What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex
Everything They Learn About Sex Needs to Start in Kindergarten
I remember being asked to come and speak to a first-grade class about human reproduction around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s. The teacher had some animal babies that had been born in her classroom—perhaps hamsters or guinea pigs—and wanted me to make the bridge between animal and human reproduction.
I had done this many times before. It never ceases to amaze me how capable six-year-olds are of absorbing the basics of how life is created. By the time I’ve finished the talk with them, one-third have gleaned the basics, another third of them haven’t fully comprehended all that I said, and the final third are simply bored. Occasionally some will ask how the sperm cell and egg cell get together, and I will segue into a brief description of how sperm comes out of the penis and into the woman’s vagina, the opening between her legs. They get fairly uncomfortable at that point; some will start giggling, some will stare, wide eyed, and some will not be sure what to do next. But that’s the way it is with six-year-olds. At least I know I’ve provided a factual foundation for additional learning.
On this particular day, however, a totally unexpected question arose during my discussion with this class. This one little boy raised his hand and asked me, “Dr. Fred, did the president really pull his pants down and have that lady kiss his privates?” Wow, I said to myself, did I just get asked a question about oral sex by a six-year-old? Well, I thought, welcome to the sexualized world of young children. So after I regained my composure, I looked around the classroom and it seemed as though every other little six-year-old head in the class was nodding affirmatively, bobbing up and down. And it didn’t take long for all the other students in the class to start chatting, with some raising their hands and asking questions and making comments. “Yeah, Dr. Fred, I heard that too,” shouted out another boy. “I heard that on TV,” said one of the little girls. “That’s really yucky, Dr. Fred,” said another. Oh, boy, I said to myself. This is not what I came here to discuss.
I quickly thought, What would I say if these were my own kids? What would I want them to hear, and is it something I can say to other parents’ kids without getting fired? I do know that I have to say something in such situations; ignoring what kids legitimately ask or say about sex is not the way to go. Whatever I say, it’s got to have validity, be as developmentally appropriate as possible, and also include some values or moral message. You know already that I’m a big believer in combining sexual information with some underlying values or moral message, so if I do try to respond it has to put the sexual behavior of oral sex into a values context.
If I had thought that that student was the only one who had the question about oral sex, I probably would have referred him to his parents to ask the question and avoided having the entire class hear my response. But I was certain that virtually every child in the class had heard something about the alleged episode in the White House. I’d like you to think about that for a moment. Thinking back to that time, there was literally nonstop news coverage about oral sex. Of all the TV-watching young kids in the country, how many had an adult help them make sense of what they were hearing? Perhaps not very many. As a result of this episode, there was also a secondary message being sent out that perhaps oral sex was not really sex. How much of an impact was that message having on young kids and teenagers at the time? We can only imagine what this was adding to children’s sexualized wall of messages.
But getting back to that first-grade class, here’s what I said: “Wow, you heard that too? Well, you know, kids, as strange and as weird as it sounds, there are some adults who love each other who will do that.” “Oh, Dr. Fred, that’s disgusting,” could be heard among the many “oohs” and “ahhs” after I had said it. But within a few moments all quieted down and we moved on. As you can see, six-year-olds don’t actually want to hear very much about sex; they just want their questions answered and their curiosity quelled.
Talk about a teachable moment! It may not have been the perfect answer, but to this day I can’t think of a better one. I didn’t ignore the question but acknowledged what the students had heard, I put the behavior of oral sex into an adult context where it certainly belongs, and I attached the values message of love to it. I may have stretched the truth somewhat in implying that love was involved, but, as I’ve said before, we want our kids to grow up believing that you should love, trust, and respect someone if you’re going to put your mouth on a person’s penis or vulva.
STARTLING, SHOCKING, SOBERING STATISTICS
In a recent talk to a group of kindergarten parents, I made the following statement: “In just five very short years there is about a 50 percent chance that your little one will start puberty. And do you know that here in New York City almost 9 percent of kids have sex before reaching age thirteen?”1
(For those of you living elsewhere in the States, don’t go thinking you’re off the hook. Alabama and Arkansas, you’re about 10 percent; Delaware, you’re almost 10 percent; Mississippi, you’re over 13 percent; and Dallas, Detroit, and Memphis, you’re all higher than New York City.)2
“So in just a few years you’re going to be confronted with some pretty difficult issues with your child, and that includes talking about when, with whom, and under what conditions you believe someone should have sexual intercourse. You’ll need to discuss all the other types of sex as well!”
