When I tell people that I start having “the sex talk” with my kids when they are 2 or 3 years old, they look at me like I have four heads. Isn’t that inappropriate? Won’t it embarrass you, or them? And how the heck do you actually do something like that?
The answer to whether it is inappropriate or embarrassing is a big, fat NO.
In fact, starting the conversation early means that it will be less momentous or embarrassing as your kids get older, which is a huge plus. Trust me: I have a tween who is starting to run out of the room anytime my husband pecks me on the cheek, so I’m glad I got a bunch of the reproductive health stuff out of the way when he was young.
And listen up: Major health organizations actually recommend you talk about sex and reproduction with your toddlers. The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), for example, talks about “teachable moments” that can happen as early as 18 months, when children become naturally curious about their bodies and how they work.
The key is to take the conversation slowly, building as you go, and meeting your child where they are at in terms of interest and comprehension. The Mayo Clinic describes the “sex talk” as more of an ongoing conversation, rather than one big “birds and bees” discussion that happens all of a sudden. This makes the whole thing less shocking or uncomfortable for all parties involved.
Believe me, you don’t want to do it the way you remember it from the movies, and wait until you find your teen’s box of condoms under the bed. Talk about uncomfortable.
And as the AAP reports, discussing these things early is actually quite important — not only to avoid possible embarrassing situations as your children get older, but because teaching your children about things like body-part privacy and body autonomy can prove protective to your children, even at the earliest ages.
Unfortunately, molestation and sexual violence is more common than you might think, and teaching your children how to identify it and protect themselves against it is essential.
You want to set up a relationship with your children where they know they can go to you if anything is even a little “off” in any of their relationships (with other children or adults). Your children need to know that you are the person they can come to anytime to ask questions about anything related to sex, boundaries, and the body.
“Talking about sex and sexuality gives you a chance to share your values and beliefs with your child,” writes the AAP. “Sometimes the topic or the questions may seem embarrassing, but your child needs to know there is always a reliable, honest source she can turn to for answers — you.”
Maybe most importantly, you want your kids to be learn about these things from you before they learn about these things from the media or the school yard, especially because they are likely to absorb a mountain of misinformation this way.
Okay, you might say, but how on earth do you actually pull something like this off with a little kid? Well, you can start by talking about it all as simply and frankly as possible, in whatever way you feel comfortable doing.
For example, when your toddler asks curious questions about their private parts, you tell them their names (use proper names, no euphemisms) and their functions in whatever way makes sense to you and your child. Then when your inquisitive 3- or 4-year-old asks where they came from, you can talk about how reproduction works in more detail, even leading into conception, gestation, and birth.
You’d actually be surprised how much little kids actually “get it” all. They don’t come to the table with suppositions about what is and isn’t possible. And they certainly don’t find any of it embarrassing. They think it is like a fascinating, adventure-packed story. Really.
I find that pictures are really worth a thousand words at this age, and it turns out there are a ton of awesome sex and reproductive books geared toward (and appropriate for) very young children. My kids have always loved So That’s How I Was Born. It’s a pretty old-fashioned, dinky little book from the ‘80s, but it’s the one my husband had growing up, and it totally gets the job done.
Other more modern favorites among parents and kids include What Makes a Baby, Amazing You: Getting Smart About Your Body Parts, It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, and Where Did I Come From?
I also find that talking about reproduction through the lens of nature helps. My kids and I talk about how flowers need to be pollinated in order to grow, and how a fish’s egg needs to be fertilized to make life happen. We have watched many YouTube videos about plant and animal life-cycles, and then found ways to relate it all back to human reproduction.
Really, there are no hard and fast rules here. Just be open with your kids, and open-minded about their reactions (which are sometimes humorous, but usually more positive and relaxed than you might imagine). Sex, bodies, and reproduction are natural and normal — it’s mostly just us grown-ups who have hang-ups around discussing it with our kids.
But it truly is vital that we push that all aside and just start talking — and that we do so as early as possible.