Facts of life for young children: what to say, when and how
Don’t wait for the Big Talk, educate your child little by little about their sexuality
Parents worry that if they start talking about anything relating to sexuality, they’re going to have to go the whole way. Whereas in fact, children’s curiosity about some particular aspect is often quickly sated. Photograph: iStock
Most parents aspire to raise children to be knowledgeable and comfortable about their bodies and sexuality by the time they approach adulthood. That’s all fine in theory, but many struggle to put it into practice.
What to say, when and how?
If you start too early, will your child be the precocious one in the playground explaining how babies are made to wide-eyed peers? Or if you leave it too late, will they get half-baked information from other sources?
If you’re inclined to procrastinate, it will never seem the right time. They’ll ask when they’re ready, you think. Yet you wouldn’t dream of holding back on other essential elements of education for life, such as road safety and personal hygiene, until they ask.
In today’s evolving sexual culture, we want our children to have body confidence and autonomy
For today’s generation of parents, the chances are their own experiences in gleaning the facts of life are not what they want for their own children, so there’s no parenting model to follow. Even if your own parents did a reasonably good job in this regard, they were living in very different times.
The notion that sexuality is not cloaked in sin and shame but an integral part of health and wellbeing is a relatively new concept for Irish society. In today’s evolving sexual culture, we want our children to have body confidence and autonomy, and to be at ease with maintaining and respecting boundaries.
But reaching that point is a gradual process, best begun in early childhood. The recent publication by the Health Service Executive of the story booklet, Tom’s Power Flower – a gentle explanation of how babies are made, along with a parental guide, is aimed at helping parents to talk to children aged four or five upwards about relationships, sexuality and growing up.
In the story, a teacher uses a classroom exercise of planting and growing flower seeds as an opportunity to explain how children start out as tiny seeds too. The correct biological terms of womb, penis and vulva are used, but it stops short of mentioning how the seed gets into the womb.
That bit was taken out when the story was tested with focus groups, says Helen Deely, head of the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme. But the accompanying guide includes suggestions on how to deal with that question.
“Parents felt maybe it was just a little bit too far, so we put it in the parents’ support book, so parents can have that conversation if they want to.” The line is simply “the man gives the woman the sperm”.
Lots of parents are very comfortable with that “but some were concerned about giving too much information”, she says.
The HSE believes parents have primary responsibility for educating children about relationships, sexuality and growing up, which is then reinforced through the education system. However, research showed that parents needed support, she says, “and in some way needed permission, nearly, to start having that conversation with their children. They were looking for a trusted resource or authority to support them in having it.”
The production of these booklets was driven by research that the HSE commissioned from the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Drawing on interviews with more than 90 parents, the resulting study, “Supporting Parents Communicating with Children Aged 4-9 Years about Relationships, Sexuality and Growing Up”, reflects how complex it is for mothers and fathers to explain these matters to their offspring.
Fear about the sexualisation of children can mean that all talk and exploration of certain parts of the body are shut down
“It seemed like they were in very tricky terrain,” says lead author Dr Catherine Conlon, assistant professor in social policy at TCD. What she found striking was that while there were huge differences in how parents wanted to, and did, approach this topic, there was enormous consensus that they wanted to do it differently from how they were parented.
They are keen to move away from framing sexuality as sinful, shameful and potentially damaging to your life chances. Yet fear about the sexualisation of children can mean that all talk and exploration of certain parts of the body are shut down in a way that gives out the very signals we’re trying to avoid.
There’s no need, for instance, to freak out about your child playing “doctors” with friends. Where there is no significant difference in age or power between the children, it’s usually just part of normal play, which is their way of making sense of the world around them.
Parents speak of being aware that young children want to explore different sensations they get from parts of their bodies. They want to help children understand that those feelings are natural and healthy but at the same time teach them about privacy – the notions of “my private life” and “my private body”.
“They wanted to know how they can convey that to their child without attaching shame and negative messages.” After all, there’s a contradiction in encouraging them not to keep secrets but at the same time suggesting that talk of these matters is for family only.
“Children become attuned to the idea that there is something about the body and those sensations that are kind of tricky and put my mother into a bit of a state,” says Conlon. “There is just an inkling there that there is something different about this topic.”
What really worries parents is that if they start talking about anything relating to sexuality, they’re going to have to go the whole way. Whereas in fact, children’s curiosity about some particular aspect is often quickly sated.
