By Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman
If your children feel free to ask you sexual questions, you are doing something right. You have approached sex up to this point in a way that encourages your child to feel safe enough to ask. Good for you.
So how do you keep doing things right where sexual questions are concerned? How do you answer the questions that do arise in a way that will keep your children coming to you as their major source of sexual information?
One way to handle sexual questions effectively is to make sure your answer addresses one or more of FIVE easily identifiable, developmentally based needs. Whenever a child presents you with sexual issues or situations – regardless of their age – they are calling for one of these needs to be met. The job of the parent is to identify the need that is being expressed and then meet that need by how they answer the question.
5 Core Needs
1. Affirmation – Children need adults to recognize and validate the stage of sexual development they are experiencing.
2. Information – Children need a source of ongoing information. They need to be given factual knowledge about sexuality.
3. Value Clarification – Children need adults to clarify opinions vs facts and provide an interpretation of the value system in their surrounding culture.
4. Limit Setting – Children need adults to establish and reinforce age-appropriate limits.
5. Guidance – Children need adults to help them establish decision-making guidelines.
Over the years we have received and answered many questions posed by parents regarding the sex education of their children. Below, we share thirty of those questions and the answers we provided. Also included with each answer is the basic need or needs that the answer supplied.
1. I want to tell my daughter the proper words for her body parts, but what if she goes around telling other children?
Needs: Information, Limit Setting, and Value Clarification
It is important for children to have accurate information about body parts, so we recommend that you use correct terminology. It is not helpful to call a body part special or fancy names. A penis is not a winki or Mr. Worm. It is a penis, and that is what children need to know. The same goes for anus, vulva, breasts and testicles.
When children talk about their bodies, they will use whatever name you give the body parts. So give them the accurate information to use when they talk with friends.
2. My three-year-old daughter touches herself in public all the time. What do I do?
Needs: Affirmation and Limit Setting
In talking with your child, frame touching yourself as a positive thing to do if it is done in an appropriate place. Say, "We think touching yourself is fine, and it's okay if you want to do that in your room. We don't do that in the supermarket or at school. It's just not the thing that people do with their bodies around other people. We do that in the privacy of our home or our bedroom."
Use examples from everyday life to help her better understand. "You know how we don't eat in synagogue, or we don't take certain toys to the restaurant? That's because it's inappropriate to do those things in those places, so we wait and do them at a different time." You can point out that there is an appropriate place to go to the bathroom when in public, there are appropriate times to run and be loud, and times to use a quiet voice. In the same way, there is an appropriate time and place to touch your private parts.
3. How about nudity? My husband and I are really uninhibited. Is that good or is it bad?
Needs: Value Clarification and Limit Setting
If your family's attitudes are fairly open, you may need to help your children understand how they may be different from those of other people when they go for a sleepover at a friend's house or visit a family member for the holidays. Sooner or later you or your child will reach a point where a desire for greater modesty or privacy will emerge. Children often speak out and begin to ask for privacy when going to the bathroom.
Set limits around knocking on closed doors, respecting another's request for privacy, and when and where "naked time" is appropriate.
4. What if my eight-year-old asks me a sexual question in front of my four-year-old?
Many parents function under the myth that too much information too soon can be harmful to the child, problematic, or downright dangerous. NOT TRUE. What the younger child isn't interested in or can't comprehend will flow in one ear and out the other.
Many parents are concerned about telling their children too much. They worry that giving them too much detail about a sexual topic may somehow distort their sexual development. You do need to be concerned about how you present the material. Certain videos and graphic pictures are obviously not necessary for younger children. Books with pencil drawings or cartoons are likely to be a better fit for them. Remember, children will NOT absorb any more than what they can developmentally handle. The information that is out of their range of understanding will essentially evaporate into thin air. Children cannot hold onto information that is too sophisticated for their brains. This is true about all things, not just about sex.
5. My three-year-old son wants to know what's in my tampon box. What do I say?
To an adult, this question is about a box containing an object that is placed inside a sexual organ; therefore, indirectly, the question has something to do with sex. To the child, it's a question about a box and nothing more. Answer the question as if you were answering a question about a box of tissues. Say something like, "It contains a soft piece of tissue that women use," or "It's a little box that adults use to put stuff in from the drug store."
6. My ten-year-old son wants to know what’s in my tampon box. What do I say?
This is still a question about a box and it's a great opportunity to further educate the child about women's bodies and the menstrual cycles of women. Keep the information brief, making sure you don't lecture too long and ruin a chance for the child to return for more later.
