What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex
It's a Penis, Not a Doohickey
I didn’t know I had a penis until I was ten. For many years I honestly thought my penis was called a doohickey because that was what my father called it. Sometimes he would mix it up and call it a pee-pee, and I suppose when he was feeling really frisky he’d call it a dick. But whatever my father said it was called, I believed him. And I bet that’s the way it was for most of the men reading this book. Were you told it was called a penis? Probably not.
I clearly remember, when I was about eight, my dad telling me, “Hey, got to protect your doohickey, Fred,” before taking me out to the ball field and hitting endless baseballs to me at first base. “You never know when you might get one in your doohickey,” he’d always remind me. “You got to make sure you wear your protective cup every time you go out and play.” I imagine he wanted me to protect my testicles more than he did my penis, but strangely enough he never said the word testicles or, for that matter, balls. So I learned early in life I had a doohickey, but I remained ball-less for a number of years thereafter. Go figure.
Why Not Use Slang?
You may be thinking, Sure, I do this—but all parents do this. We allow our kids to learn all these alternative names for their private parts except the ones that they should be learning. We have our reasons (embarrassment over the real terms, mostly), but the bigger question is what harm, if any, do we do when we use slang words for our sexual and reproductive body parts? I’m guessing most of you would reply, Very little harm. “So you call the testicles balls, the vagina a cunt, the penis a prick, and the breasts tits. What’s the big deal?” you may ask. You may have a similar reaction to terms for various sexual behaviors. So if sexual intercourse becomes fucking, and oral sex becomes giving head, and anal sex becomes bone smuggling, and masturbation becomes awaken the bacon, you may think that’s no big deal either. “They’re only words,” you may say. But it’s very important for parents to think about how “only words” play out over time with the thinking of young kids.
Let’s go back to our children’s sexualized wall of messages for a moment. When kids learn early on that there are dozens of slang names for their sexual and reproductive body parts, and we allow those words to become part of their lexicon without insisting that they learn to use the more socially accepted terms, we send them the message that there is something shameful about those body parts. That for whatever reason they can’t be spoken about unless we substitute some other name. This creates several serious problems. One concerns children who have been sexually abused. We know there are some children who will not report their abuse because they have learned that they shouldn’t say those words or have learned to associate a sense of shame with anything having to do with their private parts. Think about that for a moment: because we often fail to teach our kids the proper names for their genitalia, a number of sexually abused children remain silent.
Down and Dirty
Another problem with using sexual slang is that children fail to develop a sense of dignity around sexual matters. This means that things pertaining to sex remain “dirty” and are something that we just shouldn’t talk about. As a result, many children and young people are uncomfortable with communicating honestly and openly about sex and sexuality. And this discomfort perpetuates poor communication about sex between parents and their children. It even contributes to a lack of communication between teenagers and young adults who get involved in sexual relationships, which in turn can contribute to irresponsible sexual decision making. But perhaps the most pervasive consequence of using slang terminology is its effect, over time, of stripping away the lovemaking aspect of sexual intercourse and other sexually intimate acts. At times it seems as though members of our society don’t make love anymore—we simply fuck each other. And when this happens, we no longer require the love, trust, and respect that come with and from lovemaking.
In addition, kids who grow up with the slang also tend to objectify another person’s sexual body parts, making a person’s sexual parts the focus of their interest. When you do that, it’s easy to lose sight of the total person, to make their genitals the object of conquest. Statements like “I’m gonna hit that pussy,” “Let’s tap that ass,” and “I’m gonna ride that locker room terror” reduce sexual intimacy to the use of power and control of another person’s body.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
I can go into any third- or fourth-grade class today and I’ll guarantee you that 75 percent won’t have a clue what testicles are. But if I use the word balls they will all know. Learning the slang, however, is only part of the problem. There are many sexual parts of the body that many kids don’t even know exist. I know of very few fifth graders who know what a urethra is, and I bet that most fifth-grade boys think a woman urinates from her vagina. Heck, most eighth-grade boys probably think that too. I was in a fifth-grade class just recently and asked the students what part of a female’s body produces egg cells. “The stomach,” “the part that holds a baby,” they answered. Not one knew it was the ovaries. And I have found that it really doesn’t matter which community I visit or the particular set of demographics that exist there. Kids are pretty much ignorant of sexual anatomy irrespective of their socioeconomic status, race, culture, and other factors. In fact, if I asked you to draw the sexual and reproductive parts of a male and female, and label each part, I’d wager that you would fail the test. So where does that leave our kids?
