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Mommy, how are babies made?
When my daughter was five, she came to me and asked “Mommy how are babies made?”
I was at a loss… What do I say? What’s age appropriate? How should I start the conversation? What’s out there to help make the process less stressful?
If you’re a parent like me, you might find some of the insights in this week’s Blog on how to teach young children about health sexuality and increase your comfort level on the subject, useful. Let us know what you think in the comment section below. ~ Mary
Teaching Young Children About Sex
When I offered a “Raising Sexually Healthy Children “ workshop last week, it occurred to me that the Birdees Blog would be a great way to share some of it’s information and tools.
The first thing to know is that an adults’ perception of sexuality is completely different to that of a child. This is because adults bring so much of their own preconceptions into the topic of sex and sexuality. Young children on the other hand are just trying to make sense of their world. They base their findings on what they’ve seen, touched, tasted, heard and/or felt. They are concrete thinkers, and are usually most concerned with the where, what and how of reproduction, not the specifics.
The second is that children learn about sexuality in a variety of methods. Most often from observing their parents. At this age, you’re the centre of their universe and your reaction to certain behaviours and questions will be teaching them a lot of things indirectly. Remember sexuality is more than just sex, it encompasses many things.
More importantly, this is a great opportunity for you to supply them with the information they’re looking for and setting yourself up as being an approachable parent/adult to them at an early age. If you do, there’s a good chance that in the future, your child will seek you out first for more information on the subject and not rely on hear-say, myths, friends, T.V. etc…
Remember that preschool children have sexual feelings: a touch feels good, and little boy’s penises get erect, little girl’s vaginas lubricate. But these sexual feelings are immature, naïve and purely biological. For the most part, children’s sexual behaviour is not goal-oriented – not in search of intercourse or orgasm. Sex play among children of the same age can be considered natural and expected and comes mostly from curiosity.
Information should be presented at a developmentally appropriate level. For example, if your child asks “How are babies made?” or “Where do babies come from?” Ask them “What do you think?” Guage what they already know or think about the subject and then build from there. Depending on the age of your child, you could respond by saying, “Babies are made by a mother and father”. If that’s enough to satisfy their curiosity, you’ll know by their response. If they’re happy with it chances are they’ll move onto something else. If they ask another question, you might have to go into more detail.
Here are some great opportunities to teach your children about reproduction while allowing them to observe and discover things for themselves:
- Play with anatomically-correct dolls, playhouse and using clothing for dress-up.
- Coming into contact with pregnant women and babies.
- Seeing pregnant animals (e.g. farms in the spring)
- Watching the adults and relationships around them
- Observing male/female roles
These suggestions should be helpful in laying the ground work for healthy sexuality discussions and sexual health learning in the future.
Over the next few weeks I will be posting about parents’ role in raising sexually healthy children and talking about some of the most popular questions I hear relating to teaching children/teens about sex and sexuality.
If you’d like more information on dealing with issues of sexuality in early childhood, please review other blog posts or visit me in the Birdees App where you can contact me directly!
Recently, I attended a workshop titled, The Development of Adaptive Sexual Skills for Individuals with Aspersers Syndrome. Since, this workshop I have been reflecting on the topic of sexual health and disabilities.
Sexuality is a natural, healthy part of living, starting at birth and continuing throughout our entire lives. All individuals have sexual feelings, whether they have a disability or not.
Children with disabilities need sexuality education to help them attain a life with more personal fulfillment and to protect them against sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual exploitation. So, whether the child has an intellectual disability or physically disability they will one day have a genuine need to learn about sexuality. Since children with disabilities have fewer opportunities to learn about sexuality from their peers and because many children may have a disability that limits them from reading about sexuality on their own, parents are generally the primary sex educators of their children.
I encourage all parents to open up the lines of communication about sexual health with their child early and continue the discussion as they grow.
Sexual feelings are present throughout our entire life cycle as human beings. During the infant through 3 years stage, children enjoy bodily sensations and exploration; fascination with genitals is common during this period. This is the time to begin teaching a child the difference between behaviours that are appropriate when they are with others (public) versus when they are alone (private). Therefore, if the child is touching his or her genitals in public, a simple, “We don’t do that in public” would be appropriate, whether or not the child is capable of understanding the direction.
