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When is the right time to talk to your child about sex?

Giving your child ‘The Talk’ as a one-off as they enter adolescence simply isn’t good enough.

Discussion around sexuality is best started when children are very young and becomes one of the many things they learn about as they grow. It should become a normal and relaxed subject to discuss similar to the myriad of other questions children ask, like ‘why is the moon in the sky?’

Children are naturally interested in babies, pregnant women and the life cycles of animals. Having appropriate knowledge protects them from incorrect information and silly myths.

Many parents feel they should wait until their child starts asking questions, however all children are different. Some will come up with endless questions about everything while others do not and this means natural opportunities to talk about bodies and sex are lost.

We are proactive about things such as safety around the house and road safety, so why should it be different when it comes to sexuality education? (Maybe this reflects our own anxieties about approaching this topic).

We talk to our kids about house and road safety - why is sex any different? Image via iStock. 

Remember sexuality education is not just about how babies are made. It encompasses a range of things such as body image, self-esteem, relationships, values and beliefs, decision making, as well as sexual and reproductive body parts, puberty, sexual feelings, sexual orientation, sex, sexual abuse, conception, pregnancy and birth, contraception, STIs, abortions and much more.

Imparting this knowledge in a positive, open and honest way will benefit your children not just in their childhood but in their adult lives as well. If we can set up these lines of communication with children when they’re young then there is a good chance this will continue, hence making discussion in the trickier teenage years much easier.

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So… when and how to start?

Children could not possibly learn about sexuality all at once (hence we never recommend the ‘one-off talk’) .Information needs to happen gradually in an age-appropriate way. This information needs to be ‘built on’ over the years as they grow and develop. Some of it will need to be repeated and their knowledge will need to be extended as they mature.

"If we can set up these lines of communication with children when they’re young then there is a good chance this will continue." Image via iStock. 

The very first things they will need to know are the names of their external genitals and of course differences between girls and boys. A great time to start this conversation is at bath time always using the correct names: penis, vagina, vulva, testicles, scrotum, etc. Some parents will use ‘pet’ names for these body parts e.g. ‘willy’, ‘wee wee’, however we recommend the correct names.

When you call a leg - a leg, a finger - a finger it is difficult to think why you would have other names for the reproductive body parts. Once again this can often be more about a person’s own discomfort. It is empowering for young people to know the proper names and when they get older they can understand and answer questions from health professionals.

Knowledge also contributes to their personal safety. They need to know they are ‘the boss’ of their bodies, and decide who can and who cannot see or touch their private parts.

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By the time they go to school children should have a basic understanding of:

• Intercourse and the joining of the ovum from the mother with the sperm from the father to make a baby;
• Where the baby grows (not in the stomach)!!;
• Childbirth in simple terms;
• Public and private body parts;
• Self touching, masturbation – OK but in private;
• Hygiene; and
• Importantly, who can and cannot see or touch their bodies.

A lot of parents may feel a child is too young to hear or know these things, but if conversation has always been open, honest and responsive to questions and any natural opportunities to develop understanding are used (i.e a pregnant mother, a breast feeding friend, a pet who is having a litter etc.) it all will seem very normal.

As a child moves through primary school, conversation should continue to expand on what they already know and give them opportunities to discuss any concerns in a normal natural way.

Many parents think they should wait until their child starts asking questions. But all children are different. Image via iStock. 

Topics should include:

• The physical and emotional changes of puberty for both males and females;
• Looking after their bodies including hygiene, diet and exercise;
• Protective behaviours;
• Gender diversity;
• Exploring differing values and beliefs around sex;
• The influence media has on our values and body image;
• The importance of relationships;
• Some basic information on contraception and STI’s; and
• Where to go if they have concerns about anything to do with bodies, relationships etc.

Remember sexuality education in schools is important but is only an adjunct to what they learn from the family. Please do not have this as the only sexuality education your child experiences.

And in secondary school further conversation needs to occur around topics like:

• Responsible sexual decision making;
• Peer pressure;
• Consent and mutually satisfying relationships;
• Sexual activity other than sexual intercourse;
• Safe sex and STI’s;
• Contraception;
• Media messages about sexuality and body image; and
• Where to go for contraception, STI checks and help for any mental health issues.

Watch the powerful video campaign by Project Consent that aims to explain consent in a language everyone understands: penises and vaginas. Post continues after video. 

Video via Project Consent

Remember a young person with a great knowledge about sex, sexual health and contraception is more likely to delay their first sexual experience than a young person who does not have these understandings.

Discussing sex with children and young people is not always easy but is very rewarding as it better prepares them for their future development and for making good decisions around sex, sexual safety, partners and relationships. This in turn means their life will be more fulfilling.

Heather Anderson is a youth health nurse, sexuality educator as well as an author, publisher and distributor at Secret Girls’ Business. With her two business partners Fay Angelo and Rose Stewart, the three women came together to establish the publishing company and create a range of books aimed at educating children and parents on all things sexuality. 
The Secret Girls’ Business range can be purchased directly from The Book Depository via this link. Prices start from $12.74.
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