So simply teaching our children to use the actual names for their sexual and reproductive body parts, as well as the actual names for different sexual acts, will go a long way toward enabling them to communicate effectively about sex and sexuality. By discouraging their use of slang terminology, we increase their chances of gaining a more healthy and life-enhancing view of sex and sexuality. Of course, your child will still learn the slang terminology and be exposed to the debasement that comes from using and hearing it; many of his peers will use it, and your child will hear it many times through various media outlets. This is inescapable. But by reinforcing the use of proper language and discouraging its misuse, you can minimize your child’s chances of incorporating slang terminology into his or her lexicon, and you’ll help your child develop a sense of dignity around sex and sexuality.
If you don’t want your young kid using the slang, you need to do two important things at the appropriate ages: (1) teach your child the correct terms that rightfully belong in their sexual and anatomical vocabulary, and (2) teach your child the sexual slang words you don’t want them saying. That’s right—as you will see shortly, you will have to have some discussion about the words you don’t want your child to use.
Safety First: Private Parts for Little Ones
All three-year-olds should know the words for their genitals and private parts of their body. No ifs, ands, or buts! (No pun intended.) So let’s see: penis, testicles, breasts, vulva, clitoris, and vagina. For kids three and four years old, these are the basics; the rest can come later. Just as you would teach your child about any of his other body parts, so will you teach him about his private parts and genitals. Make your discussions brief, as young children’s attention span is limited, and don’t make it seem like it’s a big deal to be learning about them. When you’re dressing her or bathing him, you can go through a list of different body parts including their private parts: “You know, your body is very special and there are a lot of different parts to it. You have your arms, legs, neck, and head; and you have a penis, testicles, and buttocks.” You can point to each part and then say, “Some parts of our bodies are private and some of them are public.” You can have a similar discussion with your daughter: “These folds between your legs are your vulva, the opening between them is your vagina, and just above your vagina is a little button-size body part called the clitoris. These are your buttocks, behind you, and these are your nipples up here on your chest.”
Connecting private parts with private places is a very important concept to teach your children: “Your vagina, clitoris, breasts, and buttocks are the parts of your body that can only be shown in private places like your bedroom and the bathroom. When you go outside you always cover your private parts.”
This can be confusing, as we have a tendency to let our little ones run around naked every once in a while at the beach, outside in the yard, and various other places. But in the United States kids need to learn a sense of sexual modesty as they get older. For most kids, and from a developmental standpoint, this usually happens by the age of eight. For little girls, their breasts are not as private as they will be when they begin to grow and develop. Feel free to say to your little five- or six-year-old girl, “Your breasts are private now. No one should touch them but it’s okay sometimes for little girls to not cover their breasts all the time. When your breasts start to grow when you get older, you will have to cover them. I know that may be a little hard to understand, but that is just the way it is.”
You also want to address the much more important issue of others touching a child’s private parts. Just as we establish rules for behavior with our children around the house, in public, or at school, we need to establish rules concerning private parts: “A rule that you need to live by is no one is allowed to touch your private parts except Mommy or Daddy, and we will only do so when we wash you, or if we have to put medicine on your private parts, for example. Or sometimes your doctor has to look at and touch your private parts to make sure that you are healthy or if you are hurting there. But those are the only exceptions.” Just as important is the concept that they are not allowed to touch the genitals or private parts of another person: “Just like the rule that no one should touch your private parts, we have another rule that says you shouldn’t touch anyone else’s—and there are no exceptions.”
