It is difficult for a parent to hear sexual comments or questions coming out of their child's mouth, especially if they are particularly young or the language is not familiar within your household.
This reminds me of a story I read a while back: a father sat his son down and told him in a serious tone, "Son, I want us to talk about sex." The young son sat down and responded to his father in an equally serious tone, "Yes dad; what do you want to know?"
Our children are hearing and learning about sex a lot sooner than we did, and certainly a lot sooner than we imagined they would or should. There's a reason your "young" child is asking you about sex; they've heard something about it and they're coming to you to check, confirm or add to that knowledge. This is the good news, because they could have kept their questions to themselves and instead discussed it with their same-age or older peers.
First, let me assure you that embarrassment is quite a normal feeling for you as a parent in this situation. Adults usually plan on when they want to have sex or even talk about sex so it can be quite jarring to hear a question about sex from your child, sometimes asked very loudly and in a very public place like a supermarket!
Of course, you're likely to be surprised and maybe even a little embarrassed. That being said, it is important that you respond with honesty and truth. As a parent, try to remember that children ask about sex out of curiosity; they don't know what it is. That's why they're asking! This is therefore a great opportunity for you to give them the information they want before they get it from other sources, whose values may not match your own.
Here are just a few pointers to help you as you prepare to discuss this sensitive topic with your children:
1. Be calm. If you react negatively, they will think they did something wrong and they will withhold future questions or other important information like inappropriate sexual behavior.
2. Ask them what they know. Adults often panic at the mere thought of discussing such an adult topic that they end up giving too much information. The question "where did I come from?" could be a question about conception or a question about geography! Don't assume; ask. You could say, for example, "what an interesting question. What made you curious about that?"
3. Be honest. I wish adults would understand that honesty does not necessarily equal "excessive information." Honesty can be shared in an age-appropriate manner. Children can often tell when an adult is lying or evading so I would advise against this, which brings to my next point.
4. K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple and Straightforward). Adults often lie or evade because they assume that the answer expected is one they would give to an adult, but it isn't. Please avoid giving detailed and obstetric lessons to young children who are simply curious about where babies come from, or what sex is. Give the simplest version of the answer, paying attention to your child's age.
5. Use the actual words for their sexual anatomy. It's confusing for children to hear proper words like ears, nose, mouth, feet, hands, while only their genitalia is assigned pet names like peepee or cookie. Let them know the true and proper words and teach them as part of every day learning e.g. during bath time.
I know that this is controversial to some (the argument being that we should preserve their innocence) but there's a reason for this; children who can accurately name their genitalia are more likely to report any sexual abuse, even if they don't necessarily realise that they are reporting abuse;
"John/Jane wants to play with my cookie" is a very different conversation from "John/Jane wants to play with my vagina/penis". In such a case, an adult can intervene and prevent or stop any inappropriate sexual behavior.
In addition, children who can name their genitalia make it harder for a predator to continue in that behavior because it interferes with the 'sexual fantasy' aspect of it. It's too shocking for a predator to hear a child ask about why they're using their penis or vagina in a particular way. It also sends the message that "this is a child who can tell on me", hopefully increasing the chances that they will leave your child alone.
6. Share the joy, share the burden. In Africa we say "it takes a village to raise a child" but modern day parents prefer to do it all on their own. However, here is yet another benefit of including responsible adults of mixed gender into your child's life. Identify who you can trust with your child's well-being, and then reach out to them to support you in communicating with your child.
Remember that older generations relied on aunties, uncles and grandparents for this. Parents can't do it all – and not for lack of trying - so please form a ring of love and responsibility around your child with a support system that can reinforce what you're teaching at home.
7. Be happy. Why? Be happy because your child chose you instead of any of the other alternatives out there. Be happy because your child gave you a chance to share vital information instead of relying on others. Those others will still speak BUT your child will have your voice in their head, and they will know that they can come to you with additional questions in future. This can only benefit them and you.
I hope that these pointers help you feel better prepared to tackle this topic with your children. Remember: innocence is not the same as ignorance and ignorance is dangerous. Your child already trusts you; trust them back by trusting yourself first. Good luck!
Maggie Gitu is a marriage, family and sex therapist. Reach her on: [email protected] or via her Facebook page: Maggie Gitu