My 3-year-old has been potty training, and insists on walking around the house naked (the kid is allergic to clothes). In between attempts at peeing on the potty, dunking his superhero legos in the sink, and collecting an epic number of stickers for his potty chart, he has been examining his penis, and asking a ton of questions.
“Mommy,” he asks, “when will my penis turn into a vagina?”
Some of his questions make me laugh out loud, like this last one. Others are more cut and dry, like when he asks what his scrotum is, where the poop comes out, and why his daddy has hair near his penis. I suppose all of his questions could make me laugh—and I can understand why they would make some parents quite uncomfortable—but I see them all as opportunities to start teaching him about how his body works.
I answer his questions as honestly and clearly as I can, in ways that I hope he will understand:
“No, you won’t get a vagina. Boys and men have penises; girls and women have vaginas.”
“Your poop comes out of that little hole in the back.”
“Daddy has hair down there because that’s what happens when boys grow up to be men.”
“Your scrotum is the little sack that holds your two testes.”
Like most 3-year-olds, his questions don’t end there. He wants to know what the testes are and what their purpose is. So I continue the conversation we had a few weeks ago about how babies are made.
“Remember when I said that a little piece of mommy and a little piece of daddy mixed together to make you? Well, your testes are where the little daddy pieces get made, except you don’t make them now. That happens when you grow up.”
Some things are a little more complicated to explain, but I do my best. We have a few books with illustrations (some made specifically for kids, others just general books about reproduction). The whole thing is fascinating to him, and each night he begs to read more. He really likes to look at the pictures of the sperm and eggs, and the way the cells multiply and divide to start the process of forming a fetus.
I think of all this exploration as planting seeds (not to take the sperm and egg metaphor too far!). The “sex talk” isn’t something I want to come out of the blue with my kids. I want them to have an early understanding of bodies and sex, and for us to be able to keep elaborating on it as they get older. I don’t want there to be anything secretive, strange or forbidden about any of it.
I start the conversation as soon as they become interested, which has been about 2 years old for both of my boys. They want to know where they come from, how they were born, what all the “private parts” are called, and what they are for. I don’t gloss over anything. I don’t skip the important parts. I tell it like it is, in ways that they can understand.
It’s not as hard as you might think. You’d be surprised how much small children can absorb. And if you say it simply and without laughing (I know it’s hard sometimes!), they will think it’s as normal as when you explain how flowers grow, how to bake cookies, or what the colors in the rainbow are.
We grown-ups are the ones who are uncomfortable, not the kids.
Here are some more reasons I start the conversation so young:
– I want to teach my kids to respect their bodies and to feel comfortable in their skin (body shame starts really young these days, even for boys).
– I want them to respect the bodies of the women (or men) they might become intimate with in the future.
– I want them to be able to tell me if (god forbid) anyone were to touch them inappropriately. I want them to know I am a safe person for them to report this to and that there is nothing shameful or embarrassing about telling me.
– I want them to hear about sex from me and my husband first. I don’t want them to hear about it for the first time on the school yard or from TV, the movies or the internet. They are much more likely to get incorrect information this way, and for the whole thing to sound gross, embarrassing or scary.
– I want them to know that if they choose to ask me a question about sex as they get older, I will answer it for them. I do understand that as they become teenagers, they will want to hash out some of these things on their own or with their peers. This is natural and healthy, but if they need any help along the way, I want them to feel comfortable asking me for advice or information.
By now, my 9-year-old son has a pretty basic knowledge of bodies, sex, birth, even menstruation. I’m sure there are certain aspects of it that he doesn’t understand and that the conversation will continue as he gets older and approaches puberty.
When I told him that I was writing an article about talking to my kids about sex at an early age, I asked him what he considered to be the pros and cons of our family’s approach.
The pros? That it makes him smarter.
The cons? That it might be gross.
“That’s fair enough,” I said to him. Then I asked him if he actually thought the topic of sex was gross.
“Nope,” he said.
And I guess that kind of proves my point. He understands that the way our bodies work—even the most intimate aspects of them—isn’t gross at all. It’s normal and natural.
As for my 3-year-old, I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t quite get that his penis isn’t going to morph into a vagina at some later date, but we’re working on clarifying that point. And I’ll try to hold in my laughter the next time he asks me if I have a penis hidden somewhere in my vagina.