Begin Early and Keep Building
This is a lot of important information, and you will disseminate it according to how much your little one can absorb. But you do need to start this discussion by age three—and you need to keep repeating it. You will also scaffold your talks—that is, build on and expand the information you offer. As your child learns each concept and gets to understand each topic you broach, you can add on more information and guidance, just as a builder raises the scaffolding as he builds each story of a building. So, for example, when your son is three you tell him the name of his testicles; when he is five, you briefly discuss the purpose of his testicles—that is, they will make sperm cells, and when a sperm cell joins with an egg cell a new life is created. Somewhere in the age span of five to eight you describe how that occurs through sexual intercourse. We will discuss this in far greater detail shortly.
You do want your son to learn about the private body parts of a girl, and you want your daughter to learn about the private body parts of a boy. It has to work both ways; girls should learn what the boys learn and boys should learn what the girls learn. Not only are children naturally curious about the differences between girls and boys at this age—and in short order they will need to understand the very basic process of reproduction and how babies are made—but they also need to understand that both genders have private parts: “Boys don’t have a vagina, they have a penis. The penis looks a little like a soft noodle, and, when a boy urinates, urine comes out of the tip of his penis.” “Girls don’t have a penis; they have a vagina, which is an opening between their legs. They don’t urinate from their vagina like a boy does from his penis. There is a tiny opening right near their vagina where the urine comes out.” If you wish, feel free to go to the library for an age-appropriate children’s book that shows some nicely done drawings of different body parts.
Find Your Teaching Style
I believe it is important to qualify with your child that these discussions are meant to be discussed privately between the two of you, and that it’s not okay to talk about this stuff with other people. You know how little kids can be, blithely sharing everything that you’ve talked about with other people. So set some boundaries for your talks with your child.
You also need to determine just how often you want to have these discussions with your child and how much you’ll say when you do. Use any teachable moments that you can. If, for example, you and your child are watching television and you see a scene that depicts a young child needing to go to her parents for help, you can say something like, “Remember, just like that girl on TV, you should always tell Mommy or Daddy if someone tries to harm you. Like if someone tries to touch your private parts.” Or when you are bathing your son, you can say, “Remember, aside from Mommy or Daddy helping you wash your private parts or having the doctor examine your private parts, no one is allowed to touch them.”
This is one issue that you will need to discuss more than most. Young kids need to hear the rules about the touching of private parts a number of times. They need to understand what they should do if someone tries to touch them or when someone else tries to get them to touch, and they need to know that they should always tell you or another trusted adult when someone tries to do this to them. You don’t want to scare them, so don’t overstate your message, but do plan to discuss this to some degree throughout their childhood and teenage years.
Being Naked Around Your Little One
Walking around naked in front of your little one is something that most all of us have done. Bathing with them, dressing with them, or walking around your house in front of them in the buff is no big deal. But you should talk with them at some point to clarify the rules: because this is Mommy and Daddy, it is okay to be naked, but we don’t walk around nude in public or in front of other people. Don’t worry that you might be scaring them from one day ever disrobing in front of others, say, when in a locker room. They will no doubt come to learn the distinction in due time—that is, kids will be exposed to numerous situations in life that will help them see that there are gradations of the concepts of “private” and “public.” For example, one can be very private in the privacy of one’s bathroom but cannot always be in the privacy of a public bathroom. Nevertheless, you will inevitably end your moments of nudity with your kids at some point. Either your kids will stop wanting to disrobe in front of you anymore, which will likely occur around eight years of age or so, or you yourself will become uncomfortable being naked in front of them.
Sometimes little ones can be quite obnoxious with their behavior when we are nude around them. Every now and again we come across one who simply loves bugging the crap out of us—you know, the little son or daughter who just delights in poking us in our buttocks, penis, or breasts. It may happen once, twice, or three times, but at some point it becomes really annoying. If you have a child who is a poker or a grabber, my suggestion is to get a handle on his behavior right away and make it stop, or things could get a little out of hand. There’s nothing cute about a child grabbing or poking your (or anyone else’s) private parts. When it happens even once, I would intervene. You want to label the behavior, tell your child how the behavior makes you feel, and set limits: “When you poke Mommy in the breast like that it hurts, and I don’t want you to do that again.” Or, “When you grab Daddy’s penis it can hurt. There is nothing funny about doing that; you must not do that anymore.” Make sure you acknowledge any positive behavior moving forward, as you want to reward behavior that is acceptable. If your child stops engaging in the behavior for a day or so, you want to say something like, “You haven’t poked Mommy in the buttocks today. I am proud of your behavior.” Always make sure you reward “good” behavior.
