It’s a well-documented fact that most Indian parents tend to look the other way when their kids ask them about the birds and the bees. Regardless of your levels of discomfort, having ‘the talk’ with your offspring can be overwhelming. How and when you choose to have the talk is entirely subjective, but experts the world over maintain that starting young can make all the difference.
While we’ve covered the importance of having the talk with your child and we have also shared some expert-approved tips and tricks to remember when you do decide to sit them down for the conversation, the question that now remains is what information is appropriate at what age. We break it down for you:
Talking to your child about sex: From birth to age threeFirst things first, your child’s mind is like a sponge and will absorb everything, so your tone, reactions, and how you respond to their questions is what matters. It’s important to remember that this is the age when a child’s curiosity about his or her body grows, and most experts are of the opinion that making up names for body parts can leave a negative impression in their minds. “It’s better to teach children the anatomically correct names as it helps takes away that negativity and stigma, in turn normalising their reproductive organs,” explain Dr Mehezabin Dordi, clinical psychologist, Reliance Foundation Hospital. It’s also important to remember that it’s perfectly normal for babies and toddlers to touch their genitals between diaper changes and bath time; in fact baby boys tend to have frequent erections. “It’ll make your child conscious if you draw undue attention to this by laughing, making weird faces, or getting angry. He will not understand what he’s done wrong, and will end up thinking it is a bad thing as opposed to a perfectly natural physiological response. Instead, it helps if you act casual about your son’s interaction with his genitals. He will grow out of this stage eventually,” advises Dordi.
Moreover, kids today are far more advanced, making it vital to inform them about appropriate times to do things. Take for example, running around the house buck naked. This is the time to explain when their private parts should remain private.
Talking to your child about sex: From ages four to fiveNow that your child is older, he or she may have started pre-school and kindergarten and will display a general curiosity about his or her classmates, particularly those from the opposite gender. It’s perfectly natural for a child get curious about the opposite gender’s genitals as this is the age they want to learn and understand the gender binary. Dr Dordi agrees. “It's important for parents to first understand the concept themselves before attempting to talk to their child. Moreover, it is never too early to start talking or teaching your child about gender. Children start to self-identify as early as two or three years old. This means you might hear them say things like ‘I’m a boy’ or ‘I’m a girl’, making it the right time to initiate conversations on what gender means, and hopefully help expand their views of gender,” she explains, but warns that even open discussions cannot negate the impact that gender stereotypes may have. “It’s important to fully understand what you want to say to your child, and deliver that message in a clear and neutral way, using words your child understands,” she says.
And considering their general curiosity about gender, you might want to have the conversation about what constitutes a good touch and a bad touch. “A vital part of teaching bodily autonomy at this age is also educating your friends and family about boundaries, too. When you teach your child bodily autonomy, you’re not only teaching them to say no, you’re teaching them lots of consent-related skills. For example, if your child is not comfortable hugging someone, teach them to ask for a high-five instead. It’s also advisable to explain who is allowed to touch their private parts and who isn’t,” explains Dr Dordi.
Talking to your child about sex: From ages six to eightYour child is most likely going to be connected to various devices for school work and even for educational/instructional videos. This is the time to establish digital safety procedures and help set boundaries, even if your child will not be using the internet unsupervised. While you may have safety filters set up, your child will want to gather more information on gender, and can likely seek information from alternate sources. More importantly, unfiltered links might unexpectedly expect you to address the conversation about pornography. “You must continue to answer your child’s questions openly and honestly, and when it comes to pornography, calmly explain to your child that it’s a grown-up website for grown-up things. But, the key is to remain calm and not shun the subject altogether,” says Dr Dordi.
This is also the appropriate time to take the discussion on sexual abuse up a notch. Says Dr Dordi, “The huge benefit of talking to your kids from an early age is that you have empowered them with the knowledge to make good decisions. Parents do not always talk to their children about body safety early enough. But it is never too soon, and it doesn’t have to be a scary conversation. Explain that it is against the rules for adults to act in a sexual way with them, and use examples to illustrate your point. Teach them what parts of their bodies others should not touch, and be sure to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend, family member, or older youth that they inadvertently trust. Explain to your child that he or she should not to give out personal information while using the Internet, including email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers. It’s important to be proactive. If your child seems uncomfortable or resistant to being with a particular adult, ask why.”
Talking to your child about sex: From ages nine to 12This is that pre-pubescent stage where you need to prepare your child for puberty and what to expect. It’s also quite likely that your child is embarrassed to ask you questions. “The fundamental thing here is to communicate with your child,” explains Dr Dordi. “More often than not, parents shy away from openly and freely communicating with their children, which leads to a further gap and confusion. It’s healthier to keep an open family environment and encourage your child to ask questions and be curious. Building a trusting relationship helps to bridge the gap in communication, and allows the child to develop in a healthy manner,” she says.
However, if a child is reluctant, you must broach the subject. Remember, when you discuss puberty, you may need to touch on the basics of intercourse, but might want to save those detailed conversations about sex until his/her early teen years. Explains Dr Dordi, “It is advisable to speak your son and daughter at the same time. Of course, understanding what’s age-appropriate is still important. Talking to both genders simultaneously means that the same message is delivered. Moreover, separating children along gender lines sends the message that’s there’s shame or stigma attached to the subject which is why sex cannot be discussed openly. An open discussion will make your children aware about the various changes for both biologies, as well as sensitise them towards persons of the opposite sex. This also means your children feel more comfortable about reporting sexual misconduct.”
Talking to your teenager about sexThis is when you need to be as detailed in your discussions as possible. The same rules apply when it comes to discussing sex—have the conversation without that gender divide. An enhanced knowledge of their bodies, the normalisation of sexual and reproductive issues, better self-care, and a better decision-making power are some of the benefits of having a detailed, and joint conversation about sex. “This will help your teenager understand that attraction to the opposite sex is a biological phenomenon. The best part about an open and casual conversation is that it will do away with the taboo and stigma surrounding sex, while educating children on health issues related to sex, as well as lower the rates of teenage pregnancy,” says Dr Dordi.
What works for parents is also expressing their jitters or apprehensions with their child about discussing sex, and perhaps making light of the matter with an inside joke. This will act as an immediate way to calm the nervous and make the process easier. “Doing so will break the ice. Your teenage son or daughter is probably just as uncomfortable as you are, so it helps to ease them in,” suggests Dr Dordi. Moreover, as your child grows older, they’re most likely going to start dating so be attentive and do openly talk to them about safety measures, particularly if you get a sense that they may be considering having sex. “Instead of saying no (as teenagers will do the opposite of what they’re told), just ensure you calmly discuss various safety measures and contraception they can take, and trust that you’ve done your best,” advises Dr Dordi.
Sex education is considered high quality teaching. Learning about a broad variety of topics related to sex and sexuality, and exploring values and beliefs about those topics will help children gain the necessary skills needed to navigate relationships, and manage their sexual health.