Experts have simple advice for parents who are anxious about the “birds and the bees” conversation: Talk about it early and often.
“What we’re trying to do is make it normal to talk about,” says Tracy Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science and mother of a 4-year-old daughter. “It’s OK to be curious. It’s OK to ask. And we as parents have to be able to handle those conversations.”
There are always opportunities — when bathing a child, if a child notices the body differences in the parent of the opposite sex, or when a baby is born — to open the dialogue with kids under 5.
“I feel like there are a lot of good conversations you can have, starting as early as 3,” Cutchlow says. “We shouldn’t wait until they start to ask questions.”
Start by talking about their bodies, using the correct anatomical terms for genitals. Teach children that they are the boss of their bodies.
“We don’t make up names for other parts of our body,” Cutchlow says. “When you make up names, you’re telling them it’s not OK to talk about, or there’s something to be embarrassed about.”
Amy Lang, a Seattle sexuality expert who runs the online sex ed resource BirdsandBeesandKids.com, encourages even more disclosure at an early age.
“Every child should know the usual way babies are made by the time they are 5,” Lang says. “They don’t know there’s anything yucky or bad or shameful about sex. They don’t know there’s anything amazing about sex. My belief is we need to capitalize on that openness. Young children are very forgiving. Twelve-year-olds are not.”
Educators encourage having small conversations over a period of time, not saving it all up for the big talk. Some kids will resist, but Lang says it’s up to parents to make sure their children are informed.
“You don’t know what they know unless you tell them,” Lang says. “You want them to hear it correctly from you.”
Most of the time, it’s the parents who are uncomfortable, not the children.
“Parents are so disarmed by a simple question,” says Dr. Rob Lehman, a Seattle pediatrician who specializes in talking to parents and kids about growing up. “It’s usually a very simple answer.”
It’s important for parents to talk to young children about what to do if someone does try to touch them inappropriately, without making them overly afraid, experts say.
“Helping our kids stay in touch with their instincts is so important,” Cutchlow says. “Tell them you can say, ‘No, stop.’ Scream, holler or run. Tell a parent or teacher.”
With uncomfortable subjects regarding bodies or sex, or anything kids want to discuss, Cutchlow says her advice is the same: “Be open to who your child is, whatever they are curious about, their likes and dislikes, and whatever they are asking about. Whatever emotion they are feeling, try not to override that.”
Tips for talking about puberty
When he was a boy, Dr. Rob Lehman’s mom put a book about puberty on the coffee table and waited to see if he had any questions.
“Of course I looked at it,” says Lehman with a laugh. “But I made sure to put it back in the exact same spot every time, so she wouldn’t know. My mom always says I could talk to her about anything, but I never asked her.”
Years later, Lehman and Julie Metzger co-founded Great Conversations to make it easier for parents and preteens to talk about growing up. The program has been a rite of passage for Seattle families for more than 25 years, offering four-hour courses for boys and girls ages 10 to 12 and their parents.
Their goal is to open communication between kids and parents and demystify topics around puberty and sex. Primarily sponsored by Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Lehman was a doctor and Metzger a nurse, the program is now offered throughout the Pacific Northwest and in California. Last year, 16,000 people participated.
With humor and candor, Lehman and Metzger talk about body changes, sex, birth control and other subjects and let kids anonymously write down any question.
Educators agree that while seeking guidance from professionals or books is helpful, parents should be the primary sex educator.
“The question we as parents should be asking is, ‘How am I in the conversation?’” says Amy Johnson, an instructor with Great Conversations. “If we’re not in the conversation, we are abdicating the responsibility.”
Johnson also coordinates a progressive sex education program for the United Church of Christ called Our Whole Lives, which offers multi-part workshops for kids as young as kindergarten up through high school. The program is a partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association and individual churches decide which workshops to run.
Experts agree that parents must be willing and open to address sensitive topics — and to listen. More and more, those conversations involve nontraditional families, same-sex relationships, gender identity and other emerging topics.
Sometimes the best thing parents can do is actually talk less and listen more, Metzger says.
“Answer the question. Stop talking,” Metzger says. “We want to explain it all. It comes from a golden heart, but it often shuts down conversations instead of opening them up.”
Metzger stresses that in her parent-child workshops.
“We have 200 minutes with them,” she says. “Our assignment when they leave is to have 200 one-minute conversations over time.”
Amy Lang, another Seattle sex health educator, says there’s too much at stake not to talk to kids about the realities.
“Some parents have this idea that keeping kids from the information is going to protect them from making bad choices,” Lang says. “In fact, it sets them up to fail.”
One of the negatives that confronts adolescents sooner than ever is easy access to pornography. Lang insists that parents set parental controls or install monitoring software on their kids’ devices to keep them from purposefully or inadvertently accessing porn.
“I want every child to grow up knowing sexuality is a healthy, normal, positive and fun part of life,” Lang says. “But it comes with great responsibility.”
Will Puberty Last My Whole Life? by Julie Metzger and Robert Lehman, greatconversations.com
Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids: A guide to sharing your beliefs about sexuality, love, and relationships by Amy Lang, birdsandbeesandkids.com
Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I’ve Learned So Far) by Tracy Cutchlow, zerotofive.net
AMAZE offers animated videos for parents and kids to watch together: amaze.org
Our Whole Lives: ucc.org/justice_sexuality-education_our-whole-lives
Amy Johnson: diligentjoy.com