How should educators and parents respond to children’s questions about sex?

In our generally sexually open society we may think that most parents no longer have any concerns about talking with children about sex or responding to their questions and behaviours. However there are many issues that still concern parents and educators. Here are some common ones.

How should educators respond to children’s questions about sex, is it just the parent’s prerogative?

How do we respond to masturbation without making children feel guilty?

What kind of sex play and behaviour is normal and what should we be concerned about?

Is it normal for a preschool boy to want to dress up in girls’ clothes and do the vacuuming?

Three and four year old children find swearing and toilet jokes very funny – how should adults respond?

How do we teach children about privacy and safety without making them feel that there is something wrong with their sexual parts?

What words should we use?

In our mixed culture society parents have very different views and some that educators may not support – how do we address this?

Underneath this are the questions that we don’t so often think about but that are even more important.

How do we help our children to value themselves and others as sexual beings, to respect others of both sexes and to feel confident and comfortable relating to others of both sexes?

What can we do if our own feelings from our own experiences get in the way?

The simple answers are to be confident and respectful ourselves and to be open in meeting children’s questions and talking about issues. And to do this without showing embarrassment or discomfort which children quickly pick up on. Sometimes this is easier said than done. If we do run into difficulties with something we don’t know it is always OK to say we don’t know and we will find out.

If we think about it in advance and reflect on our own feelings and attitudes we will be more prepared to cope with whatever arises without being taken by surprise. Being approachable always and responsive and respectful, (which includes not laughing at a question a child asks even if it is funny to an adult) opens the way for children to trust and talk about anything that is worrying them. It is a truism that children learn more from what we do and how we do it than what we try to teach them to do and nowhere is it more evident than sexuality.

These and other questions are considered in the second edition of Children’s sexual development and behaviour -Pants aren’t rude by Pam Linke published by Early Childhood Australia available at the ECA shop.

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Pam Linke

Pam Linke is a social worker who has done further study in Early Childhood Education. She has spent many years working with parents, maternal child health nurses and early childhood educators, particularly in relationship to children’s social and emotional development. She has a special interest in the development of resilience. Currently, she works as a consultant in early childhood and parenting. Prior to this, she was Strategic Manager, Parenting, for the South Australian Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service. She had a major role in initiating and developing the state-wide Family Home Visiting program for parents of infants up to two years of age. Pam also set up and managed the crisis intervention family therapy program, and managed children’s residential care services for CentreCare. Pam is a past president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health and has served on a number of other Boards, including Early Childhood Australia. She has written many books for parents and early childhood professionals, including, recently, First Year at School (co-author) and Your Child from Birth to Eight. She was the initial content author of the Child and Youth Health (SA Government website for parents), which won a national award. She has been awarded nationally and internationally for her contribution to children’s health and wellbeing, and advocacy for children.

4 thoughts on “How should educators and parents respond to children’s questions about sex?”

    Debra says:

    Surely we parents and grandparents have the right to teach the young about anything sexual. I demand an inquiry about this being introduced in preschools for toddlers and primary school in the younger grades. No one except parents should teach this highly private and somewhat delicate issue.

    Pam Linke says:

    Of course parents teach children about sex. However children learn lots from other children as well, some of it not what you might want. If educators respond to children’s questions simply as they are asked it helps children to get correct information in anatural way. Educators let parents know what children have been asking about during the day. If it is a private or personal question the educator would say to the child that that is something to ask their parent and let the parent know. If it is a general question for example “what is a willy? ” the educator would just reply. If a parent really does not want this to happen it would be important to discuss it with the staff on enrolment, there is more about helping children leaden about sex in the book. Pam Linke

    Ron says:

    Children are not sexually mature until adolescence. At least not by a Freudian psychosexual standard. So what age do you suggest any sexual education should be initiated. And based on which culture and moral grounding?

    Pam Linke says:

    This is a complicated question to discuss briefly. If you take sexual education to mean education about puberty and sexual relationships then it would be best to talk to your children about what is going to happen to their bodies and feelings before it happens so they are not worried or confused, or misinformed by school yard talk. You need to also talk about your values and be open to listening to what your children feel and ask. You would do that when they are starting to show signs of puberty or about 10 or 11 and gradually increase information as they ask. However sex education often has a broader meaning which is about when we teach children about their bodies and their sexuality (being a boy or a girl). In this sense sex education starts from birth in the way we hold our babies, the way we talk to them, how we show we love them and how parents show that they respect and care for each other. What we do carries more weight than what we say.
    There is a lot of value in giving even very young children the correct names for their body parts and answering their questions openly at the level they are asking (not giving the whole facts for example if they ask where babies come from but just a simple response and wait and see if they ask more). This is often hard for parents because many parents feel uncomfortable about talking about it dues to their own life experiences and what they were told, but it is much easier to start with natural conversations and openness with young children than to have the big talk when they are older, and are not in the habit of talking to you. Young people are less likely to act out sexually if the have close open communication with their parents from the start. Giving children the correct names for all their body parts often saves them the embarrassment of not knowing, even if they use slang terms with their friends. Using the correct name for body parts and answering in simple terms their questions, does not mean they will act any differently, it just means they can trust you to talk openly with them and are likely to bring any questions and concerns to you.
    What you teach your children about values and ways of behaving will come from your own beliefs and family culture and if you are talking openly with your children all along the way they will talk to you and listen to you and learn from you. There is more detail in my book and some information about what children are likely to be interested in at different ages, and suggestions of responses.

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