The S-E-X Talk Starts in Infancy

Parents ask, “At what age should we begin talking to our children about sex?”

Parents also ask, “What do I do about the explicit texts, e-mails, and Facebook posts?” that they have discovered on their adolescent’s computer or phone. If we, as parents, are waiting until early adolescence to start the conversation, we have waited too long.

When are children ready to learn about S-E-X and what do we, as parents, tell them? In this brief series of articles, I am going to address the importance of laying a firm foundation from the very beginning and then continuing the conversation about the human body and sex throughout childhood and adolescence. Your children live in a world where they have access to limitless information long before they reach puberty. You, as their parent, have a voice and an opportunity to prevent your child from receiving misinformation that can lead to confusion and contribute to greater vulnerability.

Whether or not We’re Meaning To Teach, They’re Learning

There are countless lessons we teach our children starting very early in life. Much of what we begin to teach our children, we do directly, especially those things we believe are important to their survival. For example, “Don’t put that in your mouth,” “Look both ways before crossing the street,” and “Don’t talk to strangers.” We do this because we care for their well-being and don’t want to see them get hurt. They are also learning about the world around them by watching and monitoring the way the adults in their lives, especially their parents, conduct themselves. They are engaged in continuous observation, looking for clues about how to conduct themselves as they grow and mature.

Starting in infancy, kids are naturally going to be curious about their bodies. As parents we begin communicating and transmitting our values, beliefs, and openness vs. closedness from the very start. The cutesy names we give the genitalia, our reactions to the natural exploration of their body, the normal functions of their bodies, and how we feel about our own bodies become the seeds of what will be your child’s sexual self.

When we identify the penis or vagina with a name other than what it actually is we send our children a message: The private parts of their body are to be referred to or referenced only through “code words”. As cute as the names may be, we end up planting a seed of secrecy. At the very least, we create a sense that we cannot talk as openly about this part of the body as we do the rest of the body. You have eyes, ears, knees, toes, elbows, and a nose… boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.

Properly Handle Handling

Normalizing our children’s natural bodily functions and curiosities is critical. It is soothing and stimulating for even infants to touch their genitalia. Your infant son or daughter isn’t having sexual thoughts, so don’t panic. It is soothing to touch a part of the body that is loaded with so many nerve endings. Pulling your child’s hand away plants a tiny seed of shame and embarrassment. Don’t worry, your child is not going to “play” with themselves for the entirety of their childhood if you don’t nip it in the bud right now. In the next article, I will discuss how we talk to our young children about appropriate and inappropriate touching; setting age appropriate boundaries, expectations, and understanding.

Normalizing What’s Normal

Peeing, pooping, and passing gas are all natural occurrences. Consider the ways we respond to these natural functions. When we tell them that they made a “stinky” or when they sense that we are frustrated with their “creature releases” we are sending unintended negative messages. Those messages do little to normalize a completely normal, healthy, and essential part of their biology. We might politely refer to those occurrences as an accident. It’s no accident. That’s how the body works. From infancy to toddlerhood we have the opportunity to send a lot of messages about this whole mysterious middle section of the body. What a stressor for young minds! They don’t know what to call it, how it works, or why it keeps “having accidents.” I am not suggesting that we celebrate our children’s bowel movements or flatulence. We can normalize their “creature releases” by reacting to them much in the same way you respond to their other natural functions such as sneezing, yawning, or burping.

We can do a few simple things, early on, to help build a foundation for healthy sexuality throughout our children’s lives:

  • Use proper names for the genitalia.
  • Let your infant and toddler naturally become familiar with their body.
  • Respond to your infant and toddlers “creature releases” as though they are normal, expected, and accepted occurrences (because they are).

 

A final note about our own bodies and sexual image. If you are not comfortable with your own body, if you do not see yourself as a sexual being, or if you have negative emotions connected to your body/sexuality, you are likely to pass those traits on to your children. In the coming articles I will address how the messages you received throughout your upbringing and your own sexual history can interfere with your desire to provide your child with a healthy, strong, and balanced sense of themselves.

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2Comments

  1. JuliSeptember 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I posted your article on my facebook page, and one of my friends asked the following question:

    Thanks for posting this. Now that our son uses the potty regularly. I’ve been trying to figure out a term for the commonly referred to “accident”. Any thoughts?

  2. David Riess LCSWSeptember 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Once they start training to go to the bathroom, they’re going to experience successes and near successes. Keep in mind they going to successfully go to the bathroom, the rest of their lives, once they get this down. This is especially important to remember when you’re frustrated. More important than a term, is our attitude and our support. “Accidents” are not failures, they are “almost made it’s.” I’m not suggesting “almost made it” as a term, as much as an approach. Acknowledge that they are doing the best they can, celebrate their progress, and let them know they have your support (especially when they’re frustrated).

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