During the preschool years, ages 3 through 6 years, parents are usually teaching the names of body parts to their children, although depending on the child’s disability, this may happen much later. Teaching the child the correct name of his or her body parts (in a matter-of-fact approach) is important, as it sends the message that sexual organs are not considered taboo. In addition, it saves having to re-teach terminology at a later time. At this point, it is also critical to explain to children that their body belongs to them and that he or she has the right to tell others when they do and don’t want to be touched.
Though the development of sexuality takes place in all children, the child’s disability dictates the approaches you need to take in providing information that is comprehensible to him or her. For example, for the child who is:
- Intellectually disabled – the information may need to be provided in small amounts and in simple, basic, and concrete terms. Try to teach the child the appropriate way to express physical affection and explain what is considered inappropriate physical affection (such as hugging strangers). The child with an impairment needs to be in an age/achievement appropriate learning environment. When providing information present it at an age appropriate level according to their intellectual ability. The child may need reminders as to which behaviours are acceptable in public and which behaviours are acceptable only in private.
- Visually impaired or hearing impaired – They may be perfectly capable of understanding the concepts and facts regarding sexuality, but may require special materials presenting the topic (e.g. Large print materials, books on tape, and braille books, hearing aids, etc…).
- Physical disabilities – They may be perfectly capable of understanding the concepts and facts regarding sexuality, however, may need specific information about how the disability affects the expression of sexuality and participation in a sexual relationship.
- Learning disabled – they may need some modification to the pace and manner in which the information is presented. (e.g. proceed in small sequential steps and review information frequently and speak directly to the specific student to focus his or her attention).
It is important to identify how the child’s disability affects their learning abilities and then parents and professionals dealing with the child can develop an individualized plan for effectively teaching the child about sexuality.
Children with disabilities will mature and one day be adults functioning in the community. They have a right to receive accurate information about what sexuality means, what responsibilities it involves and what pleasures and joys it can bring.
Through education, parents and professionals alike can prepare children with special needs to make responsible decisions and form relationships with others, so that they can experience life to the fullest.
If you are interested in learning more about children with disabilities and sexuality many books have been written on the subject, check out your local library or book store.
Just last week I received an email from my daughter’s school. It was from our Regional Police department. A Community Notification Report alerting community members that a convicted sexual offender was living in our neighbour (on probation).
This information exploded on Facebook with parents in our community outraged and angry. We weren’t pleased to learn this information either and were also concerned about our children’s safety. So we decided to use this as a “teachable moment” and educate our daughters about sexual abuse prevention and community safety.
Child sexual abuse occurs when a child is used for sexual purposes by an adult or adolescent. It involves exposing a child to any sexual activity or behaviour. It is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power over the child.
Here is what I learned during this process – Talking with kids about sexual abuse is tough! Even when we know what we want to say to our children, sometimes when we’re in the moment talking about this difficult topic, we’re at a loss for words! But, we know that if we want to prevent child abuse, we need to actively educate our children on how to stay safe.
The following are topics what we discussed with them:
- How to identify safe, unsafe and confusing touches
- How to identify a potentially dangerous situation
- How to say no to people who are touching them in an unsafe way
- How to identify a trusted adult and ask for help
Here are a few tips about talking to your children about sexuality and sexual abuse in age-appropriate terms that we found useful. I like to refer to them as tips on how to become an “askable parent” so that your children feel comfortable coming to you for knowledge, clarity and advice related to sexuality and sexual health. These tips help set the stage for open communication in the future.
- Talking openly and directly about sexuality teaches children that it is okay to talk to you when they have questions.
- Teach children the names of their body parts so that they have the language to ask questions and express concerns about those body parts.
- Teach children that some parts of their body are private.
- Let children know that other people should not be touching or looking at their private parts unless they need to touch them to provide care. If someone does need to touch them in those private areas, a parent of trusted caregiver should be there, too.