What if My Little One Asks Me …
So when you teach your three- or four-year-old the words testicles, vagina, penis, and breasts, what do you say if she asks, What do these parts do? or, Why do we have them? It is unlikely that your child will ask these questions at this age, but so what if she does ask? It’s not a big deal; you just calmly answer the questions. Some of the answers are gonna get us into a sex talk, and my kid is just too young for that, you may be thinking. Keep in mind that these little ones really couldn’t care less about sex, so giving them a little insight into it is not going to cause any harm. What it will do is open the door to yourbecoming an approachable parent for your child. Your child will learn early on that she can come to you for any guidance on the subject of sex. After all, that is your goal.
But let’s assume for a moment that your kid does ask how all this happens. What’s a natural response? If your child asks why boys have testicles, your response could be, “They produce sperm cells.” My guess is your child will just say, “Oh,” and move on. If, however, he asks what sperm cells are for, you can respond, “They help to make a baby.” Should he ask how that happens, you can say, “A sperm cell from the father joins with an egg cell from the mother and that makes a baby.” What if the child asks how the sperm meets the egg? You can say, “The father puts his penis into the mother’s vagina and the sperm cells come out of the father’s penis. There is an egg cell in the mother’s body and the sperm joins with it to make a baby.”
I hope you haven’t just fainted. I know, it seems hard to have a frank discussion like this with your young child. But honestly, if your conversation with your three- or four-year-old gets this far, it is likely your kid will be fast asleep out of sheer boredom. And if for some reason he is not asleep, I am sure he will view the whole process as disgusting and will not want to hear any more about it. Irrespective of which response your child makes, you will want to close your conversation with something along the following lines: “Now, remember, this is private talk between Mommy (or Daddy) and you. We do not talk about private parts with other people. But I want you to know that if you have more questions about this you can always come to Mommy (or Daddy) and ask. You know we love you very much and you can ask us anything.”
For questions about the vagina or penis and what its function is, you can adapt the responses I gave above. I suppose you could opt for a “safer” response by saying, “The penis is the part of a man’s body that allows urine to come out.” Or, “The vagina is the opening between a woman’s legs that allows a baby to come out when it is ready to be born.” Just remember that eventually (and certainly by age eight) you will need to discuss these body parts in relation to intercourse and reproduction. If your child asks about women’s breasts and why they are bigger than a man’s you can say, “A woman’s breasts are bigger than a man’s because in order to breast-feed the baby the mother’s breasts need to be big enough so the baby can drink milk from them. Mommies have milk in their breasts after they give birth and many of them breast-feed their baby. So that is why their breasts need to be bigger.” Again, the odds are very much in your favor that your child will not ask any further questions. But you do need to remember the basic rule: we never ignore one of our child’s questions. So we all need to be ready with answers.
Beyond the Basics with Your Slightly Older Little Ones
It’s always interesting to watch five- and six-year-olds hear me discuss with them the names for their private parts. I always make sure to do this with their teacher by my side so as to make them feel as safe and comfortable as possible. When you say the words penis, vagina, clitoris, testicles, ovaries, and breasts in front of a class of twenty-five first or second graders, you are bound to get a bunch of reactions. Invariably, you will always have some children whose eyes become as wide as humanly possible, some with big smiles across their faces, a few whose mouths fall open with the most incredulous looks, and those who will actually fall back on the floor while sitting in their circle on the rug. And believe it or not there are always a few students who will actually handle my talk with more maturity than their parents would.
