Talking about sex and sexuality with children: 9-11 years
It's never too early to talk with your child about sex. Talking about sex, sexuality and bodies as your child moves towards puberty can help your child understand that sex and sexuality are typical, healthy parts of life.
Open and honest conversations when your child is young can make later conversations easier. And these early conversations also lay the groundwork for children to make healthier and safer choices about sex and sexual relationships when they're older.
The key early message for your child is that he can come to you for open, honest and reliable information, and that he shouldn't feel scared or embarrassed to ask you about sex and sexuality.
And the good news is that talking about sex and sexuality isn't a one-off conversation that you have to get exactly right. It's a conversation that continues and evolves as your child grows up.
Sexuality isn't just about sex. It's also the way your child feels about her developing body. And it's how your child understands and expresses feelings of intimacy, attraction and affection for others, and how she develops and maintains respectful relationships.
Three steps for talking about sex and sexuality
You can use these three basic steps to talk with your child about sex.
First, find out what your child knows. For example, if your child asks you what an erection is, you could ask, 'What do you think it is?' or 'What have you heard about that?'
Second, give your child the facts and correct any misinformation. For example, 'A penis is usually soft. An erection is when it gets hard or stands up straight'.
Third, use the conversation as an opportunity to talk about your own thoughts and feelings. For example, 'Boys sometimes get erections when they're asleep and have a wet dream. This is when semen comes out of your penis. It's a normal part of growing up. You can't control wet dreams, so don't worry if it happens. We'll just wash your sheets'.
How to talk about sex, sexuality and bodies: tips for all ages
These tips can make it easier to talk with children of any age about sex.
Explain things at your child's level
It's important to explain things at a level that your child can understand. Being brief, positive and factual is a good idea. Your child will probably come back to you if he wants more information.
Use correct names for body parts
It's also a good idea to use the correct names when you're talking about body parts - for example, penis, scrotum, testicles, vulva, vagina. It's OK to use pet names as well. But using the correct names helps to make it clear that talking about these parts of our bodies is healthy and OK.
Helping your child understand the names and functions of all body parts is also an important part of keeping your child healthy and safe. It helps your child know her body belongs to her and means she'll be able to communicate clearly about her body if she needs to - for example, when she's talking to health professionals.
Get all parents involved
In families with two or more parents, it's good for all parents to get involved in discussions about sex. When all parents get involved in discussions about sex, they show children that it's OK to talk about sex and sexuality. This can help all children feel more comfortable talking about their bodies, take responsibility for sexual feelings, and communicate in intimate relationships when they're older.
Say 'I don't know' if you need to
Your child doesn't need you to be an expert - he just needs to know that he's welcome to talk to you or to ask questions.
If you don't know what to say, tell your child you're glad she asked the question, that you don't know how to answer it, and that you'll look for some information and come back to her. And then make sure you do get back to her.
You could also suggest looking for information together, either in books or online.
Start a conversation
Some children don't ask many questions, but this doesn't mean that they're not interested or ready to learn. If you start a conversation, it lets your child know that you're happy to discuss sexuality.
It's a good idea to think about what to say beforehand, then pick a good time to bring the subject up. For example, if a family member is pregnant you could say, 'Aunty Sarah is going to have a baby. I was wondering what you know about pregnancy?'
Some children find it easier to talk without eye contact, so you could plan to talk while you and your child are travelling in the car.
You might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about sexuality, or using words like 'penis' or 'vagina' when talking about bodies. That's OK.
If you feel embarrassed talking about sexuality, you can prepare yourself by thinking about what will embarrass you and working on ways to deal with it. For example, you could read a book about sexuality with your child as a way to start a conversation and practise using words you're less comfortable with. It's also OK to say to your child that sometimes you find it hard or embarrassing to talk about sex.
It's important for children to know the difference between touching that's OK and touching that's not OK. Make sure your child knows that he can say 'No!' to any touching that he doesn't want and that it's always OK to tell a trusted adult about touch that's not OK. Personal safety skills will help keep your child safe.
What to say about sex, sexuality and bodies: children 9-11 years
At this age, your child might be interested in and want or need to talk about things like how babies are made, or masturbation. Your child might also ask some questions you find surprising like 'Do you masturbate?' or 'Why do people have sex?'
Here are some suggestions for handling these topics.
How are babies made?
If your older child asks this question, you can start by asking her what she thinks. This will help you understand what she already knows.
Then you could say, 'A baby can be made when a man puts his penis inside a woman's vagina. This is called sexual intercourse. Sperm from the man's penis can swim up the vagina and join an egg from the woman's ovary, and the egg becomes fertilised. The fertilised egg grows into a baby in the women's uterus. After about nine months the baby is ready to be born'.
You could also talk about other ways a sperm and egg can join like IVF, or other ways children can enter families like adoption, foster care or grandparent care.
You don't have to wait for your child to ask you questions about this topic. You could start a conversation by saying something like 'Have we talked about when you were born?' Or 'That woman looks like she's pregnant. Do you know how pregnancy begins?'
What is masturbation?
At this age, children might masturbate, some more often than others. Masturbation is healthy if your child is doing it privately without feelings of guilt and shame, and it isn't affecting your child's other activities.
You could start a conversation with a child this age by saying, 'Did you know that some children your age masturbate? That means touching your own genitals in a way that feels nice. Masturbating is a private activity that some people choose to do. Have you heard anything about masturbation?'
This can help your child feel good about himself and let him know that you're comfortable talking about things like this.
Why do people have sex?
If your child is curious about why people have sex, you could say, 'Sex is one way that babies are made'. This question is also a great opportunity to share your thoughts about sex. For example, 'Adults like sex because it can be a pleasurable thing to do in private when you're in a healthy relationship'.
If your child asks about your sexual activity and you don't want to share that information, it's OK to say, 'That's private. But I'm happy to talk about sex more generally'.
If your child asks you when you first had sex, she might be trying to work out the 'right' age to start having sex. You can answer more generally by saying, 'Sex is a private activity for people who are old enough. The right age to start having sex is different for different people. When do you think might be the right age for someone?'
Sometimes children don't ask what they really want to know. You can work out what your child is really asking by turning the question around and saying, 'That's an interesting question. What made you think of that?'
This age is also a great time to talk with your child about the social and emotional changes of adolescence, teenage sexuality and respectful romantic relationships in the teenage years. Having feelings for people of the opposite or same sex can be a healthy part of your child learning about relationships and sexuality.
Learning about sex and sexuality at school
Children are learning about bodies, relationships and sexuality at school all the time, whether formally in the classroom, or informally with their peers.
It's a good idea to talk to your child's school to find out how the school teaches these topics, so you know what your child is learning at school. You can follow up on this information at home and also add your own values.
If your child comes across sexting or pornography, stay calm. This can be an opportunity to talk with your child about what is and isn't OK for him to see. And talking about these issues is one of the best ways to keep your child safe and promote respectful online behaviour.