- Tell children that if someone tries to touch those private areas or wants to look at them, OR if someone tries to show the child their own private parts, they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
- All children should be told that it’s okay to say “NO” to touches that make them uncomfortable or if someone is touching them in ways that make them uncomfortable and that they should tell a trusted adult as soon as possible.
- This can lead to some slightly embarrassing situations, such as a child who then says they don’t want give a relative a hug or kiss! Work with your child to find ways to greet people that don’t involve uncomfortable kinds of touch (for example a high 5).
- Talking openly about sexuality and sexual abuse also teaches children that these things don’t need to be secret. Abusers will sometimes tell a child that the abuse is a “secret”. Let your children know that if someone is touching them or talking to them in ways that make them uncomfortable that it shouldn’t stay a secret.
- Make sure to tell your child that that they will not get into trouble if they tell you this kind of secret.
One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18! Start the conversation – Education is one of the most effective ways to ensure children’s safety!
I was strolling through the park with my three-year old daughter last weekend when suddenly she stopped, ice cream cone frozen in hand. This in itself wasn’t that odd. It was the park, after all, and she was three. Between the swings, the duck pond and the policemen on horseback, there was usually something grabbing her attention. What I didn’t understand was why something as non-eventful as someone depositing some trash in a trash can was the object of her undivided attention… until the person in question turned around and walked past us.
“Daddy,” whispered my daughter in fascination. “Was that a man or a lady?”
“Um, want to go feed the ducks?” I replied feebly.
The good news is that most of us live in an increasingly informed, accepting world where people are free to express themselves as exactly who they are. The bad news is that most of us have no idea how to explain the more complex differences to our kids…
Before you start sweating bullets trying to figure out how to explain sex-change surgery to a toddler, take heart! You won’t need to. Kids this age ask questions based on mechanical curiosity. You’re not selling them short by only answering only what they ask – you’re just providing bite-sized pieces of information based upon their level of interest. If they’re asking, they’re interested. It’s that simple.
For a child my daughter’s age, a simple answer usually suffices. If I could roll back time and redo that walk in the park, I would probably have said something like: I’m not sure, honey but everyone has the right to express themselves exactly as they are. It’s not important if they’re a man or a lady but it is important to show respect and to treat everyone equally.
Most three-year olds would leave it at that and turn back to their ice cream cone but what do you do when your 8-10 year-old (who’s by now beginning to develop their own sense of gender identity) asks the same question? There are some fundamental truths your tween should understand in order to develop a health attitude towards sex and diversity…
Sex versus Gender
Sex is the term we use to indicate the biology of a person as either male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is the term we use to indicate the sex with which someone identifies.
When someone identifies with the gender opposite of their genitalia, it may be that they’re transgender or gender-variant. This actually has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It simply means that the person feels different from their biologic sex (transgender) or doesn’t conform to a particular gender at all (gender-variant).
By shedding light on this reality, you’re not only empowering your child to exercise acceptance and equality but you’re providing the information needed if they or someone they know is experiencing confusion over their own gender identity.
Again, there’s no need to get into the nitty-gritty details unless they ask. Right now, the most important message to convey is that transgender and gender-variant folk are as normal and healthy as anyone else and deserve as much respect as the next person they pass in the park.
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The tragic deaths of Amanda Todd and now Rehtaeh Parson compelled me to think of my own children ages 5 and 7 and what’s in store for them. What lessons can I start to impart on them now to protect them from such a tragedy? I’m from Rehtaeh’s hometown, Cole Harbour and once attended her high school. Her death has hit home, literally. Many parents, not only in Cole Harbour but around the world are trying to understand what has happened and what we can do to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Our thoughts and prayers go out to both families.
The issues are many but we can’t wait while governments implement policies or the schools offer better sex education programs on consent, violence, assertiveness, bullying and the responsibilities of social media! I hope they’re on their way, but institutions are slow to change. As parents we need to open the conversation early on sex education and become approachable so we can instill our values consistently through the years. In our increasingly sexualized world it’s imperative that children hear us over the noise of video games, television, music and the internet. Educating ourselves and teaching our children while they’re still young about respect, safety, health and the proper use of social media is a good start.
