By Debra W Haffner, with Dr Robert Needlman
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Teenage girl and mother talking image
Raising sexually healthy children isn’t about giving a single ‘Big Talk’ when they become teenagers. Your job as a sexual educator actually begins when your children are very young.

Sexuality through the years

By the time children are two years old, you can teach them the correct names of the parts of their body.

By three or four years, many children exhibit interest in sexuality – they might touch their genitals, play ‘doctor’ with neighbourhood children, and ask their parents where babies come from.

By the age of eight years or so, you can start preparing your children for the changes that lie ahead during puberty, and be sure that they understand the basic facts about sex and reproduction. You’ll also need to help them make sense of the many messages about sexuality they’re receiving from the media.

By late primary to early high school, pre-teens need help dealing with peer pressure, body image and sexual feelings.

During the teen years, your children need your guidance on making good decisions about relationships, communicating sexual limits and protecting themselves from unsafe situations.

Sexuality: family values and teachable moments

All along the way, the most important thing you can do is to share your particular family values with your children.

They’ll learn many of the facts they need in health or biology classes in school or in books. But only you can convey your family’s values about a wide range of sexuality issues – gender roles, sexual orientation, abstinence, family roles, body image and friendships, to name just a few.

As you seek to share these core values, the key is to look for teaching opportunities – those everyday times when you easily bring up important issues with your child and share your thoughts.

For example, as you’re giving your preschooler a bath or changing your toddler’s nappy, you might name the parts of the body and talk about how wonderful the body is. Or perhaps you’re watching television with your primary school child and a couple on the show moves into the bedroom – you can talk about your values about intimacy and relationships. Or maybe you’re in the car with your 11-year-old and there’s a news story on the radio about abortion – this would be the perfect time to share your beliefs about unwanted pregnancies.

By taking advantage of teaching opportunities, you can give your children little, easily digestible bits of information and let them know that you’re a family that talks about sexuality.

How to talk the talk about sexuality

It’s not always easy for parents to talk with their children about sexuality, but there’s a three-part process that often makes everyone feel more comfortable and works for all ages:

  • First, find out what your child already knows – for example, ‘Where do you think babies come from?’
  • Second, correct any misinformation and give the true facts – for example, ‘No, babies don’t grow in their mummy’s tummy. They grow in a special place inside their mummy called a uterus’.
  • Third, use the conversation as an opportunity to convey your values – for example, ‘It’s wonderful to be pregnant when you’re ready to take care of a baby’.

This three-part process even works with teenagers. For example, you and your teenage child are driving in the car and you hear a sly comment about masturbation on a radio talk show. You could say, ‘Have you heard about masturbation?’ or ‘Do they talk about masturbation in health classes at school? What do they say?’

Listen calmly, and correct any misinformation: ‘Some people masturbate, and some don’t’ (this is important because teenagers often wonder if their habits are ‘different’ or ‘normal’). Then matter-of-factly state your views, maybe something along the lines of: ‘People often masturbate for sexual pleasure. In fact, I think it’s a smart way for teenagers to handle their sexual feelings’. Try to keep the conversation open and relaxed, allowing your child to talk and ask any questions. It’s important to be a good listener.

Once you get used to using this three-part approach to educating your children about important topics, you’ll be sure to find many teachable moments to talk to them in a natural and comfortable manner.