The kindergarten parents looked at me like I was from another planet. They stared at me with the most incredulous looks on their faces, and the room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. “So if there’s about an 8 to 10 percent chance that your child could be sexually active before age thirteen,” I continued, “doesn’t it make sense that you should be having some very serious discussions about sexual intercourse a couple of years before then? If 5 to 7.5 million U.S. kids are sexually active before thirteen, our serious discussions must start by ten years of age. And if we should be having serious discussions by age ten, shouldn’t we have initiated some conversation about sexual intercourse a good deal before then? Is it out of the question, then, that by age eight we should be starting to discuss with our kid, with some regularity, what our expectations are for our kids with regard to sexual intercourse? This would mean that we should be sharing our views on the sanctity of the act, the risks and benefits of intercourse, and our values concerning when, with whom, and under what conditions intercourse should take place. All of this brings us to about age five or six, when we might have our first discussion of what sexual intercourse is. You can wait until eight years of age, but I’m telling you there is no harm in starting at five or six years of age. There are only benefits.”
As you can see, I have allowed a several-year window for you to begin conversations with your child about sexual intercourse. This is deliberate on my part. While it is essential to have had some introductory discussions about sperm cells and egg cells and how they create a new life when joined together, I do not think it is essential to define sexual intercourse at five, six, or even seven years of age—but it is by age eight. However, as I’ve said, your child may ask you questions prior to age eight that lead you to initiate a talk in which you define intercourse. I also want you to understand that you can choose to bring it up yourself, and I will discuss how to do this. Doing so will obviously give you a head start, and please understand that there is nothing to worry about should you decide to initiate a talk at five or six. But you should realize that by age eight, it absolutely becomes relevant to start some serious discussion about sexual intercourse.
Returning to my talk that day with the kindergarten parents, I could feel the comfort level dropping in the room as some of the parents started squirming in their seats, looking around for some reaction from the others.
“If we discuss sex with them, can’t that actually sexualize them?” asked a father. “Isn’t there a chance that it could actually increase their interest in sexual matters?” he continued.
I get this question all the time, from parents of children of all different ages. I suppose that if your sex talks are preachy and bossy, or your talks are void of any sense of involvement or connection with your child, then you can expect no positive returns and possibly even some negative ones. But combine your talks with authenticity, empathy, dignity, and a real sense of bonding, and they will not increase a child’s sexual behavior. They will, however, increase your child’s chances of delaying sexual involvement and help him or her to make better decisions about sexuality.
What Are We Really Afraid Of?
When our children are infants, most of us really don’t think much about what we’re going to say to them about sex when they get older. For the most part it’s not on our radar screen yet, and even if it is, it’s so far off in the future that we have a whole lot of time to prepare for it, right? And even when our children reach five years of age, we’re still not really thinking too much about it. Sound familiar? But if you stop and think about children’s development today and when puberty begins, a five-year-old is not that far away from having to manage some pretty heavy-duty sexual stuff. If the mean ages for menstruation and sperm development are in the eleven to twelve-and-a-half age range, and the initial changes of pubertal development frequently occur before then, sometimes as young as seven and eight years, then in reality there are large numbers of fairly young kids who are developing sexually and are actually capable of producing babies themselves. So a five-year-old is only a few years away from some big-time changes.
Let’s face it: every five-year-old on the planet has probably asked, “How does the baby get into your tummy, Mommy?” As I’ve said several times before, your five- or six-year-old child is likely to be satisfied with an explanation of a sperm cell and an egg cell joining together and won’t ask about how the sperm actually gets to the egg. But you need to be prepared if she does. And in that case, telling her the basic information will cause no harm.
It’s No Dissertation
As I’ve already said a number of times, your five- or six-year-old doesn’t have a whole lot of focused energy for learning about sperm, eggs, or how they get together. When you do have your discussion, it’s all really rather quick. It’s certainly no dissertation. As I wrote in the last chapter, by this point in your child’s development you’ve laid the groundwork with the vocabulary, the names for the genitals and sexual parts. You’ve explained the testicles and the ovaries, and how the testicles make sperm cells and the ovaries make egg cells and how cells are very, very small. Making the bridge between the sperm and the egg is simple: “Daddy and Mommy lie in their bed without clothes on, and Daddy puts his penis into Mommy’s vagina. The sperm come out of Daddy’s penis into Mommy’s vagina, and if Mommy’s ovaries have made an egg cell, then a sperm cell can join together to make a baby.” And as my favorite cartoons used to say, “That’s all, folks.”
