Leah Hardy delves into the sometimes awkward and often cringe inducing subject of sex talk with your kids
This morning my seven-year-old daughter Cecily was eating her porridge when she announced, cheerily, ‘There were ladybirds in the playground yesterday. And two of them were having sex on my trousers!’ I nearly choked on my mug of tea. Let’s face it, children and sex is a potent mix and one that often makes us embarrassed, especially when it comes to explaining the ‘facts of life’.
Yes, I laugh now about the time when Cecily, then four, bellowed, ‘But how exactly does the seed get IN?’ while we were on a crowded train, but I cringed at the time. Especially when the bloke opposite winked at me. Perhaps our unease arises because we live in a society absolutely saturated in sex, from raunchy bus stop ads to Rihanna singing ‘Sexuality’ in bondage gear. In this climate it can be tempting to try to preserve our children’s innocence with ignorance. But as the government advice on Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) says, ‘Children learn about sex and relationships from the very youngest age, even if we don’t talk with them. Some of the things they learn are incorrect, confusing and frightening. We should talk to our children to help them make sense of it all. In the UK we have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. Effective SRE does not encourage early sexual experimentation but it does enable young people to mature, to build up their confidence and self-esteem and to understand the reasons for delaying sexual activity until they are ready.’
So what about sitting your kids down to tell them about the birds and the bees? When should that happen? ‘Ideally, never,’ says academic and sex educator Petra Boynton. ‘Rather than thinking in terms of The Big Talk, it’s really about lifelong communication about respect, love, closeness, family and so on. Not just reproduction.’
Lisa Hallgarten has set up Parents and Carers for Sex and Relationships Education, a campaign by parents who want good sex and relationships education in schools. A mother of two herself, she says, ‘Children are curious and tend to ask questions about their bodies and where they come from. This can be spontaneous, or prompted by, say, their mother or a family friend becoming pregnant. Remember, listen carefully, and don’t rush to answer more than the question that’s been asked. So if your child says, “Where does a baby grow?”, a perfectly good answer is “in a special place in its mummy’s tummy”. It is pointless to keep giving information a child isn’t ready for as they will just switch off.’ She also points out that it’s often easier to talk to little children. ‘They don’t relate sex to themselves, or to you, so tend to be much less embarrassed. Older children are often much more embarrassed, which makes communicating more difficult, and by that time they may have learned a lot of incorrect things, too.’
Of course, not all children ask the same questions or at the same time. Even at the age of four, my son Henry had a forensic line in questioning, asked a lot of detailed questions and got all the answers. My daughter has never – since the train incident – been quite as relentless, so her information has a slower and continuing process. For those who are shy, easily embarrassed or not confident about their facts, school can be a godsend. Forget the nonsense about four-year-olds being taught to put condoms on bananas. From Reception to Year 2, SRE is mainly about understanding the human body in a non-sexual way, understanding hygiene, feelings, and friendships. In Year 3 children start to learn the proper names for male and female body parts, in Year 4 they are given basic facts about pregnancy and puberty, with the emphasis on emotions and assertiveness. In Years 5 and 6, children are taught about puberty, periods, the differences between friendship and an intimate relationship, the human life cycle and, in Year 6, also about HIV and Aids.
Mostly children take this in their stride, though they will often want to talk through what they hear at school with you. And I can promise that knowing the facts won’t lead to sex-mad kids. Last summer our family accidentally found ourselves on a nudist beach in Cornwall. And nobody was more disapproving than know-it-all Henry. ‘I can see their private parts!’ he hissed in horror. ‘I’m going to go behind this rock with my Beano and not look.’
For younger children Mummy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole is funny, informative and teaches children that sex should be enjoyable and consensual.
What Makes A Baby is a fun and charming US book that covers all sorts of reproduction and families. It’s ideal if trying to explain reproduction where IVF, surrogacy or egg or sperm donation is involved.
For older children, Babette Cole’s Hair In Funny Places does for puberty what Mummy Laid An Egg does for babies, and Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley and Sex, Puberty and All That Stuff by Jacqui Bailey are good illustrated reference books.