7. My child asked me how babies are made. What do I say?
The answer to this question depends on the age of the child. If the child is three, the question is more about them and their place in the ever-enlarging physical world. It is not a question about sex. Tell them the story of their birth.
If the child is six or seven, the answer needs to revolve more around the development of the fetus and the birthing process. Information about a woman's egg and a man's seed (sperm) creating a tiny embryo and growing in the mother’s uterus and about the birth process is appropriate at this stage. Many books are available to assist in this process. Mommy Laid an Egg is a good one.
8. My nine-year-old daughter wants to know what a "blow job" is.
Need: Information, Limit Setting, and Value Clarification
Before answering, ask your child a few questions to clarify the question so you can be more accurate in your answer.
"Tell me some of the things you already know about blow jobs." "Were you talking about them at school with some of your friends?" Avoid asking, "Why do you want to know that?" or saying, "Girls your age don't need to know about those things," or "Those are terrible words to say. Don’t talk like that around here."
Give your daughter accurate information without chastising her for asking the question. Explain what a "blow job" is and that it is a part of having sex. For some people, oral sex is only part of what they do for others in the beginning part called foreplay.
Discuss appropriate times, places, and people to do that with. This is where you talk about how you feel about oral sex and clarify your personal moral position. Remember, many adolescents and teens do not consider "blow jobs" as an act of sex. This is where you make sure your daughter understands that it is an act of sex and that sexually transmitted infections can be acquired this way, too.
9. I recently found out that my twelve-year-old has been watching porn movies at the home of a friend. What should I do about it?
Need: Limit Setting and Value Clarification
This is a time to move in and talk to the parents of your son's friend. Perhaps they have no idea that it’s happening. Adults need to set some limits here. You may well need to limit television watching as well as time on the computer.
Remember that kids are going to get sexual information somewhere, and porn is not the best of places to do it. But since your son has already been viewing porn, he would benefit from having a discussion about some of the myths about sex and love. Help him find other ways to get information about sex, such as educational books and informative websites. Visit www.aasect.org
for guidance on finding websites that have appropriate sexual content for kids.
10. I walked in on my five-year-old playing "doctor" with one of his friends. I'm worried about this behavior getting worse and I'm not sure how to talk to the child's parents about it. How do you recommend I handle the situation?
Need: Value Clarification and Limit Setting
You definitely need to talk to the other parents about the behavior, and all of the adults need to effectively manage their anxiety and worry. The more the adults worry, the more attention is drawn to the kids' exploring. There is nothing wrong with exploration as long as both kids are involved in the process. If one was clothed and the other not, then the balance of exploration was off and it can be exploitive. If both were exploring equally, then there is less of a concern because it is more about learning about bodies together.
Talk with the kids about the differences in bodies and how you respect those differences in your home. For example, "We close the door when we go to the bathroom and we knock on closed bedroom doors." Talk about how you keep your clothes on for play at your house and then redirect them into other ways to play. Keep a close eye on them and help them find new games, toys, and ways to just have fun together.
11. My eleven-year-old wants to go to the movies on a "date." She says that she really likes the boy. I want to help her understand boys and dating, but I think this is too early. How do I say "No" without her becoming rebellious and wanting to be with boys more?
Need: Limit Setting, Affirmation, and Value Clarification
You can affirm her liking boys and wanting to be with them by telling her that it's okay to like boys at her age. You can also clarify for her the idea of dating. If she wants to meet a group of kids at the movie theater or mall and they all hang together, that's okay. She will have plenty of time to have one-on-one dates with boys when she's a little older. No need to rush things. Right now is the time to have fun with kids of both sexes and similar ages.
12. My fourteen-year-old daughter asked me if I had sexual intercourse before I was married. I don't want to tell her and yet I don’t want to close down the lines of communication. What should I do?
It's possible that your daughter is asking about your sexual activity as a young person as a way to understand her own sexuality. She may need to just be able to talk it through and get clear about her feelings and desires. Is she just wanting to justify her behavior and be able to say, "You did it when you were my age?" or is she needing more information about her feelings?
The question to ask her before giving an answer would be, "How will hearing about my life as a younger person help you at this point in your life?" You can add, "I'm willing to talk to you about some of my sexual activity, but not in great detail," or you can say, "I'm not comfortable with talking about my past sexual activity, but I want to help you understand what is happening for you." Either way, you want to talk openly about why you are or are not willing to talk about your personal sexual experiences. The goal is to guide her to an understanding of herself and the decisions she needs to make about her own sexuality and sexual activity.