Do not be concerned that you have only made reference to procreational sex and not made any reference to recreational sex. There will be plenty of time for that as your child gets a little older. You’ll also have time later to explain how two moms or two fathers can have a baby, and you’ll discuss adoption, single parent families, and the whole shebang as time goes along.
Of course, single parents and gay and lesbian parents will want to have that discussion right about now. However you had your child, you will want to, in a matter-of-fact way, let your child know how it happened. Here’s one example: “Mommy adopted you. That means another man and woman made you. They could not raise you and that is when Mommy got you. Mommy wanted you as her baby and I couldn’t love you any more than I do.” I’m sure you’ll have so many more talks, but the best time to tell your child how he was adopted is generally when you have the sperm and egg discussion. Gay and lesbian parents will do the same, explaining their particular situation of how they became parents.
Regardless of the family’s individual circumstances and irrespective of family makeup, our five- or six-year-olds will handle these talks very well. Most all will cringe when the penis-in-vagina part comes but they’ll manage all of this in good fashion. The only question is will you?
It’s Never Too Early
Don’t ever forget: it’s never too early, but it can be too late! What I want you to do as you move forward with your five- or six-year-old is to periodically feed her little bits of information, personal values, and guidance about different aspects of sex and sexuality. There’s no particular “flow” to follow when sharing with your child your wisdom on sexual matters. You certainly will not talk about sex every day, or even every week. Sometimes it will come up more often and other times you will have what seem like long dry spells. When a teachable moment presents itself, however, you should try to take advantage of it. They usually occur without any warning, but with all the different sexual messages that our kids receive every day there are more than enough opportunities for you to pick and choose the ones you will comment on with your child. Your formally planned talks will probably occur several times a year, possibly more, and will focus on information that you believe your child should learn.
OOPS—IT’S TOO LATE!
I mentioned earlier that it takes time to become a good driver. Simply because you have passed your driver’s license test in no way implies that you are a truly safe driver. It just means you have demonstrated an ability to drive. A teenager may be ready for some driving around on her own, but it takes years before she is really ready to face all the dangers of the road. Similarly, when a child enters adolescence, she or he is capable of sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Yet the adolescent is not ready for either. Perhaps the worst time to start a discussion of sexual intercourse and pregnancy is when your kid is a teenager. It’s not the best time to expect them to start connecting with you on the subject; after all, the teenager’s job seems to be to make our lives miserable, not to willingly do as we say with regard to their behavior. Decisions that have as much life-changing impact as sexual intercourse should not receive their first attention when one is in the throes of the biological and emotional upheavals that come with adolescence. Like I always tell parents, you don’t want your fifteen-year-old kid to start to think about how far to go when she’s already sitting on that park bench with that gorgeous boy who has a hand on her mid-thigh and is kissing her passionately. Oops, you’re going to say, I should already have had some discussion with her about that.
The list of possible topics or issues that could be addressed with your five- or six-year-old can be quite extensive. Through your teaching, your child is learning vocabulary and functions of the body, various gender roles played out by boys and girls and men and women, safety issues, masturbation, sexual intercourse (depending on the child’s readiness), and your values about many aspects of sexuality. They are learning by watching us as well—how we show love and affection, agree and disagree, solve differences, act as men and women, behave as husbands, wives, and partners. So much of what they will learn about sex and sexuality will really begin to take shape during the kindergarten and first-grade years. The building blocks for your child’s sexual future truly start now.
So now is the time to begin to address some topics that will come up a few years down the road when your child must confront some very important decisions about sex. Learning about sexual intercourse, determining the type of person to be sexual with, and being able to postpone pregnancy until adulthood should not suddenly begin when these issues become relevant in a child’s life. As I have said before, these are decisions of such magnitude that our children need to be learning about these issues long before they are faced with them.