So where do I start with my 5 and 7 year old? Sex education is more than having “the talk” about the Birds and the Bees. Children as early as two are learning about their body parts and how they function. They are starting to gain an understanding that their body is their own. As parents, we have an amazing opportunity to be the best resource for our children to promote early body awareness, body rights and self confidence.
Like sex education, it’s essential that we start teaching our young children on how to use social media responsibly. The question is who can we learn from? How can we impart our knowledge and experience to our children when we have very little ourselves?
We can start by knowing that children 13 and younger are not allowed to have their own accounts on Facebook. That what they do online and on email will always be there and is never erased. Bullying takes many forms….. In cyberspace, every picture that is taken, or sentence that is written can’t be taken back. We can let them know that anything they state online they’d better be able to state in person or not write it at all. As parents we can monitor what they do and make it our business to know “social media” and their online world. So my friends…
“Be the change you wish to see in the world”
- Mahatma Gandhi
The other day, I was dropping some books off at the library. Usually I wouldn’t take my 3-year old daughter with me on this type of errand but we’d had a late lunch and it was already past her nap-time so I thought I’d tempt luck and knock one more thing off the to-do list before heading home. Seeing as she seemed pretty content, I figured I’d browse the shelves for a bit, at least until she started showing signs of being overtired. I know my kid pretty well so I was confident that I’d be able to whisk her away before we created anything close to a disturbance. That’s what I was prepared for: the quick evacuation of a cranky kid. I was not, however, ready for this: “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas!” It echoed through the library, shattering the studious silence. Not once but over and over until we burst out onto the street.
As embarrassing as this was, I was actually really proud of her. For weeks I’d been doing my best to un-teach the colloquialisms she’d picked up from daycare and finally she was using the correct terms for body parts – albeit loudly and in a library but hey… gotta start somewhere.
You might be wondering why I care if she uses anatomically correct terms instead of the relatively harmless names she’s learning from her peers. Well, there are several reasons…
How you communicate sexual and anatomical information to your child greatly influences their perceptions of body and sexuality and shapes the tone of your future dialogue. Additionally, kids who are knowledgeable and aware are more protected from sexual abuse because they are more likely to report such behaviour to a trusted adult using the proper names for their body parts. This is all part of reinforcing body ownership and the confidence to act upon it – qualities sexual predators tend to avoid.
Another thing: Many parents use ‘cute’ colloquialism like pee-pee and vajayjay as a way of buffering their kids from real information and avoiding those painfully clinical conversations. There’s no shame in feeling uncomfortable with this chat. Attitudes towards sexuality evolve with each generation and most of us weren’t raised in homes that encouraged open sexual dialogue. Don’t worry! It’ll get easier every time you talk. Bath-time’s an ideal place to bring this stuff up since the subject matter’s already out having a soak. Remember, this doesn’t have to be a lecture. The only things toddlers really need to know at this point is the where and the what. When they’re ready for the how and why, they’ll let you know.
For now, keep it simple. Girls have three openings between their legs: the vagina, anus, and urethra, which along with their uterus, ovaries vulva (labia), clitoris, comprise their private parts. Boys have two openings between their legs: the anus and urethra, which along with their penis, testicles, and scrotum, comprise their private parts.
Value the role of instructor and don’t squander this opportunity to be your child’s primary influence!
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“Yesterday, I caught my 7 year-old daughter ‘playing doctor’ with one of the neighbour boys. To make matters worse, she admitted that it was her idea. Should I punish her? Talk to her? Tell the little boy’s parents? I have no idea how I’m suppose to deal with this. Help!”
~ Mortified in Montreal
Take a deep breath! Remember, testing boundaries is not reflective of sexual deviancy or abuse but rather of innocent curiosity. Kids are naturally curious about how their bodies work and from a very early age begin physically comparing themselves to the males and females in their lives. Inappropriate touching (or playing doctor as we often call it) is actually pretty common in this age group.
And yes, a chat is in order! In fact, this conversation is one of the most important dialogues you’ll have with your daughter, since education and awareness are key to protection from sexual abuse.
First, make sure she knows where and what her private parts are. Teach her that private parts are very special to the person who owns them and that it’s inappropriate for her to touch or kiss other people’s genitals or breasts or for anyone to touch or kiss hers. Make sure she understands that if anyone tells her that this behaviour is okay or to keep it a secret, that it’s wrong! She has the right to say NO and must let you know immediately if this happens.
This is important stuff so don’t be shy about spelling it out! Give your daughter examples of appropriate versus inappropriate behaviour. Diaper changing and dental checkups, for instance, are contexts where it’s fine for a trusted adult to touch a child in a certain manner but play involving the touching of the genitals is not.
Many people don’t realize that technically, the lips and mouth are private parts as well. If your child is forced to endure unwanted kisses (even from well-meaning relatives) it teaches them that they don’t have the right to say NO. Let them write their own rules of engagement, especially with great-aunt Flo and her gin-breath!
Kids are always going to be inquisitive so it’s important that their curiosity is given a healthy outlet. Remind your daughter that it’s fine to explore her own body providing she’s in the privacy of her bedroom or bathroom.
And definitely loop in the little boy’s parents, letting them know what’s happened and how you’ve dealt with it. Parenting’s not easy! A little cooperation goes a long way.
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Some days, parenting feels surprisingly easy. Not often, mind you but every mum and dad knows the feeling of nailing it – when you’ve fed them, bathed them, napped them, picked them up, dropped them off, wiped their nose, answered every question…
For me, it happened last Saturday: breakfast, carwash, soccer game, birthday party drop. I won’t lie; I was feeling every inch a super-parent as I strolled across the supermarket parking lot, two of my three kids in tow. And that’s when my 3 year-old daughter ruined everything.
“Why do girls like pink?” she asked. Sometimes, all it takes is an innocent question to remind you that you’re human after all. Why do girls like pink? I might have been stumped but my 15 year-old son wasn’t.
“The same reason boys like blue,” he replied.
“Oh,” said his sister, satisfied with the explanation.
That interaction stuck with me for the rest of the day. And what bothered me wasn’t my failure to find an answer but rather the incorrect assumption that was embedded in the question – an assumption both my kids shared: that girls like pink and boys like blue and it’s that simple. Now, in the world of dolls versus dump trucks it might not seem like a big deal but this situation reminded me that little misconceptions can provide the foundation for bigger misconceptions – ones like women who act less feminine are less attractive or men who suppress their emotions are strong.
The media continually inundates kids with messages that reinforce gender stereotypes; pretty princesses, manly heroes… And let’s face it – we all fall into associating particular characteristics with each sex. But stereotypes (by their very nature) are limiting and left un-checked can be disempowering and even harmful. So what’s the solution?
Acknowledge your child’s strengths and encourage, support, and celebrate them not as a boy or a girl but rather as an individual. Never pressure them to conform to a particular stereotype. If your daughter doesn’t dig dresses, deal with it. Take her jeans and tee shirt shopping instead. Maybe you always wanted a little ballerina but she’s got a unique personality and unique tastes that might not include tutus. Remember, she’s a person, not a doll! Conversely (and this can be a harder one), if your son likes dressing up in girl’s shoe and gets a kick out of his sister painting his nails, don’t be disparaging! Children need to find themselves on their own terms and part of that includes being given the room for the innocent exploration of different roles.
Most importantly, remember that kids model the behaviours they see. Treat all the people in your life as individuals and strive to avoid gender-specific statements. Encourage mixed play dates and activities that your child can enjoys, regardless of gender.
Because the fact is, some girls like blue and some boys like pink, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
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My three-year old son has developed an unhealthy fascination with his penis – at least it seems unhealthy to me. He’s continually pulling at it; at the breakfast table, on play-dates, at birthday parties… you name it. I know that kids are curious about their bodies but the frequency is troubling and the context is often inappropriate. Should I be concerned?
~ Embarrassed in Pittsburg
You’re correct in saying that children are naturally curious about their bodies and naturally, this begins at quite an early age. But there’s more than curiosity driving this behaviour. It feels good too! Parents often balk at the term masturbation, especially when referring to pre-pubescent children but in truth, that’s exactly what it is. Masturbation is the action of touching oneself for pleasure. In young children, this is obviously not sexually driven so for the sake of convenience, we’ll call it self-stimulation.
Firstly, remind yourself that self-stimulation is not reflective of sexual deviancy or abuse! It’s a perfectly normal part of development throughout childhood and into adulthood. At the tender age of three, your son’s penis-pulling is more likely about comfort than pleasure. Whatever the case, society has behavioural expectations, which is why your job as a parent is to teach boundaries.
Remind your son that his genitals are private. Let him know that it’s fine to touch himself if he’s alone but doing it in public it can make other people feel uncomfortable. Remember, he’s only three! When this happens in public again (which it will) distract him from the inappropriate behaviour and save the ‘reminder chat’ for when you’re alone. There’s no point in making an embarrassing situation worse.
Remember to monitor your reactions! How you respond to your son’s natural inquisitiveness will greatly influence his perceptions of sexuality in the future. Never yell at him or use language like dirty, not normal or bad, as this will just send the message that what he’s doing is shameful and wrong.
Get this one right! If you don’t, you run the risk of your son turning to other sources for his information – sources that may be unsafe or unreliable. This might be one of the more awkward situations you’ll encounter with your toddler but it’s a teaching moment you shouldn’t ignore. Value the role of instructor and don’t squander this opportunity to be your child’s primary influence!
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My friend seemed distracted over brunch yesterday. She hadn’t been herself for a while, really – not since the problems had begun with her husband almost eight months ago. But today she was different, giving one-word answers and gazing off into space every time the conversation sputtered and stopped. By the time I was down to my last two bites of French toast I knew it was time for some good old-fashioned honesty. Point blank, I asked what was bothering her and that’s when her eyes welled up with tears. “We’re done,” she said, dabbing at her face with a paper serviette. “We’re getting a divorce.” Too be honest, I was a little surprised by her reaction. She’s been bandying about the ‘D-word’ for weeks now and had made it abundantly clear it was exactly what she wanted. But what she said next made me understand the source of her pain: “It just kills me that we have to put Gavin through this.” Gavin was their son. He was only five.
Sadly, almost half of all marriages (no matter how well-intentioned) never make it the distance. That’s not just a lot of broken adult hearts – there are a lot of kids in the middle of these messes too. Often with divorce, parents are so caught up in their own pain, they fail to realize just how much the disintegration of their marriage is affecting their child.
You see, children learn far more from actions and attitudes than from words. Since they’re ill equipped to understand why their parents can no longer be together, they often develop inaccurate perceptions that have far-reaching effects on how they view relationships throughout the rest of their lives. Sometimes, they blame themselves for the split and fear abandonment or the withdrawing of love. Sometimes, they blame one parent in particular. Sometimes they buy into the Parent Trap myth, believing that against the odds, they can bring about some kind of Disney-esque reconciliation.
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s crucial for children to understand that what’s occurring isn’t their fault. Whether they show it or not, they need the verbal reassurance that both parents still love them and will always be part of their lives. Providing it doesn’t create an unhealthy or unsafe situation, it’s a good idea for parents to address these issues as a united front, keeping the conversations simple, not emotional, and fact-driven. Answer their questions as many times as they ask them.
Don’t be surprised or dismayed if a child going through parental divorce exhibits anger toward one or both parties. Let’s face it, they didn’t do anything to deserve this upheaval and it really isn’t fair. Your job as a parent is to comfort and support them, whatever emotions they may be experiencing. Conversely, don’t be tempted to use them for your own comfort and support. Never treat your child as a confidant and never make them pick sides! You and your significant other might not be partners anymore but you’ll always be your child’s parents. And that’s a reality worth respecting.
Divorce is an ugly thing at best, but strange as it sounds, this isn’t about you. It’s about them.
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