I can answer easily.
When children are in the 2-6 year old range, they are learning about their bodies, including their genitals, and their curiosity about others’ private parts begins — for my daughters, especially, about breasts and their function. The way we navigated these discussions in our house (with the exception of the peanut term) was by clearly and succinctly answering their questions, even if it made me a little uncomfortable to discuss. We had lots of conversations about how and why they were breastfed. But just as they kept asking, we kept answering, because we wanted them to have the truth about how the body works and to be comfortable with, not ashamed of, its natural functions.
My kids now fit into the 6-9 age range of sexual behavior and development, and their questions and curiosity are right on schedule. They ask for more privacy. They are independent in the bathroom and still ask lots of questions, like “how exactly does a baby come out of a vagina” or more recently “which hole does the baby come out of?” — and all of their questions are developmentally appropriate. It is also during this age range that they begin to masturbate in private. GASP!
As Deborah Gilboa, a family physician, writes in a piece for Scary Mommy, you can teach your children to be discrete about masturbation, but you should never shame them for it. “Learning about […] what feels good, and what all the parts are for is an important step on the road to being a healthy young adult.”
If nothing else, we know as parents that our kids like to feel good, and masturbating is one way for them to obtain that kind of pleasure. It’s our job to let them know it’s perfectly okay. If kids are masturbating in the company of others or in public, it’s time for a different kind of conversation; don’t shame them for it, but explain that it’s a private thing that should be done only in spaces where they can be alone.
It’s also never too early to begin teaching our kids about consent: that their bodies and their genitals are theirs alone, and that it is absolutely their right to say no if someone is touching them in a way they feel uncomfortable with. We also want to empower them to tell us, or another trusted adult, if these things happen to them. This should be an ongoing conversation with our kids that starts early and evolves as they grow and mature.
As our kids develop, so does their understanding of what healthy sexual behavior can be. Within the 10-13 age range, masturbation continues, hopefully in private, and interest in the opposite (or same!) sex begins to develop as they think about boyfriends and girlfriends. They begin to use sexual language like masturbation or sex or intercourse. As their understanding of what sexual behavior is grows, so will their vocabulary. They will grow to understand what they (and their bodies) like and don’t like. They will begin to understand attraction and the role it plays in their lives, especially as they enter middle school. But remember that our kids are diverse, as are their needs and their sexual development, and there is no rule that says they have to be attracted to someone when they hit a certain age group.
I want my kids to feel heard, understood, and accepted for who they are. And part of that is wrapped up in their sexual health and their behaviors. No one wants to walk in on their kid masturbating (believe me, it’s traumatizing for all), but what we can do is leave the door open (see what I did there?) for discussion with them, at any age, whenever they want to talk – and encourage them to come to us with questions by approaching it calmly and with zero shame.
Learning about what their bodies can and can’t do for them is not an education our kids are responsible for obtaining on their own. Just as we help promote their growth and development in other areas, we should promote their sexual health too. Our job is to keep our kids safe and happy — emotionally, physically, mentally, and sexually — and to teach them how to do the same.