Sex education: Talking to your school-age child about sex

Sex education doesn’t need to be a single tell-all discussion. Follow your child’s cues about what he or she needs to know — and when.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Sex education often begins as simple anatomy lessons during the toddler years. But during the school-age years, your child might start asking specific questions about sex. Not sure what to say? Consider this guide to discussing sex with your school-age child.

Expect detailed questions

Toddlers and preschoolers are often satisfied with vague answers to questions about where babies come from. But school-age children tend to ask more-specific questions about the connection between sexuality and making babies.

As your child’s questions about sex become more complex — and perhaps more embarrassing — he or she may turn to friends or other sources for information.

When your school-age child inquires about sex, ask what he or she already knows. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer enough details to answer the specific questions. Don’t laugh at your child’s questions or use nicknames for your child’s sexual anatomy, which may send the signal that these body parts shouldn’t be discussed.

Consider these examples:

  • What’s an erection? You might say, “A penis is usually soft. But sometimes it gets hard and stands up. This is called an erection.” Describe how an erection can happen during sleep or when the penis is touched. This might also be the time to describe a wet dream.
  • What’s a period? Explain how menstruation is an important part of the reproductive cycle and a normal part of going through puberty. Offer a description of menstrual bleeding and feminine hygiene products. You might say, “In girls, a period means that the body is mature enough to become pregnant.”
  • How do people have sex? If your child wonders about the mechanics of sex, be honest. You might say, “When a man and a woman have sex, the penis goes inside the vagina. This type of sex can make babies.” Consider using a book with illustrations or diagrams to help your child understand.
  • Can two girls have sex? Or two boys? It might be enough to say, “Yes. Two men or two women can have sex with each other and love each other. It’s never too early to teach your child about respect for others, and to express that you love your child unconditionally.
  • What’s masturbation? You might say, “Masturbation is when you rub yourself in the genital area.” Remind your child that masturbation is a normal — but private — activity.

Even if you’re uncomfortable, forge ahead. Remember, you’re setting the stage for open, honest discussions in the years to come. Consider who’s best to educate your child — you or the TV, the internet or your child’s friends?

Preteen angst

Between ages 8 and 12, children often worry whether they’re “normal” — particularly when it comes to penis size and breast size. Explain what happens during puberty for both boys and girls.

Offer reassurance that children of the same age mature at different rates. Puberty might begin years earlier — or later — for some children, but eventually everyone catches up.

You might want to share experiences from your own development, particularly if you once had the same concerns that your child has now.

Responsibilities and consequences

Talk to your child about the emotional and physical consequences of becoming sexually active, such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and a range of feelings. Discussing these issues now can help your child avoid feeling pressured to become sexually active before he or she is ready.

While you’re telling your child about the dangers of sex, don’t be afraid to mention the joys, too. Let your child know that sex can be beautiful in a loving, committed relationship.

Everyday moments are key

Use everyday opportunities to discuss sex. Teachable moments are everywhere. If there’s a pregnancy in the family, talk about how a baby develops inside a woman’s body. If you see a commercial for a feminine hygiene product, use it as a springboard to talk about periods. If a couple on a TV show begin dating, talk about relationships and falling in love.

Take your role in sex education seriously. Encourage your child to take care of his or her body, develop a healthy sense of self-respect, and seek information from trusted sources. Your thoughtful approach to sex education can help your child develop a lifetime of healthy sexuality.

Oct. 13, 2020

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