Sex education is a process best accomplished over your child’s lifetime. If parents approach this topic like any other important part of their child’s education, teaching to the level of the child are their various developmental stages, it can be a natural and intuitive process.
This page will briefly outline age appropriate teaching for parents to consider for their children:
Birth to 2 years: Use correct names for your child’s body parts. See the Anatomy page if you have any questions about what names to use. When changing diapers say things like, “Let me be sure to get your scrotum clean.” “I want to be sure I get all of this out of the opening of your vagina so you’ll be comfortable.” Decide on how you want to treat nudity in your family. There is no right way to address this, but treating modesty in a way that you hope your child will adopt is helpful. If your child walks into the bathroom while you are showering, being calm and asking them to leave will teach them that you value your privacy but your body is not something to be embarrassed about. If you quickly cover up and act embarrassed they will learn that is the better way to behave.
2-5 years: Continue to use anatomic terms for body parts. Start to make comments on things you see on TV, in the family, and with friends. When someone you know becomes pregnant, that’s a good opportunity to take about pregnancy. A 4-5 year old can learn that babies develop in the uterus or womb, and get out through the birth canal that is called the vagina. Displaying a level of affection that you feel comfortable with teaches your children that you and your partner are sexual beings, and that this is a good thing.
6-10 years: This is the age where key learning about sex and sexuality takes place. Children will hear all sorts of misinformation from friends, and this gives you as a parent the opportunity to start to teach about normal anatomy and physiology. Some girls will start breast development as early as 7-8 years old, and may start to menstruate as early as 8-9 years old. Both boys and girls should have a basic understanding of normal physical and sexual development, and this age range is the optimal time to begin to teach them about development. Some of this can be casual. As a Mom you can discuss your menstrual cycle if you are menstruating. Be sure to do this in a positive light, and not bias your children to think of a woman’s normal menstrual cycle as something to dread. Sometime about 7-9 years of age is a good time to have the first of many formal sex ed talks. The first one can focus on normal development. See the Sexual Development page for more details about this subject. Also take advantage of any questions your child asks in this age range to teach and review sex, development and start to teach values. This is the age to initially discuss masturbation. Decide how you feel about masturbation and discuss this with your child. Both boys and girls have realized that touching their genitalia gives pleasurable sensation by this age, and it is very helpful for them to know that this is normal. Many experts suggest that simply telling children that this is something to do in private is an appropriate parental approach to this subject.
11-14 years: This is the age range where you need to periodically review and expand upon the fund of knowledge you are teaching your child. Topics to be sure to cover include reviewing the ovarian and menstrual cycle physiology. Start to discuss contraception and STDs. Different children will be amazingly different in their outward interest and sexuality at these ages, but all children are aware of sex, sexuality and especially their own bodies. Asking about their feelings at this age is a key. “How did you feel when you heard Trudy is pregnant?” What did you think when you saw that young couple making out on the park bench?” This is the age to discuss dating, safety issues, and what the family expectations and rules will be.
15-18 years: All children will be exposed to sex among their peers in this age range. They need to have a solid understanding of anatomy, physiology, contraception and family values by this time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you taught them everything once at age 13 and so don’t ever need to discuss this again. Formal reviews of details of the female cycles can be helpful. A better approach may be to find ways to discuss sex and sexuality topics in every day conversations. Expand on the topics of dating and sex. One helpful suggestion is to take on the role of bad guy and thereby give your teen an easy way to say no. If you as the parent always call to talk with the parent where your child is staying overnight, then they know they need to be honest in telling you where they will be staying. If their friends suggest hatching a plan to fool you into thinking they are at a friend’s house, but really plan to be elsewhere, they can honestly and easily decline, blaming you because you always check. Decide well ahead of this age what your expectations are for behavior in your child. See the Clarify Your Own Values section for details on this topic. Then be sure you child understands your expectations. You need to balance your own values and hopes for your child with reality. Many teens will be sexually active. You may approve or disapprove of premarital sex, but it is happening. Making sure your child has the knowledge to be safe and confident while helping them internalize the values you want them to adopt is one of the toughest challenges of a parent.
18-30 years: This is the age where young adults are primarily on their own in making decisions about their sexual behavior and relationships. The values you have helped them develop will come into play here, but their personal experiences and values are fairly well developed by this time. Your role as a parent now is to be supportive and loving to your young adult child. You no longer have the role as rule maker and authoritarian. In order to maintain a valuable relationship as mentor and role model you now need to listen, help your adult child work through their decisions and issues, and give advice when asked. This can be a difficult time for many parents as their role changes
Grandparent: This is a role to define with your child. Using anatomic language is clearly a role you can continue. One great option is to have conversations with your child that the grandchildren can listen to about topics you and your child agree on is a good opportunity to teach without lecturing. Discuss this with your child, and be a part of the team in sex education in this way if your child wants the help.