My advice for your discussion of private parts with a five- or six-year-old is similar to that for the three- or four-year-old. You will want to periodically review the different names for the genitals and private parts of a woman and a man, and you will also want to review your safety rules having to do with avoiding abuse. But with a five- or six-year-old, I recommend that you also discuss some of the functions of the various body parts, if you haven’t already. For example, I would say to this group, “The body is made up of many, many cells. Cells are very tiny but when many of them are put together they actually form different parts of a body. This is what happens when a baby is growing inside the uterus of her mother. There are cells that make the arms and legs, cells that make the chest, cells that make the bones, cells that make the heart and lungs, and cells that make up the entire body. Both girls and boys have the same type of cells except for one particular type of cell. There is one type of cell that a man has that a woman doesn’t have, and one type of cell that a woman has that a man doesn’t have. The man has sperm cells and the woman has egg cells. And they’re all very, very small. The testicles make sperm cells. Just as a man has two testicles, a woman has two ovaries that make the eggs. The ovaries are inside a woman’s body. When a sperm cell from the father joins together with an egg cell from the mother, it makes a baby.” No doubt some of these five- and six-year-olds, like their younger counterparts, will be totally bored at this point. Few, if any, will ask how the sperm cell gets together with the egg cell, but if they do, you will answer it the same way we did with the three- and four-year-olds.
You’ll also want to explain what a uterus is. No, the baby doesn’t grow in the mother’s tummy or stomach! My goodness, kids say this all the time—that a baby is growing in the stomach—and we virtually never correct them. Well, from now on you will, okay? “The baby grows in the uterus, honey, not the stomach. The uterus is an organ made mostly of muscle; it’s the size of my fist and is inside the mother’s body right about here” (place your fist against your lower abdomen). “It can expand to hold a baby as it grows.”
By about age eight you will want to have defined for both girls and boys all the words for the private parts and genitals previously mentioned, including the fallopian tubes, clitoris, labia, nipples, scrotum, and pubic hair. You’ll also want to delve into an explanation of sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, menstruation, and nocturnal emissions, and provide periodic clarification of masturbation, erections, and abuse prevention (see chapter 8). And you have to prepare yourself to explain to your child those slang sex words you do not want him or her to say, including the sexual slang not specific to body parts. Let’s explore those.
Use Your Words
I strongly disapprove when a child uses sexual slang, no matter what his or her age is. And although some parents would not admit to it in public, particularly the more permissive parents, deep down most are really put off when their kids use slang. Now, you may say in front of others, “Oh, what’s in a word? What’s the big deal if your kid says fuck once in a while?” You may say this, but don’t you recoil from it, deep in your core? Do you ever draw a line in the sand with your child concerning his use of slang? Are you making a concerted effort to stop your child from using slang or do you ignore it?
Granted, slang is probably the least significant sexual problem experienced among young people, but it is also one of the earliest to develop. When compared to sexual abuse and assault, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, and HIV, a child using slang is a minuscule problem. But it could be the beginning of bigger sexual problems down the road. In the field of crime prevention, it is now believed that if a community doubles-down on the lesser crimes, the minor infractions and misdemeanors, that it has a significant effect on more severe crimes. A similar idea could be applied to sexual problems—ideally, our efforts to combat more serious sexual problems among young people may improve if we make a concerted effort early on to eliminate sexual slang from our lexicon.
How Low Can We Go?
I think that the bar for what is acceptable sexually in our society has dropped way too low. At some point we’ll have to raise that bar. Yes, I understand that many of us may think lowering the bar is fine as long as no one gets hurt. But as the bar sinks lower, and we don’t notice it, our kids are being hurt. I think we need to reflect seriously about this. For example, if we accept having sex without love are we likely to see more sexual harm? Are we likely to see more unwanted pregnancy? Are we likely to see greater spread of disease and HIV? If we allow our children to accept lyrics in songs that debase women are we likely to see more violence toward women? If we accept more and more explicit sexuality into our daily lives are we likely to see more sexualized young people? If we allow kids to think that all vaginas are cunts and all penises pricks, all women hoes, and sexual intercourse and making love is just fucking, what effect is this having on our children’s sexuality and subsequent behavior?
At the risk of sounding too conservative, I say that by lowering the bar of acceptability on our children’s use of sexual slang we may set ourselves up for more serious sexual problems later on. Not that I believe that all kids who use sexual slang are headed down the road toward disaster. Far from it! But there are those who will be. There are some kids who will grow up believing that some very serious sexual matters are nothing more than a game to be played, and they will end up hurting themselves or someone else. So we can start right now and begin to raise the bar again. We can do so by taking a stand on our children’s use of sexual slang.