Conlon relates how one father had instinctively batted away a question from his daughter but then realised it was something he really needed to address. He psyched himself up for the big talk and sat down with her.
There were biscuits on the table and he was just getting into full flight when she said, “Can I have that biscuit?”
“He just needed to say the first couple of things and her curiosity was satisfied, her question was answered,” she says. “Her attention span was over and she just wanted to have the biscuit and get out of the room.”
Children aren’t asking for the full story, she stresses. “They are asking the question they are asking. What we write over the child’s question is our anxieties about the sexualisation of children.”
Out of step
Another big inhibition in starting the conversation is concern about being out of step with fellow parents. The research shows that some parents are clearly active from the get go, determined to pace the discussion and education of the child their way and to hell with the consequences. But they are the minority.
“The most common scenario was that whenever they thought about saying something to their child, they imagined their child saying it again in the school yard.” The litmus test is if the child goes into school tomorrow and says this, what will the fall-out be?
This means either the parent tells them not to be saying this to their friends and then agonises about that, or they hesitate, or they just don’t say it at all.
It’s also why parents are often happy enough to leave it up to the schools to make the running in teaching these things. It “sets a kind of tempo”, says Conlon and normalises it for the peer group.
One of the recommendations coming out of this research is better liaison between schools and parents. We may be quick to sign the consent form for Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) but how many of us know exactly what is being covered and how?
Anyway, the approach varies from school to school and even from teacher to teacher. As parents we probably need to ask ourselves why, if we find it so difficult, do we think it will be any easier for teachers?
However, personally Conlon is not sure that schools bringing in an outside person for RSE is advisable either “because that marks it again as a disruptive thing”. It sends the message that there is something unsettling attached to bits of the body that we treat it so differently.
It’s clear from the research that parents are split over basics, such as whether or not to use the correct terms when talking to children about the genitals.
It tends to be particularly challenging for parents to use the correct name for the female parts
“There’s still uneasiness,” she acknowledges. Some parents think the scientific names are harsh and cold, and believe “soft names” might make children feel happier about those parts of the body. It tends to be particularly challenging for parents to use the correct name for the female parts.
But the notion that anatomical terms are “harsh” is surely all in our heads due to a habit of using pet names, whereas a word children have never heard before is just a new sound, free of inbuilt meaning.
Conlon sees growing awareness that “a whole life, whole family approach” is needed to foster healthy sexuality. However, “it seems to me we are putting a very high bar on children to assert their interest and curiosity in their quest for information”.
Children give us non-verbal cues all the time and, in other contexts, we’re quick to make connections, she points out. For example, if we’re out for a walk and a child finds an acorn, we are happy to give them the full story about how it can grow into an oak tree.
“The child would never have gone there; you’ve gone here, you’ve made those connections. But when it’s anything to do with the body, we see those connections and try to shut them down.” We’re most likely to think “whew, I got away with that there”.
Parents need more support in looking out for those cues and being prepared in their own heads to “layer” in a bit more information whenever the chance arises, rather than waiting to “load” it into The Talk. These latest resources are aimed at parents of four to nine-year-olds because the advice is to lay the groundwork well before puberty. That’s when children stop listening so readily to parents on these matters, as highlighted in previous HSE research on educating pre-adolescent and adolescent children on sexuality, led by Prof Abbey Hyde.
“We accept children will turn away from parents, it’s very natural, and turn to other sources like peers and popular culture,” says Conlon. But where it has been established in a home that it is okay to talk about sex, “If they encounter something that unsettles them or makes them confused or anxious,” she adds, “they know they can come back and pick up the conversation.”
Updated advice for parents of children aged two to 12 can be found on sexualwellbeing.ie.
Seven tips for talking to young children about relationships, sexuality and growing up
- Prepare yourself: Decide in your own mind what attitudes and values you want to pass on and look up resources on how best to do this.
- Start early and keep it simple: Build a healthy habit of honest communication about sensitive issues.
- Layer, don’t load: Look for teachable moments in everyday life rather than saving it all up for one big Talk.
- Go beyond the facts: Discuss your views on healthy relationships.
- Be a ‘tellable’ parent: Listen to what your child is saying rather than jump in with judgment.
- Be an ‘askable’ parent: Welcome your child’s curiosity and ask gentle questions to see what your child already knows before adding new information.
- Teach body ownership: Your child needs to know that they don’t have to let anyone touch them in a way that is unsafe or unwanted, nor can they do that to anyone else.
- Source: HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme