Talking to Your Kids About Sex
Marika B. Constantino
Children by nature are inquisitive. Once they are old enough to articulate their curiosity, questions ensue. This usually begins when they are around two years of age. As children become more aware of the people, environment and circumstances around them the barrage of “who, what, why, when and where” questions are to be expected. Now when queries are related to sex and sexuality the difficulty level is raised a notch. This should not be greeted with alarm or panic. One must handle such sensitive situations with composure, wit, candor and fortitude.
The discussion amongst friends on a rainy Friday night revolved around this subject matter. Their children ranged from ages 4 to 10. Each one had their way of coping but most had a little bit of doubt on how to best face the inquisition.
“My son Amado is only 4 years old and has just started preschool. Don’t you think it is way too early to talk to him about the facts of life,” said Ron-gem Bautista, a musician. A number of experts have suggested that parents should talk to kids about sex early on. Starting with the use of correct anatomical terms for private parts makes future conversations about sex less awkward. According to Dr. Erlinda Cuisia-Cruz, a Pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine, “As hard as it may be, as parents we need to use the correct terms in relating to the genitals. Vagina, penis or even its corresponding local terms should be used to avoid confusion in our children. This also prevents malice in the usage of these terms. If we are uncomfortable to use these words in front of our children, they, too, will be uncomfortable in using it and may even think of them as ‘dirty’ words.”
However, discussions on sex and sexuality should be based on the child’s age, maturity and level of understanding. For Dr. Cuisia-Cruz, “This should be done according to the developmental capacity of the child. Some children are more mature than others depending on their exposure in the family and the environment. Sex and sexuality encompasses a wide range of topics and issues from femaleness and maleness to sexual development, puberty, etc. to issues on homosexuality. It would be difficult to set an actual age when this should be done but developmental and age appropriateness should be the foremost consideration.” One should start answering questions whenever children start asking them.
“Feeling that my kids are not ready, I use the ‘mystical approach.’ I shroud it in mystery to avoid more difficult topics,” laughingly volunteers Prof. Rex Isidro, father of 10-year-old Emma and 4-year-old Jerry. This is countered by his wife Viola who is a doctor, “You should answer them as truthfully as possible. Don’t shy away from their questions.” Dr. Cuisia-Cruz concurs, “Safety is an important reason why we answer these questions. Educating our children is another prime consideration. We can hold off giving the answers if we believe it is not yet time. But do not evade the topic and in certain cases when you are unprepared to respond, be honest enough to say that you don’t know the answer. Then get back to them as soon as you know the reply to their inquiry.”
Since our children’s well being is of primary importance, this may be a good time to introduce to them the concepts of ‘appropriate and non-appropriate touch.’ Dr. Cuisia-Cruz has these to say, “It is important to use ‘teachable moments’ when talking about this issue. Like when you hear stories in the news about being safe, or when we are talking about hygiene or teaching them to wash after they use the bathroom and to take a bath. The problem comes when we don’t take time to teach them proper hygiene at an early age. I still encounter parents asking maids and other caretakers to wash their children after they use the bathroom or to give them baths. When they are 6 or 7 years old, children should be doing these themselves in order to prevent such occurrences.”
A good resource is Questions Children Ask by Dr. Miriam Stoppard which is an all-inclusive guidebook that assists parents to answer the many challenging questions on various subjects that children ask. According to the book Dr. Stoppard, who has written several books on health, parents can answer in this manner: “You never have to kiss or hug anyone if you don’t want to. It’s never right for a person who’s older than you to touch you down there, so you must always tell me. No, you don’t have to keep secrets from Mommy or Daddy, even if someone says something bad will happen if you do. Tell me at once and I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you.”
Notwithstanding, we must keep in mind that kids explore their genitals and even their playmates’ bodies due to their natural curiosity. ‘Playing doctor’ is a childhood activity that must not be met with punishment. “Jerry undresses in public and even shows off his genitals. He does this to get laughs and with no malice whatsoever,” shares Viola. Real harm comes when this is met with revulsion. This causes kids to surmise that there is something wrong with their body. Instead of reacting negatively parents can respond like this “You might catch a cold. Maybe it would be better if you dress up.” Dr. Cuisia-Cruz adds, “These things are all part of normal development of children. It is important to tell the children that there is a right time and place for everything. It would be better as parents to address these issues ourselves when it happens in a not-too-serious or too-playful way. One way of doing this is to explain the consequences of these actions. Do not over-react if they happen to pick up these bad habits of showing their genitals in public from other people, especially from TV and movies. Tell them calmly that this should not be done. Remember, any reaction from people around them is a positive reinforcement whether it is anger or laughter, so be calm. Moreover, we must encourage questions from our children so that their curiosity is not heightened by evading the subject.” As Dr. Stoppard wrote, “It is important to remember that all babies explore their genitals from about four months. This is a continuous process of development and children never naturally stop touching or feeling themselves. As they get older they may realize that touching their genitals is pleasurable, but a young child’s masturbation has nothing to do with sex as we think of it; it stems from a desire to explore and understand.”
“Shouldn’t mothers handle their daughters and fathers their sons?” asks Erick Estrada, an import/export trader with a 10-year-old daughter, Jaycee and a 9-year-old son, Pocholo. “Sometimes I feel it is less awkward that way,” he adds. Following gender lines is a conventional approach. But it is also a good idea to traverse this barrier. The Whole Parenting Guide written by Alan Reder, Phil Catalfo and Stephanie Renfrow Hamilton states that “Moms have a lot to share with their sons about sex – for example, helping them understand how girls feel about things – and dads can do the same for their daughters. These cross-gender talks can, and should, break down gender stereotypes about sex.” This is a good reference to refer to because it tackles the physical, mental, spiritual, and social undertakings of childrearing in an inspiring and practical approach.
Ultimately, our views on sex are transferred to our children. When asked how they value sex, Chung-chung and Epi San Rafael playfully answered in unison “We value sex very much!” Sexual attitudes and even biases are passed on to kids. “Sex is something beautiful, something that is to be shared with someone special,” the couple adds. This is what they wish to eventually convey to their three kids: 8-year-old Anton, 4-year-old Reena and 2-year-old Raya. The Whole Parenting Guide affirms that: “Preparing kids for sexual maturity takes more than just talking about sex. Teach your kids that every act has consequences. Also teach them to respect the rights and bodies of others and stress to them that they deserve the same. All of these things have obvious relevance to sexuality. In addition, building up children’s self-esteem will help them resist pressures to have sex when they reach their teen years.”
Having open discussions about sex promotes a healthy dialogue between parents and children. For Dr. Cuisia-Cruz, “All these questions are worth our while to answer especially if it means making our children safe and healthy, physically, mentally and psychosocially.” It should be treated as an on-going and on-demand type of subject matter and not a one-time comprehensive lecture. Besides, it is better for our kids to learn the answers from us, parents, rather than they base it on the half-truths they hear in the play ground, myths from their playmates or their own wild imagination. These are great opportunities to build communication lines and relay mutual trust and respect within the family. Take advantage of it.
Outlined below are common questions that children ask. The answers are mere suggestions. Your response should depend on your child’s capacity to understand and process the answer.
Dr. Erlinda Cuisia-Cruz’ suggestions:
- Where do babies come from?
- This must be answered as simply as possible: Babies result from their Daddy and Mommy’s love for each other. They grow inside Mommy’s tummy and come out after 9 months.
- How did the baby get inside the tummy?
- They start first as an egg from Mommy which is fertilized by the sperm from Daddy. Babies grow in their Mommy’s tummy for nine months until they are big enough to come out. (Pictures and illustrations can be used to show this).
- How did I come out? Was it painful?
- You came out from the vagina / from the tummy. (Use pictures and illustrations to show this). Admit that it was painful but explain that it was all worth it when they came out.
Dr. Mirriam Stoppard suggestions from Questions Children Ask:
- What is a vagina?
- The vagina is a tube that goes up into your body from the opening between your legs. The vagina is the tube that male seeds travel along to make a baby. It stretches open so the baby can be born.
- What is a penis?
- All boys and men have penises. A penis does two things: it gets rid of water and other things that you don’t need in your body in urine, and when a man is grown-up it helps him to make a baby. All penises grow hard now and then, especially if you touch or hold them. Daddy’s penis is exactly like yours, except it’s quite a bit bigger.
- What is sex?
- Sex is a special sort of cuddling that Mommies and Daddies do to show they love each other. It is one way that two grown-ups who love each other can get as close as possible to cuddle and kiss in a special way. Sometimes a man and a woman can start a baby when they have sex.
- Viola Isidro and Rex Isidro, Chung-chung and Epi san Rafael, Ron-gem Bautista, Erick Estrada
- Dr. Erlinda Cuisia-Cruz, Pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine
- Questions Children Ask by Dr. Miriam Stoppard
- The Mother’s Almanac by Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons
- The Whole Parenting Guide by Alan Reder, Phil Catalfo and Stephanie Renfrow Hamilton
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