13. I was looking in my fourteen-year-old son's wallet to borrow some cash, and I discovered a condom. I’m worried that he might be having sex and I don't know how to confront him about it. What is the best way to have the discussion without him getting so mad that he refuses to talk to me about his behavior or intentions?
Need: Information and Value Clarification
Don't freak out. Be happy that he at least has a condom. You want to approach the situation to give him information, not confront him. Avoid saying, "What is this doing in your wallet? What were you planning on doing with it?" Instead, provide practical information. "Hey, I was looking in your wallet for some change for a five. You probably know this, but I want to give you some information anyway. Did you know that condoms break down and are less effective after only a week of being in a wallet? Let’s talk later about a few other facts or statistics about teen sex. I would like some help in getting up to date on the latest facts."
This is not the time to lecture. This is the time to give a little information and walk away quickly. Come back to the topic later. Be prepared to give a few more facts, such as at age twelve only 5 percent of kids report having had sex, and at seventeen over 50 percent report having sex, or condoms are only 68 percent effective for the fourteen to nineteen age group, while they're 97 percent effective for ages twenty and over because younger people don't use them correctly.
14. My ten-year-old daughter refuses to discuss puberty with me, even in the most basic of terms. She seems very anxious about the whole subject and won't answer any of my questions. How do I get her to talk to me about the changes that are going to be happening for her?
She doesn't have to talk about it, but she may have to listen to a few things you need to say. It is a matter of health that you give her accurate information about the changes that are going to take place in her body. Many girls start their menstrual cycles between the ages of seven and twelve. Provide her with a way to better understand what will be happening and how to take care of herself.
15. My fifteen-year-old son receives constant phone calls from girls. He seems very uncomfortable about it. I'm not sure what to tell him and how to handle the situation so that he doesn’t get teased by his friends. What do you recommend?
Let him know that you sense his uncomfortableness and ask him how you can help him. Perhaps he doesn't want any assistance and simply needs to figure out how to respond, or perhaps he doesn't want to be dating anyone and just likes being with his friends. Because you don't know what he needs, start with seeking to find out.
He may not be sure what he needs, and you can offer some suggestions. It might be helpful if you let him blame you and be able to tell the girls "my parents won't let me date." If that's the case, then be the fall guy and tell him he can't date, and privately, between the two of you, you know that he needs more time to figure it out. You just gave him the time and removed some social pressure, too.
16. At what age do children begin to masturbate?
Research indicates that infants as young as a few months old masturbate. It is a natural and healthy part of sexual development. The behavior may actually increase as a child enters puberty. Masturbation is healthy for people of all ages and is a key to maintaining a satisfying sexual lifestyle well into adulthood.
17. When my daughter was two years old, I found her father forcing her to perform oral sex with him. I divorced him, but the judge has allowed him to continue to see her with adult supervision. She is now six years old and he is scheduled to start visitations every week without supervision. How do I explain to her what happened and how to not let even her father do inappropriate behavior?
Need: Limit Setting, Information, Guidance, and Value Clarification
This is not the time to talk about what happened when your daughter was two years old. The time may come to do that when she is older. This is the time to focus on helping her learn about her personal space and setting boundaries for herself. Give her information about touch and tell her that no one, not even her father, gets to touch her and ask her to do something where she feels uncomfortable. Guide her through a process of how to stand up for her feelings.
18. I have been talking to my thirteen-year-old son about girls. He has been very open with me about his feelings and thoughts. Because of his age and hormonal changes, I'm concerned that he's not going to make a responsible decision when the time comes. I think his hormones might get the best of him. What can I do to help him?
Need: Affirmation and Information
Keep the lines of communication open and give him information along the way. Let him know about the upcoming hormonal changes that will be taking place and the effects these changes might have on his judgment and feelings. Remind him that no matter what takes place, he still has the power to choose.
When you can, help him gain insight into some of the scenarios he will be facing and how to handle them. You may even do a little role-playing to help him practice what to say and how to act. The more he can understand and do now, the better equipped he will be when the time comes. Give him as many tools as you can while you can. Trust that he will figure out how and when to use them.
Remember to keep the discussions brief and to the point. No lecturing. Listen as much as you speak.
