How to talk about it
Be calm and relaxed. It’s best to be as matter-of-fact as possible when your child asks questions about sex or any other tricky topic so that he doesn’t get the message that talking to you about certain things can be embarrassing or taboo.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Many adults feel awkward talking about sex with a child because they don’t have much practice doing it and because they’re afraid of telling too much once a discussion gets going. The best strategy is to try to answer questions kindly and calmly, however unusual or embarrassing it seems.
If talking about sex with your child is difficult for you, try rehearsing your answers in advance, either in your head or with your spouse or partner. Take advantage of questions that come up when you and your child are both at ease – in the playroom while you’re working on a puzzle, at snack time, or during those quiet moments when you’re tucking him into bed. The car is also a great place to talk about touchy subjects, since having to keep your eyes on the road allows you to avoid eye contact, which may help you stay more relaxed.
“The important thing is for a parent to explain difficult topics without seeming anxious,” says Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University. “The child is picking up the melody line, not the words.”
Keep it simple. At this age, the best answers are short and uncomplicated. “You’re wondering where you came from? You were made in Mommy’s tummy, and that’s where you grew until you were ready to be born.”
While you don’t want to sound like a doctor, use the correct names for body parts (“penis” and “vagina,” not “wee-wee” or “pee-pee”). It will lessen any sense that sexual topics are off-limits and embarrassing.
A 3-year-old may very well be satisfied with a one-sentence answer to his question. A 4-year-old may want to follow up: “Did Billy grow in Daddy’s tummy? How does the baby get food when he’s in there? When’s he going to get out?”
Keep answering his questions as long as he shows interest, but don’t overload him with information if he’s ready to stop and go play with his blocks.
Encourage his interest. No matter what your child’s question, try not to snap, “Where did you get that idea?” or dodge the conversation with, “We’ll talk later; now it’s time for lunch.” Either way, your preschooler will get the clear message that his natural and sensible questions are taboo, and that he’s bad for even thinking of them.
Instead, compliment him with, “That’s a good question” (which also buys you a moment to think about your answer). After your talk, encourage him to “Ask me some more any time you want to.”
Of course, you never know when or where a preschooler’s questions will pop up. He may ask what a vagina is – loudly – in line at the supermarket, in which case you can quietly answer his question and then explain that it’s best to have discussions about private parts in private.
Even if your child creates an embarrassing situation for you, try not to put him off. Your child will need to rely on your willingness to talk honestly with him as he steers his way through the confusions of childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
Use everyday opportunities. You don’t have to wait for your child to start asking all the questions. Find opportunities to talk about sex when they come up naturally. For example, talk about body parts when your child is having a bath or conception when you let him know he’s going to be a big brother.
Many children’s books and videos also provide opportunities for talking about babies and how they’re born. Some parents use story time to look at children’s books that are specifically about reproduction.
“I recommend How Babies Are Made, by Andrew Andry and Steven Schepp,” says Pearl Simmons, an education specialist who teaches parenting classes at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “You can sit down with your child and say you have a great book to share with them.”
Teach privacy. Your preschooler can understand about “private time,” and he can learn that he needs to knock before coming in when your door is closed.
Be sure to follow the same rule yourself when your child’s door is shut. He may not really desire privacy at this age (in fact, he may still want bathroom company), but he’ll better understand the household rule if you follow it, too.
A preschooler can also learn that his private parts are private, and that no one should touch him there but Mom, Dad, the doctor or nurse, and then only for help after using the toilet or for a checkup.
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