When my grandma got her period, she thought she was dying. Her mom never told her what would happen to her body during puberty or gave her any information about sex. I can only imagine the trauma of suddenly bleeding from your most private of parts without any background on why.
As a result, she shared this crucial information early and often with her own daughters, my mom and aunts, who then shared early and often with me. Still, my mom claims I started the “where do babies come from?” conversation with her when I was 7 years old. In my memory, I felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the deluge of information entering my young mind. I remember she had a paperback book with black and white illustrations and many, many mentions of the “birth canal.”
The next day, I shared everything I’d learned with my best friend on the school bus.
So when I was pregnant with my second child and my own daughter started asking me where babies came from, I kept it simple at first — “When two people love each other, they can make a baby, and the baby grows inside mommy’s tummy until it’s ready to come out.” But after her sister was born and she saw the scar from my C-section, she began asking more firmly, “But how does the baby actually get in the mom’s tummy?”
So I wondered, is she ready to hear about the birth canal?
Everyone has their own memories of “the talk.” In polling our editors, I learned some were handed a book, some learned in school, and some were told, “I know you think babies are cute, but just don’t.” But how do we know the right time and the right way to answer their questions? Turns out, there are some age-appropriate guidelines to help.
When They’re Toddlers
Use the Proper Names for Private Parts
Using nicknames for private parts can make kids feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when they have to use the terms as they grow. Additionally, it can make it more difficult for them to communicate problems, pain, or even potential abuse to parents or other safe adults.
Talk About Touch
Touching their genitals is another normal behavior in babies and toddlers. They’re exploring their bodies and touching them feels good. They should begin to understand that touching their private parts should be done in private as well.
Additionally, erections are common in baby boys. If your son begins asking questions about the physical change in his penis, a physical answer will likely suffice. “It means there’s a change in blood flow to your penis. It’s natural and can happen for no particular reason,” recommends Dr. Laura Berman, in her book Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Turning “The Talk” Into a Conversation for Life.
Toddler-aged children can begin to understand the difference between a touch that makes them feel good and a bad touch — one that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable, and it’s important to include as part of the conversation.
When They’re a Little Older
Let Them Lead to Avoid Oversharing
When your child begins to ask questions about bodies and babies, you can start answering their questions in a simple and age-appropriate way. “Don’t answer more than they’re asking,” Berman said.
In her book, she suggests parents can talk about eggs that live inside a mommy’s body and seeds called sperm that live inside a daddy’s body. And when they come together, they make a baby. If they ask more questions, keep the answers simple and matter-of-fact — “When a mommy and daddy want to have a baby, the daddy puts his penis inside the mommy’s vagina, and the sperm comes out and travels to her egg.”
Berman says to remember that kids don’t see the mechanics of sex as erotic; rather they’re just curious.
What About Same-Sex Couples, Gestational Carriers, and IVF?
Depending on your family, sometimes your own children’s curiosity may not be satisfied with the above explanation, or you may want to broaden their understanding of how families are made. You can reiterate that it takes an egg and sperm to make a baby, and a uterus for it to grow in, but there are other ways an egg and sperm can meet. And sometimes it takes more than just two people to make a baby.
Nancy Freeman-Carrol, Psy.D, outlines recommendations for talking to children conceived with assisted conception in her article for Psychology Today. Try starting early before children understand what society may view as the “normal” way to make a baby. And for all parents, teaching kids about alternate ways to make a family can help create a new meaning of “normal” for everyone.
Keep It an Ongoing Conversation
It’s important to remember “the talk” is not just one talk; rather, it should be an ongoing conversation. While this article focuses on young children, puberty, sexuality, gender expression, self-stimulation, safe sex, sex in the media, your family’s values surrounding sex, and more can be brought into the conversation as your child grows.
Experts agree that the earlier you start conversations about sex, the more likely it is that your children will feel comfortable coming to you with their questions, rather than looking for answers from the friend sitting next to them on the school bus.
Read More: Hard Conversations: How to Teach Your Kids to Keep Their Bodies Safe