The Birds and the Bees

Dr. Karen Explains . . .

It is 100% normal, healthy, common and completely appropriate for young children to have questions about sexuality, make comments about body parts and touch their bodies. Many parents experience concern that there is either something wrong with their child or that they did or are doing something wrong when their 7-year-old son tells them that his penis can get bigger and smaller, or that their 4-year-old daughter seems to be rubbing her private area. You are not alone in your discomfort about having a conversation about sexuality with your children. Many parents express the very same discomfort.

Children, when they hit puberty, do not suddenly become curious about their body; it happens way before that, to the surprise of many parents. So it is never too soon to talk about how and where babies come from. Certainly the details must be tailored to your child’s age due to comprehensive abilities and emotional development, but it is important not to ignore your child’s questions nor change the topic. The fact that your child asks you questions and your 7-year-old makes comments about his observation of his penis are a good thing because this may mean that your child feels you will understand what he is experiencing and perhaps help him to understand. It is the adults that typically feel uncomfortable discussing sexual topics, not the young child. The young child wants to understand his body, and that is why he asks questions and makes comments. Just like asking why the sky is blue, your child is asking why his penis can get bigger; it’s something he’s observed and wants to know why or how it happens. A young child can indeed develop discomfort in discussing his feelings if he feels his parent is uncomfortable discussing it, and very quickly even the young child will learn not to express himself if time and time again his voice is stifled by the lack of responsiveness.

To help parents feel more comfortable in talking with their children about sexuality, I typically recommend that parents think about themselves as an educator. For young children the topic of sex and sexuality is not taboo, rather, they are curious and interested in their body. You should take each of your child’s questions, each comment, and each behavior and view it as a window of opportunity for you to help educate your child. It when your child is young that it is best to have these types of discussions. If parents have not discussed sexuality with their children when they were young, then their children will be less likely to go to their parents as their source of information. As parents you want your child to learn that you are interested in discussing this topic, and any topic, with her. You do not want your child to feel you close the door to her thoughts, or that the topic of sexuality is wrong.

Absolutely educate your 4- or 7-year-old about how babies are born, as well as where they come from. Use the correct terminology to describe body parts to educate them. Call the your son’s penis “penis” and your daughter’s vagina “vagina,” not  “pee pee” or “down there,” which often parents do. Explain sperm and eggs. Go to the bookstore and pick out a book about the body from the children’s section that makes you feel comfortable to use as a visual aid. In the comfort of your home, sit down with your child and look at the book together. Let him keep the book in his room so he can explore it when he desires. Do indeed validate your 7-year-old’s observation about the change in his penis size and explain that it is normal and why this happens to the male body. Again, the key here is to be an educator.

Similarly, address your 4-year-old’s self touch and explain masturbation. Discuss the normalcy of it and the privacy of it. Sometimes parents fear when they see their young child masturbating that she is too young to be ready for sexual relations, and thus parents feel they must put a stop to this behavior. Keep in mind that for the young child, masturbation is not sexual. A young child is obviously not ready for sexual relations, rather, she touches herself because it just feels good. That is it. But, because what is feeling good is a private part of the child’s body, it needs to be in private. Perhaps your daughter loves to sing. You can explain to her that she loves to sing and it makes her feel good to sing really loud, but in the restaurant she does not sing loud even though it feels good because it is not the appropriate place for that. You can compare how touching herself on her private part feels good but when friends or family are visiting, it is not the appropriate time to touch herself since it is her private part, like the singing in the restaurant. By putting your child’s self touch in perspective for her and normalizing it, it allows her to begin the journey of developing a healthy image about self exploration while also learn about the utilization of good judgment.

As a final note, sometimes horrible things do happen to children when not in their parent’s care. If in any way you as a parent are concerned that something inappropriate has happened with your child and/or an incident of sexual abuse may have occurred, please do seek outside help immediately.

To learn more about children and sexuality you can listen to the podcast where Dr. Karen Ruskin is interviewed by Dr. Rich Sagall, MD answering a wide range of the most commonly asked parenting questions about children and sexuality.

This article written by Dr. Karen Ruskin appeared in Pediatrics for Parents: Vol. 26, Issue # 3 & 4, March/April 2010.