How to talk to children about sex
Issue #74: The big S-E-X talk and what to do when it comes sooner than expected
Shortly after the birth of my child, a friend (let us call her Janaki) with a 3-year-old called me with a ‘horrifying’ story about her son.
Janaki’s family was entertaining guests in the living room. Her son was playing inside - or so they thought. Somewhere in the middle of chai-biscuits, and polite conversation, he sauntered into the living room - pantsless - grabbing and tugging at his penis, with an huge grin across his face.
“I was horrified. None of us knew how to react. We all made some embarrassed noises about ‘kids these days’, and I quickly ushered him into the bedroom and back into his pants.”
“I know I should probably address this with him at some point. But he is so little. I have no idea how to have this conversation with him.”
I felt the awkwardness of my friend’s situation deeply. I always thought of myself as a fairly open person who recognized the importance of sex education, and even had pointers in mind for how I would talk to my child about the birds and the bees. Except, I thought I had another 12-13 years to go before The Talk was due.
I looked at the infant gurgling in my arms, content living a eat-sleep-poop-repeat life, and I could not believe how little time I had before this innocent baby would turn into a little person.
A little person who might take great pride in public self-gratification.
My friend is not the only parent in this situation.
Shruti’s four-year-old son has suddenly become curious about breasts.
“He heard some adults talking about a baby having milk, and probably connected some dots and drew his own conclusions from there. Now he is full of questions about breasts, and keeps trying to touch mine. I am not sure how to answer his questions. I don't want to scold him but he has made a game out of it now. I am quite unnerved by this, and really want to get the message across to him. They are yet to teach good-touch-bad-touch in his school, of course. I need ideas on how to talk to him about this in an effective but healthy manner.”
Rashmi’s 9-month-old infant has started even earlier than Janaki’s son.
“He LOVES touching his penis. I don't think it is an involuntary or accidental touching either. Whenever we change his diaper, he goes for it in a clearly deliberate way. I have no idea how to handle this. He is too small so our best hope is to ignore it and pray he will grow out of it.”
Yes, because men are well known for growing out of this habit.
“Let the child be a child”
It is not only a curiosity of private parts that has mothers (and other caregivers) flummoxed.
Komal says that her three-year-old son wants to wear his hair in a ponytail to school every day.
“He will sometimes talk to his nanny referring to himself in the feminine gender. Everyday before school, he asks me to tie his hair in a little fountain ponytail over his head. He also sees me wear accessories to work - necklace, earrings, etc. - and often wants to wear them to his school too.”
“I sometimes ask him to choose between taking his favourite toy jeep to work or my necklace. Jeep usually wins but there are days when necklace wins too, and that is fine with me! But my husband keeps trying to ‘correct’ his behaviour and I keep telling him to let the child be a child.”
“Do you want us to stitch up her wound or protect her marital prospects?”
It is true that letting a child be a child is sometimes too much of an ask, especially in a world that is unable to see beyond their own gender stereotypes, even at such a young age.
Sangeetha’s five-year-old son recently got hurt while playing and had a cut on his forehead.
“We took him to the hospital. He has long-ish hair so the hospital mistook him for a girl. They said ‘she’ would need stitches but asked if we wanted to go ahead with it since it will leave a scar. They thought that we would want to avoid a stitch our child needed to protect ‘her’ future marital prospects.”
“My son also loves to wear earrings to school. But I am glad for it because it has taught him to ignore bullies and their taunts and made him a strong child quite early in life.”
Why is this a Womaning issue?
Because how we talk to our children - especially our sons - about sex, their bodies, other people’s bodies, and consent - plays a huge role in moulding the kind of adults they will grow up to be.
A big reason why our public spaces are so unsafe for women is that open conversations about these issues are not common in Indian families. This has made us a sexually repressed society with archaic notions - not just about sex - but also gender roles and stereotypes. And a repressed society is the perfect petri dish in which to cultivate harmful misinformation and dangerous biases against all genders.
How do we talk to children about sex?
It was clear to me from the stories above that my old mental timeline of 12-13 years for The Talk needed an update.
Soon after Janaki called me and shattered my comfortable expectations and timelines, I came across and attended a session titled “Understanding healthy sexual development in children”. The session was organized by the wonderful Shumee Toys and featured Anuja Amin, the founder of Circles of Saftey.
Acccording to their website, ‘Circles of Saftey’ is a rights-based curriculum that provides age-appropriate and accurate sexuality education, aimed at empowering young people to take responsibility for their own decisions and behaviours, and the ways in which they may affect others.
“The curriculum informs students from grades 1 to 12, on a range of topics such as puberty, gender stereotypes, bullying, consent, and more so that they grow into respectful, confident, and responsible adults.”
Here is a summary of what I learned from the session:
Dealing with ‘awkward’ situations involving normal behaviour in toddlers
Playing games with gender roles (or swapped gender roles) is perfectly normal.
Try and keep their toys gender neutral - cars for girls, kitchen set for boys - is completely normal, and can actually help them develop an immunity to gender stereotypes early in life.
Touching themselves is also normal so parents need not freak out - it is not sexual, it is just a soothing mechanism for them.
It is important to explain the word ‘private’ to kids. For example, you could say, “When you are having a bath, that is private time. When you are having dinner with all of us, that is family time.”
If you catch them touching their genitals in public, say “you should do this in private”. Or, even better, say “adults do this in private” - so that you normalize that everyone does this and it is not something horrible or abnormal that only they do.
Toddlers will also start asking questions about their bodies. Questions like “Where do babies come from?”, “Why does my sister not have a penis?” are completely natural.
When they ask you these questions, give them short but factually correct answers. If you satiate their curiosity with honest answers, you will build a solid foundation for open communication with them in the future as well - so that they keep coming to you with such questions instead of getting misinformation from friends, or too much information from the internet.
Be calm when asked awkward questions. Give a simple explanation using factual information and correct body part names.
You may want to take these questions as a clue that your child is curious about the body, and facilitate learning about it in some other way, like a children’s book.
Answer their questions about private parts with clarity and honesty. Tell them “if you have any more questions, come to me anytime” to, once again, keep the door open for honest and judgment-free communication.
Don’t perpetuate the shame cycle. If you find them touching their private parts, don’t say “shame shame”, “don’t do that!”, "bad girl", or "bad boy".
They may say things like "I have a girlfriend / boyfriend". Try and stay calm about these things and don't freak out about how they learned it or label or judge them for it. Also, do not start teasing them and making them uncomfortable or overly conscious about these labels. These roles are understood very differently (and innocently) by children at that age.
Curiosity around their or other's bodies
Around 2, children start noticing the differences between boys and girls, men and women. Around 4, they start becoming more conscious about their body, e.g., wanting privacy when undressing. At the same time, they are curious and may try to see other people undressing.
Reinforce that children should respect each other, and it is not OK to touch anyone else's private parts.
Always use the correct names for your body parts. We say heads, shoulders, hands, fingers - so why not penis, vagina, vulva, anus? E.g. when having a bath “Hey, make sure you clean from the vulva to the anus”, or “Make sure you clean your penis”. When these words are used in everyday language, they become normalized in the child’s mind and the stigma is broken before it has a chance to be formed.
If two children are playing with each other, and you see that they are doing something awkward - e.g. playing doctor-doctor and one asks the other to lift up their top for an examination - it is normal as long as it happens between two kids of similar age group and there is no coercion involved.
If you see this happening, calmly intervene in the play, or talk to the children later. Ask open questions like “That was interesting - how did you get the idea for this game?”, “How were you feeling when you did that or when the other player did that to you?” Explain to them in clear, simple language what boundaries are and how they need to be respected.
If there is a big age difference or you notice coercion involved (“If you don't play this, I won't be your friend”), it is important to talk to a paediatrician or get help from a counselor.
DON'T handle it with anger or stigmatization of the child - such a reaction will have a strong negative impact on the child's self-esteem.
Schools and teachers also need to be aware of these rules. Make sure your kids' school handles these situations with due sensitivity and care.
Explain consent to your child early on. Tell them what their boundaries are and how they should protect these boundaries. Also tell them who they can come to if anyone tries to violate these boundaries.
Show them how to respect consent by example. Ask them if you can change their diaper. Ask them if you can give them a hug.
Explain to them that other people have the same boundaries and they need to respect them. Teach them that they should ask other children before hugging or kissing them too.
If you force a dress on them when going for events or functions, you are not respecting their consent. It is difficult - but important - to model consent in our everyday interactions with our kids.
There is no right age to start teaching this - it is more about modeling consent. E.g. “I don’t care, you have to eat these 2 chapatis (bread) whether you like it or not” - this does not respect consent.
This does not mean letting the child have all the power. A good midway is to give them choices. E.g. would you to eat like chapati today or rice? Would you like to eat one chapati or two chapatis?
Ordering the child with directions like, “Go hug dada, Go sit in aunty's lap” does not respect consent either. Again, giving them choices, like “Do you want to give dada a hug? Or would like to touch his feet? Or do you want to get him a glass of water?”, shows respect for their consent.
To summarize, here are the four key rules
We must always use the correct names of body parts, including genitals.
Answer their questions honestly, simply, and clearly. Do not perpetuate the cycle of stigma and taboo that we grew up with.
Explain to them the concept of privacy using examples such as bath time vs. dinner time.
Talk to your children about healthy boundaries and consent
Here is the full video of the session, which I highly recommend watching for an even more nuanced take on the subject:
If this post made you squirm a bit, that is okay.
Most of us who are parents to young children today did not have such communication with adults growing up. Every era has its own cultural context.
But one thing that parents of every era have in common is that they want to do what is best for their children. This sometimes means stepping out of our comfort zones and evolving to set the healthiest possible example for our children.
For example, it has not been easy for me to say the anatomically correct words for genitalia to my child all the time - surely not when family elders are around. (I am sure this was a suggestion that many readers were mentally rationalizing around even as they read the pointers above.)
However, here is a terrifying story of the toddler whose sexual abuse went unnoticed for months because she kept telling her teacher, “My uncle touched my cookie”.
Which is one of the many reasons why euphemisms for private parts can be dangerous.
Every suggestion above has such valid and important reasons behind them, which is why I keep going back and rewatching this video every year or so.
My son has recently started playing a game with intricate rules and schedules. From Friday to Sunday, I am “Mumma” and he is him. But from Monday to Thursday, he is “Mumma” and I am him.
Every morning, he asks me what day it is today. And then he decides both our pronouns for the day as per his pre-meditated weekly calendar.
I am in love with this game - and not just because it gives me a chance to ask “Mumma” to run little errands for me because “I am your baby, get me some water”.
I know that one day, he will probably* wake up and not ask me what day it is anymore.
And that day, I will be glad I played along while the cuteness lasted.
*About 1% of the human population is transgender, which means they will eventually identify as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth. This means that out of all children, 1% will eventually defy the most basic assumption about them made by their parents at birth.
This includes children who conform to gendered expectations - and those who don’t. It includes children who insist on different pronouns or show behavior not typically associated with their gender - and those who don’t. It includes obedient children and rebellious children.
For some children, gender non-conforming behavior may just be a phase that they grow out of. For others, it may be a sign of a sexual orientation or gender identity that is simply their reality.
In both cases, the best that a parent can do is to love them unconditionally.
For more on how you can raise your child in a way that allows them to be themselves, read this piece:
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