19. My eight-year-old (second grade) daughter told me that she was talking with her friends at school about penis erections. I immediately asked her where she got this information or did someone show her something? I am so worried about her. She said that they were only talking. How can I make sure nothing more happened?
Need: Information, Guidance, Limit Setting
Be careful that you don't close down the line of communication by becoming anxious or angry when your daughter brings you this type of information. Seek to gather more information in a gentle way. Say, "That's interesting. What kinds of things were you talking about? Did you have any questions that I can answer for you?" Provide her with accurate information about body parts and their function. Look at pictures together. Guide her through the process of gathering more information, and help her know when and where appropriate times are to have this type of discussion. If others hear her and her friends talking like that at school, other kids or teachers might get uncomfortable with the topic and she might get in trouble.
20. My eight-year-old got hold of my iPhone and googled the word sex. Nothing too bad came up, but I'm worried about this behavior at such a young age. I'm not sure where he even got the idea to do such a thing. I took all his computer time and cell phone away. How do I make sure he doesn't go back to the same behavior when he starts using the computer again?
Need: Limit Setting
As you reintroduce the computer and other electronic devices, you will need to specify the amount of time your son is allowed to use them and tell him that an adult always needs to be present. Your focus is on teaching him that the computer and cell phone are tools, not toys, and that these tools need to be used in a special way. Much like a saw, electronic tools are to be used for a specific purpose. Let him know that in your family the computer and cell phone are not used to search for topics like sex because not all the information is accurate and you want him to have accurate information about sex.
It sounds like he overheard how to google a word or a subject and was just checking it out. Perhaps the two of you can search for some answers to his questions together. Teach him more acceptable places to find the answers he seeks.
21. My wife and I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. We frequently use the Jacuzzi as a family. My question is about how to handle nudity because we Jacuzzi nude. As a father, do I have to use a swimsuit when our daughter joins us?
The age of your daughter is significant. At three years of age she may recognize and identify differences in male and female body parts. Be prepared to answer questions that might arise. You and your wife need to keep your anxiety in check around the questions that come up. She may pick up on and respond to your feelings and not to the actual situation. Pay close attention to how she responds as she ages. She will give you clues if she is
uncomfortable with the nudity. She might say something directly or simply want to wear a swimsuit herself. When you notice the clue, put on your suit when she’s around to show respect.
22. How should we, as parents, react when we catch our children masturbating? What should we do if they are masturbating with friends?
Need: Affirmation, Information, Limit Setting and Value Clarification
When your child is alone, your reaction should be similar to that of walking in on someone when they’re going to the bathroom or changing their clothes. Say, "Oops, sorry," and then walk out and close the door. If your child is masturbating with another friend in the room, start with, "Oops, sorry," and add, "I'll be back in five minutes to talk to the two of you." Then walk out and close the door. When you come back, talk about how masturbation is okay and it's meant for doing by yourself. "We in our house consider masturbation a private act that we do when we're alone. When you're here at our house, we ask that you respect our views on this topic."
You should also contact the parents of the child visiting your home and discuss what happened and how it was handled. Keep from blowing this out of proportion, and make sure the children move on to other nonsexual ways of relating to one another.
23. My nine-year-old daughter recently asked me what a condom was. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question so I told her we would talk about it later. What should I actually tell her and how far do I go in the discussion?
Need: Affirmation and Information
Start by asking her what she knows about condoms and what specific information she would like to have. This will give you a reference point from which to provide more information. At nine, she probably doesn't need pictures or a demonstration. A simple explanation of the purpose and importance of using a condom will probably be enough. Let her know that when she wants more information all she needs to do is ask, just as she did this time.
24. What happens if a six-year-old girl surprises her parents while they’re having sex? What should we do and how do we act?
Need: Information and Limit Setting
Your first step is to watch closely how she reacts. She may not say or do much about it. If that's the case, you don't say or do much about it either, other than locking the bedroom door and being more cautious.
If she asks questions, answer them according to her age level and understanding. She may simply ask, "What are you guys doing?" Respond, "We’re being close and snuggling, as we like to do sometimes." You still need to be more cautious. The information is for her and the limit setting is for you. Get better at keeping it private.
Either way, don't make a big deal out of it. The incident will not scar her for life. In fact, the more casually you respond, the less likely she is to remember it later in life.
25. How do we explain to a fourteen-year-old adolescent how she should behave with her boyfriend and how far they should go according to their age?