Our morality and values are at the heart of our sexuality. We all take a stand on what we believe is right and what is wrong, and I have chosen to believe that sexual slang is something that adults need to discourage in children and adolescents. Not addressing it early on only increases the chances that it will take on a life of its own. In my experience, boys are more prone to using sexual slang than girls, who tend to be a little more secretive or coy. But these days it seems that more girls are using sexual slang and behaving this way than ever before.
An Ounce of Prevention
Even if you think your child hasn’t yet learned or been exposed to a particular slang word I still encourage you to discuss it with him. Better he hears your words of caution when learning the slang words than to learn them on his own without your guidance. I know of a lot of teens who don’t use slang around their parents but let it flow like water when around their friends. You’re better off approaching your children when they’re young and setting boundaries and limits than to just let it go and not comment until some of these words creep into your child’s or their peers’ lexicon. And eight years of age is where I would begin making my concerted effort.
This assignment is a tough one, because you may in fact be teaching your children a slang word he may not have heard yet. But once you’ve said the word to your kid you will likely not have to say it again. Your focus will then be on periodically reminding your child that you do not accept slang usage. So you might say to your eight-year-old, “I’m going to share with you some words that some kids your age and older use that I disapprove of. These are words I hope you won’t use. You know how we’ve spoken about sexual and private parts of the body, and the purpose of those parts. Well, some of these words have other names for them that I would not want you to ever use. For example, some people call a penis a prick, a vagina a cunt, the testicles balls. Sometimes some people call sexual intercourse fucking. As your Dad (or Mom), I simply hate it when I hear these words. People use these words for several reasons; sometimes to get people to laugh, sometimes because they want to hurt another person by calling him or her a name, and sometimes just because they think it’s cool. I very much hope you don’t use those words as you grow older.”
You can go over other slang words, but there should not be any reason why you would have to repeat those words to your child once you’ve discussed them. You can periodically remind him of your expectations for using words and make sure to praise him for not using slang: “I just want to compliment you on not using slang language; Mommy is so proud of you for talking respectfully.” And you can use teachable moments when you hear certain slang language used: “I just heard that boy use inappropriate language. It makes me very uncomfortable to hear those words. I’m really happy that you don’t say those words.” Making references to language that is and is not acceptable to you as the parent should go a long way toward shaping your child’s behavior and preparing him for the onslaught of slang that he will hear as an adolescent.
What Those Parts Do
Knowledge is power, and if kids don’t understand how their bodies work sexually, they are weak and vulnerable. If I don’t know what part of the body makes eggs, I probably don’t know when I ovulate, or for that matter what ovulation is. If I don’t understand ovulation then I sure don’t understand menstruation, and if I don’t understand menstruation then I probably have no idea when I am most susceptible to pregnancy. If I have no idea that my penis leaks pre-ejaculate semen before I actually ejaculate, I could have a big problem one day. Think of all the changes that one’s body goes through during puberty. If your child doesn’t have a reasonable understanding of what those biological and emotional changes will be, there is a significant chance that she or he will experience some level of confusion at some point. And it all adds up pretty quickly. The less a child knows about her body and what to expect as she develops, the greater the risk of that confusion. And the greater her confusion, the greater the possibility that she will make poor decisions concerning her sexuality.
We can all relate to the challenges of puberty and adolescence—and the challenges that kids experience today are far more significant than the ones we faced growing up. I will delve into many of these challenges, and what we need to do to help our children negotiate them, a little later in the book. But the early development of a sexual vocabulary provides a firm grounding for young people to not only better understand their sexuality, but also develop a reverence and respect for it.
By providing your child with an accurate sexual vocabulary, you become more approachable on sexual matters. Many parents simply give their child an age-appropriate book on sex to look at and read. But when parents do this, the book becomes the source of sex education and the parent takes on the role of a bystander. If you do share a book or two with your child, you still have to be the primary sex educator. All this parenting stuff is hard work, and no one ever said it was going to be easy. So let’s make the effort and do it right.
You’re off to a great start with your little one, with the gift of a sound sex vocabulary and basic knowledge of the body parts. These will make your task easier as you introduce your kindergartner to the classic “birds and bees” information: sexual reproduction.