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. What's an erection? You might say, "A boy's penis is usually soft. But sometimes it gets hard and stands away from the body. This is called an erection." Describe how an erection can happen while a boy is sleeping or when his penis is touched.
This might also be the time to describe a wet dream. What's a period? You might say, "A period means that a girl's body is mature enough to become pregnant." Explain how menstruation is an important part of the reproductive cycle. You might offer details on bleeding and feminine hygiene products. How do people have sex? If your child wonders about the mechanics of sex, be honest. You might say, "The man puts his penis inside the woman's vagina." 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, there are many types of intimate relationships including those between two people of the same sex." Be available then to answer specific questions your child may have about homosexuality. In this and other issues regarding sexuality, brief answers to specific questions will serve your child best. What's masturbation? You might say, "Masturbation is when a boy rubs his penis or a girl rubs her clitoris." 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, the TV, the Internet or your child's friends? Between ages 8 and 12, children often worry whether they're "normal" — particularly when it comes to the size and symmetry of the penis, testicles and breasts. 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. 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.
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. Give up on the idea of presenting the subject in one big talk -- you'll overwhelm your child with more bewildering and even distasteful information than she can process at once. Instead, think of it as a gentle conversation that will take place over several months or perhaps even years. Keep your explanations as simple and specific to the discussion as you can. A 6-year-old wondering what "birth control" means is not necessarily asking you to delineate the mechanics of intercourse.
The hardest part, of course, is staying composed. Try to respond to your child's initial question without turning red or acting as though some momentous exchange is taking place; such a response might unnerve her or suggest that sex is linked to feelings of shame. If you can remain calm and speak naturally early on, you send an important message to your child: "You don't need to feel nervous about asking me about this. It's something we can talk about." When you arrive at the point of giving a technical description of "the Act," it may help both of you if you say something simple like, "Look, I know this sounds gross to you now, but -- trust me -- it will seem different when you're older."
A straightforward and honest approach is the best way to get through this: "When a man and a woman decide they want to do this, the man's penis goes inside the woman's vagina, and sperm comes out of the man's penis. Sometimes the sperm joins with one of the tiny eggs inside the woman's body, and that makes the egg begin growing into a baby. This happens in the special place women have called a uterus." Once you make it through this, you should expect your child to look both dumbfounded and suspicious, especially if it dawns on her that you may have done this thing at least once.
Don't be surprised if she suddenly changes the subject, walks away, or acts as though she hasn't heard a word you've said. She heard you. She just needs time to let it sink in. Earlier than you probably think. Girls now commonly start their periods as early as fifth grade, so even if your daughter looks as though she's nowhere near puberty, her schoolmates' accounts may confuse and upset her if you haven't given her the basic information first. She needs two things from you: first, the physical details of menstruation, and second, the security that when her period does begin.
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