When is the right time to start sex education with your child?
Probably earlier than you think. For example: did you know that sex education should actually start as young as age two?
If not, you’re not alone! When we think of sex education we tend to think of what is told to us in school–which (depending on where you go to school) might not be very much. It will likely cover puberty, and possibly safe sex methods once students reach high school, but likely that’s about it!
This doesn’t mean you need to talk to your toddler about safe sex or masturbation or STIs. But it’s important to remember that sexual education isn’t a one time thing. It should be ongoing, growing with your children as they grow.
To help you with this, we’ve put together this guide on sex education for every age. Here we’ll talk about what is important to cover at each age!
As your child becomes curious and aware of their own body, this is the time to teach them the proper names for their body parts! Just like their ears, fingers, and toes, their genitals are a part of their body, and they should learn what they are called.
In this stage of life, keep teaching them about their bodies. Continue using the correct names for their body parts (vulva, penis, anus, etc). And teach them the function of their parts! For example: what is the urethra? Where is the urethra? Why do we need it?
This is also the stage where you should begin teaching them about boundaries. This includes:
- When it’s appropriate for them to touch their own bodies (Children often realize that touching their genitals feels good. Some even do it routinely to fall asleep. Scolding them for this will teach them that touching their bodies is bad. Instead, teach them that there are times it is appropriate to do so, and times it is not.)
- When + how it’s appropriate to touch other’s bodies
- How to tell someone that they do not want to be touched (ex.: How can they tell their aunt that they don’t like being squeezed and kissed?)
- How to ask permission to give someone a hug
Young kids might start to ask where babies come from. Don’t panic! There are plenty of age appropriate resources to use when talking to your child about this. A good place to start is the book What Makes a Baby, which was specifically written with young children in mind.
It can also be helpful to talk to your child about their own birth story. How did your family come together? How is that different from other families? Pre-school is a good age to start talking to kids about how families look different for everyone.
This stage is about emphasizing and elaborating on ideas you introduced to them earlier. Things like boundaries, consent, when it’s appropriate to be naked or touch themselves.
It’s also a good time to start talking about puberty. Let them know how their bodies might change, but that it’s completely natural. As topics of puberty start coming up, questions about sex are likely to arise too. At this age, it is completely appropriate to explain the mechanics of reproduction.
At this age, children are likely to start developing crushes! Make space to talk to them about romantic attraction and sexuality. They are young and may have many questions about identity, so letting them know that you are there to answer questions for them is crucial. If your family is mom + dad + child, explain to them that some families have two moms or two dads, or maybe just one mom or one dad. Many families look different. No matter your belief system, this will be introduced to your child by peers, so it is important to discuss with your child.
What exactly is puberty? How is it changing their bodies? How does puberty show up in bodies that are different than theirs? Meaning: if your child has a vulva, it is important to teach them what puberty means for someone with a vulva. But it is also important to teach them what puberty is like for someone with a penis. What is similar? What is different?
It sounds early, but this is also the time to begin conversations about safe sex. What is safe sex:
- Protected sex: What are the risks? (Pregnancy, STIs, etc.) And how can they make safe, informed choices to keep themselves safe? (Birth control, condoms, dental dams, responsible partners who get tested before having sex with a new partner, etc.)
- Sex where everyone involved is enthusiastic and comfortable with what is happening
- Informed sex: this is not just about protection! Teaching your child that they should be informed about their own bodies (what feels good, what doesn’t) can help them make informed decisions about whether or not they want to be having sex, and what kind of sex they want to be having.
It is also a good time to start teaching them about red flags from others. What should they look out for in strangers & peers? (And on the internet!) Who should they come to when something makes them feel uncomfortable, even if they don’t know why?
More conversations about sex. These shouldn’t just be limited to anti-pregnancy PSAs but should include conversations about:
Active consent: Hopefully your child will have an understanding of what consent is from earlier conversations, but reframing it in a sexual context so they understand what enthusiastic and ongoing consent is, is important. Emphasize that they shouldn’t engage in any kind of sexual activity without enthusiastic, ongoing consent from both themselves and their partner.
More on what active consent is here.
Pleasure + pain: People with vulvas are usually taught that they should expect sex to hurt the first time. Let your child know that if they (or their partner) starts feeling any sort of pain, all sexual activity should stop. They might not want to talk to you if they experience this, but let them know that if they do feel pain or discomfort, that you encourage them to speak to their doctor about it. Additional preparation is sometimes necessary in order to make sex pleasurable, and it varies from body to body.
More information about when sex is painful (for people with vulvas) and what to do about it here.
Most importantly: if your child asks you something that you weren’t taught in your own sexual education, don’t lie to them or make something up! Let them know you’re glad they asked you, but that you don’t know the answer. Then, take some time to do your own research, talk to an expert, or bring them to see a doctor they are comfortable with. Creating an environment where questions about health, safety, and sexuality are allowed and encouraged, is more important than having all the answers. Your child doesn’t need you to be an expert on all things sex education, they just need to know you will help them find the tools in their ongoing education.
-Lindsay N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT