When my oldest was born six years ago, I did my damnedest to prepare every detail of her birth. I had a written birth plan, a wise doula, and a steady stream of confidence I have not had access to since. Of course, nothing went as planned and, as it turns out, there’s very little for a doula to do during a surprise C-section but wish you well. Everything I did to prepare was for naught.
To further humble me, I soon discovered that I had dedicated all my energy to the actual event of childbirth—and almost nothing to the lifetime of parenthood before me. So there I was with a screaming newborn I felt totally unequipped to care for.
Try as I might to change it, this game of catch-up has been the dominant theme of my motherhood experience. Everything surprises me; everything sends me scrambling. The sex talk was no different.
When You’re Blindsided By Your Child’s Curiosity
Young children have no concept of timing. Case in point: I was on a call with our insurance company when my daughter demanded to know how babies get into pregnant people’s bodies in the first place—a conversation I was not ready to have at 6 and certainly not in front of an insurance agent.
I was on a call with our insurance company when my daughter demanded to know how babies get into pregnant people’s bodies in the first place—a conversation I was not ready to have at 6 and certainly not in front of an insurance agent.
I mouthed an exaggerated “What?!” and instantly regretted it because she promptly repeated her question, only louder. By the time I was off the phone, I had hoped it was a topic she’d moved on from, but I was not so lucky. Wholly unprepared, I remember thinking, OK, this is it. Do your best. I’m disappointed to say that “my best” was not quite so.
Look, I try to be an honest, open parent. My kids know the anatomical terms for their body parts, even if the little one swaps the beginning consonants. We weave lessons of consent into everyday play, and I’ve assured my oldest on more than one occasion that she cannot spontaneously get pregnant (a worry I attribute to her witnessing the glamour of pregnancy at 4). I always thought, when the time came for this conversation, I’d go in confidently, armed with a script and a plan.
Instead, I stammered and stalled and eventually said, “Can we talk about this when you’re 7? Do you want to watch Netflix?” Minutes later, I found myself repeating the trite line that begins, “When a mommy and daddy love each other very much…” I am double face-palming over this: once for myself, and once for my daughter who doesn’t know better yet.
What I Wish I’d Known
I feel confident in saying that I truly botched this moment. I was flustered and caught off guard and while I did manage to mention that not every family has a mommy and a daddy, I still consider this a royal screw-up. Luckily, Dr. Melisa Holmes assured me I’ll have another chance. An OB/GYN and the cofounder of Girlology, a resource on girls’ health and puberty, Dr. Holmes explained that what we commonly think of as “the sex talk” should actually be an on-going conversation.
“The goal is to make these conversations comfortable and welcome so that your child is never embarrassed or scared to come to you with questions or concerns,” she said. “Being an approachable parent sets the foundation for open communication, which becomes increasingly important as your child grows. Having the conversations often, or whenever they come up naturally, teaches your children that this is a normal part of life.”
‘Short, Simple, and Matter-of-Fact’
When it comes to sating a child’s curiosity about reproduction and sex, Dr. Holmes advised parents to keep it “short, simple, and matter-of-fact.” Young children don’t attach stigma or embarrassment to these conversations, and as long as we can be truthful and straightforward, they will easily digest the main lessons.
“As adults, when we act embarrassed or avoidant, our children internalize those feelings, and it’s a slippery slope into stigma and shame,” she said.
As adults, when we act embarrassed or avoidant, our children internalize those feelings, and it’s a slippery slope into stigma and shame.
If engaging in these conversations with your child makes you uncomfortable, Sofia Mendoza, a licensed clinical social worker who treats children and adults with sexual trauma, encouraged parents to power through it. “Lead with knowing that the discomfort of the conversation is worth it, as it will help your child feel safe to come to you with other sex questions. [They will be] empowered to set body boundaries, and/or enhance future safety by knowing ‘good touches from bad touches’,” she said. “You can do hard things, parents! And this one is definitely worth doing.”
So, when your time comes to broach these topics with your young children, learn from my mistakes: there’s no need to tempt kids away from the conversation with the promise of Netflix. As Dr. Holmes reminded me, we celebrate our little ones’ curiosities when they pertain to almost everything else in the world—why should reproduction and the human body be any different?