As you scaffold your discussions about how babies are made, you will be discussing the values that you want your child to adopt about sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and the type of person to enter into a relationship with many years down the road. You will have discussions of the big three—love, respect, and trust—and how they should play a major role in all decisions about sexual intercourse. If, for example, you are in the park with your five-year-old and you see a baby with its parent, you might say, in passing, “You know, sweetheart, a person should only think of having a baby when she is an adult. There are too many teenagers who become pregnant.” You might add to this during another teachable moment when you say, “People must be in love before they have a baby. They have to be really sure that they are in love with each other.” You will scaffold that with even more talks: “It takes a long time to know if you love someone. It takes a long time to know if you can trust someone.” You will also be mindful of being authentic in the things you say about all this. When walking by several teenagers outside a middle school, you could say to your five-year-old, “Remember when we spoke about how only adults should have a baby? What then would you say to a teenager who wanted to have a baby?” Or, if you are watching TV and see a parent taking care of a baby you could say, “Do you think a teenager can handle the big responsibility of taking care of a baby and being a mother?”
“YOU CAN’T DO THE THING WITHOUT THE RING”
You may want to give your child the message that two people should be married before having sexual intercourse or having a baby. This is of course anyone’s prerogative to advocate. I personally do not say this to my child with regard to sexual intercourse; I just think it is too unrealistic. If you’re thirty-five years of age and not married yet, you can’t have sex? Or, if my child is gay or lesbian then he or she could never have sex because gay marriage is illegal in most states. I believe that this is simply an indefensible position to take. As for insisting that one should only conceive a baby in the context of marriage, that would mean sending the unmarried straight to the alternative methods now used by those who have trouble conceiving through intercourse but want to have a biological child—artificial insemination, in vitro, and surrogacy (also used by gays and lesbians, who obviously can’t both produce their own biological offspring as a couple, and still can’t get married in most states). Even without restricting sex to marriage, there is much to tell our children concerning when and under what conditions you expect them to experience sexual intercourse.
I’m sure as you read this some of you are probably thinking, No way am I gonna do this. That is because reading about doing this is probably stranger than actually having the conversation with your child. Children this age will handle what you are saying in a very matter-of-fact way. They will respond accordingly and then will want to move on to something different. Again, you are trying to share the values you want your child to learn in conjunction with sexual intercourse and having a baby. You want to instill in your child both the knowledge and the moral guideposts very early, and you will have these discussions with your child as you see fit over the course of the next several years. By doing this you can assure yourself that, by the time your child reaches adolescence, she or he will have a strong foundation upon which to make critical decisions about sex and sexuality. And you will have established a significant line of communication so that, as your child enters that stage of adolescent development where he naturally begins to pull back from you, there will still be a significant attachment that will make you very approachable.
Who Is Your Ideal Partner?
It is important to help your child develop a good understanding of the type of person he or she may want to develop a relationship with as an adult. Yes, age five or six is a long way from choosing a life partner, but getting the basic ingredients out early can only serve your child well. Once you discuss with your child the sort of partner that would serve one well, you can use those qualities as a reference point as your child eventually enters adolescence and young adulthood.
Whoever your present partner is (if you have one) will go a long way in teaching your child the sort of person you feel is worthy of an intimate and loving relationship. So if your partner, spouse, or life partner does not measure up, or maybe falls short of your ideal, then you need to realize this person likely stands as a negative model for your child. I’ve met far too many parents who have such a partner, and they wonder why their kids are having problems. If you have multiple partners in your life, you need to be especially careful regarding how this affects your child. (In particular, having multiple partners coming and going in your home is a potentially volatile and problematic scenario on a number of fronts.) Our kids watch us like hawks—the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we love, fight, argue, and show affection. If we show malice, disrespect, and nastiness, our child will be there taking it all in.
The most powerful way of teaching your child what sort of person she or he should consider as a partner, down the road, is to model on a day-to-day basis the human qualities you want your child to revere most. You and your partner have a huge responsibility regardless of whatever you say to or teach your child. So sketch out the values you want your child to embrace—such as empathy, love, respect, trust, responsibility, and honesty—and ensure that you incorporate them into your way of life. If you can model them regularly there is a far better chance your child will learn to embrace them in hers. Remember, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Behavior: The Golden Rule
When teaching values, you’ll take the same approach as you will in teaching your child about intercourse and pregnancy. You are always laying out the basics and then scaffolding your message as you move forward with your child. So you might say, “Some of the most important things you will ever learn in life concern how you treat other people. Learning to show respect to others is something that we all need to do. You need to try to understand the needs of others, what other people need in order to feel good and be happy, and what makes them sad and hurt.”
