Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Talking to Toddlers and Young Kids About Sex: Part 1

I'm so happy to introduce our first Guest Blogger, Dr. Ashleigh Turner. Dr. Turner, DHS is a Clinical Sexologist, Sexual Health Educator, and all around sexual health nerd. This is part one in a two part series where Dr. Turner will discuss talking to your toddlers and young kids about sex.  Thanks so much to Dr. Turner for this important contribution!

What do you mean I should start talking about sex now? My kid isn’t even verbal!
Sometimes, when I tell people that I am a sex educator, they get angry or upset and
tell me that their kids don’t need to know about sex yet. Well, in some ways, I agree.
Sex is a pretty complex activity and children under 5 years old typically don’t have
the capacity to understand it. However, there is very important information that
can be given to start building a foundation for the future- the foundation that allows
children to be open and sex positive, trust in their parents to give them the most
accurate answer about sex, just like their parents would about math, or geography, or
biology. Believe it or not, when young people are asked who they would most like to
teach them about sex, the vast majority say their parents.

I’ll be the first to admit it; talking to your children about sex is a daunting idea, but
lets look at it this way: Do you remember when your parents had “the talk” with
you? I can only imagine how mortifying it is for most 13-15 year olds who have their
parents sit them down one day and have the sex talk. Now, what if instead of “the
talk” there was openness to talk and encouragement to discuss sexual health topics
at home any time the child wanted? Instead of one mortifying moment, the topic
becomes normalized and no big deal. I think as adults, we worry that this could lead
to children running out and having sex, but studies have shown that the more
children know about sex, the less curious they are, and the more likely they are to
delay their sexual debut.

How do I answer my child’s questions?
The most important information I can give to parents is this: you don’t have to know
everything before you start talking to your child about sex. I’ve been studying sex
for more than 5 years and I still don’t have all the answers. What’s more important
than knowing the information is modeling the way to find information if you need it.
When kids start asking questions about sex, there are three key steps to remember:

• Clarify:
The famous example of this is when a young child asks his dad “Dad,
where did I come from?” and the dad freaks out thinking he doesn’t know
how to answer this question, but still tries to explain everything about sex,
and then the kid says “Huh. I thought I came from Winnipeg.” A simple
clarification would have helped him figure out what his child was actually

• Find the answer:
If you aren’t sure how to answer the question, model
where the information can be found. Please do not Google the answer—
you never know what you’ll find on Google! Instead, try a resource like,, or books like
The Guide toGetting it on by Paul Joannides, or The New Speaking of Sex by Meg Hickling.

• Answer:
Give the most straightforward and scientific answer you can. Most
children don’t need an abundance of information when they ask questions,
but they do need the truth, especially when it comes to their bodies. An
example of this would be if a child asked what oral sex was, using scientific
language can simplify the answer: oral means mouth, so oral sex is when
someone puts their mouth on another person’s genitals to make it feel good
for them. When it’s answered in a straightforward manner like this, kids get
the answer they need, without the fluff, or concern, and then usually go on
their merry way.

• Check in:
Asking the child “Did I answer your question?” is a great way to
wrap it up, make sure their needs were met, and find out if they have follow
up questions.

• Using proper Anatomy words:
For the really little guys (ages 6 months to 12 months) even though most of them
aren’t totally verbal, starting to build the foundation of the names of their body
parts is essential. Using correct names, instead of cute nicknames or slang words is
also important. Once kids start talking, it’s even more important to use the correct
names. The words we want to be using are penis, testicles, scrotum, anus, vulva,
labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus and ovaries. I know that these words can sound scary,
and make even the most mature adults giggle or feel uncomfortable. The best way
for adults to get over this is to say the words over and over again until they are
comfortable to say. Also, by teaching the child the appropriate words for their
private parts, it helps make it easier in the future for the discussion about good
touch and not good touch, and which people in their lives have appropriate reasons
to touch their bodies. An example of this is a doctor checking to make sure they are
healthy is a type of appropriate touch. An example of a not good touch is one that
makes them feel funny in their tummies, and isn’t a person who should be touching
them on their private parts.

Why is my child touching their private parts?
If you have a young child, you’ve probably already experienced what happens
when you take your child’s diaper off: their hands start to explore their genitals.
It feels good, and they love to touch. I think it’s appropriate for children to have
an active interest in their bodies, so I would never encourage a parent to smack
the hand away or discipline a child for touching their genitals. However, I do think
that it’s appropriate to start encouraging the three P’s: private parts, private time,
and private place. I know that it’s tempting for many parents to worry that their
kid is going to touch their genitals in public, and it’s true, they might do it—but
what’s more worrisome is that by telling your child not to touch at all, or slapping
their hand away, you might end up creating a very sex-negative environment for
your child to grow up in. The last thing we want is to continue to foster a fear- and
shame-based approach to sex. Continue to work with your child to identify the right
times and places for them to enjoy touching their genitals.

Come back tomorrow for the second part of this series!  

Dr Ashleigh Turner, DHS is a Clinical Sexologist, Sexual Health Educator, and all around sexual health nerd. Educating people about sex is a passion for Ashleigh, as she believes that sexual health knowledge is an imperative aspect to a healthy life. Her goal is to educate people on how to be sex positive, and decrease the shame and fear folks have around sex. In her ideal world, there would be no need for Sexologists, because the population would be open to sex being a healthy part of everyone’s life. When she’s not working on making the world more sex-positive, she spends her time watching hockey and football with her partner Justin, and her cat, Nat.  Dr. Turner can be found online at, on Facebook, and on Twitter!
Dr. Ashleigh Turner

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I sometimes feel so alienated when I bring up this topic, as I am the only one who seems to use direct words and statements. I grew up in a very open house. I want my kids to do the same. Anytime I hear anyone in my house use slang terms or nicknames for body parts I correct them on the spot. It's good to know that this is what I am supposed to be doing. Thanks again.

    New follower from the Wed. blog hop.


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