My Family Care asks Paul: Having a discussion about the Birds and the Bees with your children can range from downright embarrassing to almost non-existent. But when is it important to have the conversation, what should it include (where can parents find the right information), and how can parents approach it so that it doesn't end in giggles and misinformation?
Conversations about the 'birds and the bees'
The minute that children start talking, they start asking questions, so there is no right age to begin conversations about sex and relationships. This does not necessarily need to be initiated by children's questions - you can use things you see on TV and in newspapers to spark a discussion, or perhaps seeing a pregnant woman in the street can help to start a discussion about where babies come from.
It is very normal for parents to feel uneasy and embarrassed, but don't think you have to prepare a formal sex talk. Let it be a natural process where you respond to children's questions as they come up from an early age, and build on them - from starting with a question or observation, or a brief mention of pregnancy. The more you talk, the easier it will become.
Lessons on sex and relationships
Sex and relationships education (SRE) is not a statutory subject at primary age, and schools will have their own policies on what to teach. It's very important for parents to get hold of this policy so they can support at home what is happening at school. It may be easier for parents to deliver SRE as they are with the children most of the time and will know the context of things they are seeing and hearing, and be better placed to start conversations appropriately.
If a school is running an SRE programme they will normally let parents know this is happening, and broadly outline the contents so parents are aware. If parents don't hear from the school, it might be a good idea to be proactive and ask what is being planned.
Sex education discussions by age and stage
The information that children need is of course different for every child, but broadly speaking:
Age 3 - 4
Children aged three to four are aware and curious about the differences between the sexes. They are happy with short, simple, truthful answers. For example:
- 'Where do babies come from?' Mummy and daddy had a special cuddle
- 'How do babies get in?' A dad's seed meets a mum's egg
- 'Can men have babies?' Babies can only grow in a special place inside mummies' tummies (we know this isn't anatomically correct but it works for small children).
Age 5 - 8
Children aged five to eight are curious about their own and other people's bodies, pregnancy, and childbirth. They need to know about puberty and body changes so they're prepared before it happens to them. By this age they should know about periods and wet dreams, the proper names for genitals, and how a baby is made.
- A boy might ask: 'Dad, why is my willy sticking out?' Sometimes more blood goes into your penis than usual and makes it stick out.
Age 9 - 13
Most children begin to show signs of puberty between nine and 13. They become conscious of the differences between their bodies and those of their friends. They may become anxious about what is normal. At this age they're likely to want more information on puberty, how their body is changing, sex and reproduction, sexual orientation, contraception and sexually transmitted infections, masturbation, and love and relationships. They might ask about pregnancy choices, for example:
- 'What is an abortion?' Sometimes a girl or woman gets pregnant but she doesn't want to have a baby. An abortion is when the pregnancy is ended, either by taking pills or surgery.
Paving the way to understanding
It's best to talk to children about puberty before it happens, so they can feel prepared. For most children, around eight or nine will be an appropriate age.
It may be helpful for parents to draw on their own experiences, and think what it was like for them, but not necessarily to dwell on this if it involves bad memories. Talking about sex and reproduction is a natural progression from talking about puberty, as it is what the body is getting ready for.
There are lots of resources which can be helpful, including FPA materials and books. Drawing diagrams can also help to explain what puberty is about.
Paul Casey, Training Manager, FPA