Need: Information, Limit Setting and Value Clarification
Keep this conversation very positive. Affirm her feelings and rights as a human being. If you're too demanding and overcontrolling, you may push her into an unwanted direction out of defiance.
Let her know how you feel about teenagers having sex and what your moral/religious views on the matter are. Also discuss societal views and the views of her peers. Stay away from catchy phrases like, "Sex is meant to be with the one you love," "Save yourself for your husband," and "Just say no." Instead, talk about the various views on what's appropriate and let her know that she is going to have to decide how she really feels and what her own views on the matter are. It's important that she stays true to herself and acts in accordance with her personal morals.
Set a few limits around public displays of affection at your home and in your presence. Set the same standard for anyone showing affection. There is no need to have hands all over each other and kiss continually. It's uncomfortable for those in the presence of a couple groping or fondling one another. It's okay to hold hands and cuddle. They can also spend time in each other’s presence without actually touching or hanging on to one another.
26. My ten-year-old son likes to be naked at home. He feels comfortable and in a safe and accepting environment. I sometimes ask myself if this is natural. Should I tell him to get dressed, or let him stay that way for a while?
Need: Affirmation and Limit Setting
The behavior is natural, especially for boys. He will most likely begin to change that behavior as he enters puberty and his body begins to change. Let him know that it's okay to be around the house naked when it's just your family. If you have an office in the home and your secretary is in and out during certain times of the day, you may have to establish a "naked time" that takes place during a portion of the day when you're less likely to have visitors.
27. Is it okay for your child to see you in your underwear? What should we do if he accidently sees us coming out of the bathroom naked?
Need: Affirmation and Value Clarification
It is absolutely okay for your child to see you in your underwear and even naked. When it happens, don't make a big deal out of it. Say nothing and move on to the next moment. Children under the age of ten probably won't make a big deal out of it if you don't. Over the age of ten you will want to watch their response. If they start to act silly, laughing and giggling, you will want to talk about the beauty of the naked body and how your family handles nakedness. This is the beginning of your needing to be more mindful and a little more discrete. By the time your children are teenagers, they will probably want to do whatever they can to avoid seeing their parents naked. If your teenage boy is trying to catch a peek at mom coming out of the shower, it’s time to talk about respect and make sure the bathroom or bedroom door is closed and maybe even locked during shower time.
28. How do we tell a ten-year-old child what a gay or lesbian person is and why they are that way?
Need: Information and Guidance
People are who they are. Most people are right-handed, some are left-handed. That's just the way they are. The same is true about our attraction to people of the opposite sex or same sex. Most people are attracted to (or like) those of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to people of the same sex. If I'm right-handed I don't make someone wrong for being left-handed. That's just who they are.
Your personal focus is on being who you are and staying true to yourself while letting other people be who they are. As a parent, your focus is on helping your children uncover who they truly are and living accordingly. Gay, lesbian, transgender bisexual,
intersexual, or straight doesn’t matter. What matters is that you discover who you are, be who you are, and live your life to the fullest, being true to yourself.
29. Can we give fifteen-year-old girls the option of taking the birth control pill?
Need: Value Clarification and Affirmation
You can give them the option as part of a discussion that you have together. The discussion should include family morals and religious norms as well as other forms of birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), under-the-skin implants, and condoms. Remember that many methods of birth control do not protect one from sexually transmitted infections. The final decision is one that should be made among parent, child and doctor.
30. How do adolescents and teens control sexual desires when they start kissing, and how do we talk to them about this?
Need: Affirmation, Value Clarification
Talk early and often about feelings and urges and about acting impulsively. You cannot guarantee that your children will not have sex. Your best approach is to empower them with knowledge, create an environment where they can talk and ask questions freely, and help them discover who they are in relation to your family values.
I frequently remind my teen and young adult male patients that just because they have an erection doesn’t mean they have to use it. It’s an excuse to say that my urges or impulses got the best of me. This is a way to avoid responsibility. We are always in charge of how we react to a stimulus, even one of pain. If people can control pain sensation, we can also control sexual urges. Encourage your children to stay in control and live according to their purpose and not their friends' whimsical ideas.
It is with great pleasure that we offer our insights into the area of sexuality and children. We truly hope that these questions and answers will assist you in your parenting and in raising responsible, sexually healthy children. Thank you for allowing us to be frank and speak with candor while answering these questions.
Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free Uncommon Parenting blog. To obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their website today: www.uncommon-parenting.com.