Talking to toddlers and pre-schoolers about sex can be very challenging for many parents. Sex education for young children is a natural responsibility for parents.
At some point, toddlers and pre-schoolers usually get curious about their own bodies. It's best to let them explore and ask questions at their own pace. Parents can benefit from being honest and frank with children at these early ages. For instance, when a child becomes curious and asks about a body part, giving the proper body part name, rather than a "nickname" like some parents are inclined to try, or perhaps trying to avoid even addressing the questions. This may send a message of dishonesty or mistrust to the child once they get a bit older and realize mom or dad cannot seem to call it the proper body part name.
Also parents can benefit from taking any conversation about sexual awareness seriously, without joking or shame or embarrassment. It is the nature of children to be curious, and denying them this curiosity may affect the parent-child relationship and bond. As an example, many dads have never been able to even refer to female body parts with their daughters without some level of embarrassment or discomfort. Most times, this awkwardness started when their children were babies, and can affect the relationship for years.
Some children may ask a lot of questions. Especially in the most healthy parent-child relationships, a child may feel comfortable firing many questions at mom or dad. They may compare their genitals to a parent's and ask questions about that. Many kids want to know where babies come from at early ages, as well. For parents that may not feel comfortable answering all of these queries directly, perhaps an indirect approach may work, like getting one of the many books written for toddlers and pre-schoolers on awareness of their bodies to help share information.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers can begin to understand the concept of "private" body parts. This is helpful as once they begin to explore themselves, they may also want to begin to explore with playmates. Curious exploration with others is also natural for children, and is mostly harmless. Children at these young ages can learn boundaries and be taught to set limits with issues about their bodies.
Masturbation is also natural at this age. This can be very shocking to many parents. Toddlers and pre-schoolers may even do this in public and at the most inappropriate times, as they are still exploring and unaware of the inappropriateness. Again, parents can benefit from not reacting to a child's self-stimulation by joking, acting embarrassed or shameful. There will be many teaching moments to help children learn that these are private activities.
Dealing with these difficult conversations at early ages is vital for parents. As children get older, the questions about sex just get deeper and more complex. Parents should want children to depend on them (rather than friends) for information about sex. In trying to encourage healthy communication and a close parent-child relationship, parents can begin to earn trust and respect when their children are young. By forging this bond when children are at the toddler and pre-school age, parents can look forward to more trust from their child and a closer relationship when he or she gets older and into middle school and high school.
More information is available on healthy communication with toddlers and pre-schoolers.
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Marty Wolner (BA, CPE, ICF, PACA) is a Certified Parenting Educator for the Institute for Professional and Educational Development, and New Paradigm Training Institute in Ft. Washington, PA and the Institute for Family Professionals in Philadelphia, PA, and the parent of two teenagers.