By Debra W Haffner, with Dr Robert Needlman
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Baby feet image copyright iStock

Parents sometimes are surprised when they hear me say that during the early primary school years, one of the most important things a parent can do is to introduce the concept of sexual intercourse to their child. They wonder: isn't that too young?

Schoolyard ‘wisdom’

Before you jump to this all-too common conclusion, think for a moment about how and when you learned about intercourse. Many of us received this information on the primary schoolyard or playground from an older child who decided it was time to share her own interpretation of reproduction and intercourse. You may remember responding in horror, thinking, There is no way that my parents would ever do that! You probably didn't tell your mum or dad about this conversation, your friend's interpretation was likely to be flawed (sometimes hilariously so), and it may have taken you years to find out accurate information from a more trustworthy source.

Well, despite the fact that in many ways times have changed, playgrounds and schoolyards haven't. How much better it would be if you talk with your child about intercourse early on, so that she can respond, ‘My parents have already told me all about that!’ when approached by a know-it-all friend or classmate. This is your opportunity to give your child a positive, caring message about adult lovemaking rather than what is more often than not an ugly, immature impression that leaves her aghast.

The real story

A school-age child can understand that sexual intercourse is a way that adults demonstrate their love and share pleasure, as well as to make babies. If it's consistent with your values, you also can give your child an early message about family planning – that is, people can choose whether or not to have babies, when to have them, and how many children they want in their family.

Look for a teaching opportunity to introduce this subject: it could be when you see a pregnant woman, read a book with your child about pregnancy and birth, or watch a couple in bed on a sitcom together. Think about the values you want to share: does your family believe that intercourse is all right for adults in caring relationships or is it to be reserved only for marriage – or something in between?

A simple definition of intercourse that is appropriate for school-age children might go something like this: ‘When two grown-ups (or married people) love each other, sometimes it feels good when the man and the woman place the man's penis inside the woman's vagina. After a while, the sperm cells come out of the man's body and travel up the woman's vagina to her uterus. If the sperm and the egg meet inside the woman, that's the beginning of a fetus that will grow into a baby’.

Then wait for your child's reaction. Let her have time to absorb this information. She might say, ‘Mum, that's disgusting!’ You might say, ‘I understand that you feel this is disgusting. That's OK, because this is a grown-up behaviour. When you're a grown-up, you will decide whether you like it or not. We can talk about it more later’. In this short exchange, you acknowledge her feelings, give her your value that intercourse is for adults, let her know that she will decide about her sexuality in the process of growing up, and leave the door open for future discussions.

The three-step model in action

Let's look at how the three-step model and a teachable moment could help you introduce the idea of sexual intimacy to a six-year-old. Your child sees two adults kissing and says, ‘Ooh, Daddy, they're having sex’. First, ask her what she means by having sex. Second, correct misinformation. Depending on your child's answer, you could tell her that kissing in public is not usually thought of as having sex, and that those words generally refers to adult lovemaking. Third, share your feelings about public affection. It could range from ‘It makes me feel uncomfortable to see people kissing at the supermarket’ to ‘Isn't it great to see people showing affection?’

You also could use this as a teachable moment later to bring up the topic of intercourse: ‘Do you remember when you thought kissing was sex when we saw that couple yesterday? I think that you're ready for us to talk more about a special way that adults (or married couples) show affection for each other’. Wait and see if your child seems interested, and then continue with the simple definition.