When your child displays a behavior that is problematic, highlight the behavior for the child and tell him how it makes you feel, and how it might make others feel: “When I see you make fun of that child, it makes me feel sad. I bet it also hurts her feelings.” When you do this you are helping your child learn empathy. And remember to always be authentic: “If you were a mommy and your child stole from another child, what would you say to her?” Or you might role-play a situation in which a child is trying to get your child to steal money from an open pocketbook in order to highlight how to say no and what the best course of action would be for handling such a situation. As you help your child understand the importance of certain basic core values, you are also helping him to appreciate the importance of developing relationships with persons who also possess those values.
TOO YOUNG FOR SEXY
Are you teaching your child to have an adult appearance? How are you dressing her or him? Does your little girl wear any makeup yet? Are you dressing her a little sexy sometimes? If her ears are pierced, are the earrings a little too extravagant at times? How about your son? Do you have an earring in him yet?
Then there are the hairstyles. Are you trying out wild looks on your kindergartner? Did you highlight her hair yet? You didn’t give your boy a Mohawk, did you?
Is your little boy’s baseball cap tilted to the side or turned around backward? Are his pants hanging on his hips? Does he act macho and tough?
Are you attempting to have your little girl look just like a runway model? Is she learning that sexy is better?
This is just some stuff I want you to think about.
Tell your child about the various qualities you look for in persons you want to be your friends, associates, and partners. Do this as often as you see fit to do. Comment on the positive and negative qualities of people you encounter in your lives. There will be times when you are watching TV or reading a book with your child and you will be able to comment on the character’s behaviors, traits, and personalities. Planning your strategies for teaching your child what to look for and value in others will pay big dividends down the road as your child grows older. This lesson is as important as anything your child will ever learn in life.
While you’re talking with your kids about the kinds of people who make good friends and partners, and how to treat others kindly and respectfully, you should also introduce the idea of sexual orientation. Let’s talk about introducing this important subject to your kids.
Gays and Lesbians
When my son was five we had a couple of friends who were lesbians. I can remember very well when I decided to share with him that they were in love with each other. I simply chose a time when we were discussing them and I explained their relationship in a very matter-of-fact way: “Susan and Rhonda are lesbians. That means that they love each other like mom and dad do.” My son looked at me and said, “Okay,” and that was it. I later explained to him that two men can also love each other like Mom and Dad and Susan and Rhonda. I built on this awareness gradually, and within several months explained that gays and lesbians have sex with each other kind of like Mom and Dad have sex. A year or so later I remember having a discussion with him about how some people don’t like homosexuals, and how there are people who bully them and try to physically hurt them simply because they are gay and lesbian. We discussed how wrong that is—how no one should ever be harmed because of whom they fall in love with or want to have sex with. My son managed this information like any other six-year-old would, with a considerable level of concern for the safety of others.
When I go into a fifth-grade class and mention homosexuality, students giggle, groan, make faces, and roll their eyes. I can’t help but think how we should all be beyond this by now. But with so many legal barriers still preventing full civil rights for homosexuals, and so much overt hatred and violence in evidence, clearly we still have a long way to go. I can imagine there will always be one or two students who have trouble accepting the reality of homosexuality, but closed-mindedness still seems to be in the majority with ten-year-olds. This tells me there is one of two possibilities at play. Either a majority of parents are teaching their children not to accept homosexuality, or a majority of parents simply don’t talk about it with their kids and the kids are just reacting to something they perceive as different. I would prefer to think it is the latter of the two.
During one of my discussions with a fourth-grade class, I was talking about how two men or two women can love each other like a man and a woman can. I spoke about the need for tolerance and how many people who are perceived to be gay or lesbian are killed in this country every year. As I spoke, one of the students started to cry. This little girl said she has two fathers and that one of them had recently been beaten and hospitalized simply because he was gay. She confided that this was the first time any teacher had ever brought up the topic of homosexuality, much less how we should all be tolerant of gays and lesbians. She thanked me profusely for doing something that all teachers should be doing: discussing the reality that discrimination in this country also includes gays and lesbians. I have never forgotten that young girl.
We have covered just about every major sexuality topic that you should start talking about with your kindergartner, with one exception: masturbation. Because it will probably be your child’s very first sexual experience, and because there is still so much misinformation, embarrassment, and secrecy attached to the subject, I decided that masturbation deserves a full chapter of its own. That chapter follows.