An Age-by-Age Guide to Teaching Kids About "The Birds & The Bees"

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by: Erin Dower

What should kids call their private parts? How do I explain where babies come from? Should I give my child a heads up about puberty? When should we have the "big talk"? These are just a few of the many questions you might have about talking with your child about sex. The sooner you get comfortable with discussing the topic, the smoother future chats will go, so get some tips and talking points for explaining "the birds and the bees" to kids of all ages.

baby boy and toddler girl bath time
Ages 0-3: Exploring Their Bodies and Learning the Terms
Little ones are just getting to know their bodies. As toddlers, they become aware of gender and are somewhat curious about the differences between boys and girls.
  • Set a serious yet low-key and open tone about sexuality issues. It's normal for babies and toddlers to touch their genitals during diaper changes and bath time, and for baby boys to have frequent erections. Try to act casual about your child's interaction with his genitals, rather than calling attention to it by laughing, making weird faces, or getting angry at your child.
  • Teach your child the proper names of body parts from your child's infancy on — without giggling — so you don't need to make the leap from nicknames to the proper names later on. "Making up names for body parts may give the idea that there is something bad about the proper name," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Using proper terms can empower your child to talk freely about medical issues, and learn about and report sexual abuse without feeling like it is taboo.
  • Begin talking about the genitals around age 2, according to Talking to Your Kids About Sex by Dr. Laura Berman. Teach kids the words penis and testes for the male genitals and vulva and vagina for female genitals. Vulva is the name for the general area of soft skin covering the female genitalia; the vagina is technically the actual vaginal canal — explain both terms so that kids become familiar with them over time.
  • Let babies and toddlers "let it all hang out" at home. Toddlers especially love being naked. But tell your child which parts are private (the parts covered by a bathing suit), and explain that it's not okay to show or touch your private parts in public.
preschoolers kissing
Ages 4-5: "Playing Doctor" — and Wondering Where Babies Come From
During the preschool years, your child's general curiosity about gender (especially the opposite gender) is probably growing. She is likely also wondering: Where do babies come from? How did I get out of Mommy's tummy?
  • Don't worry too much about your preschooler's interest in the genitals. According to the AAP , 4- and 5-year-olds may touch their own genitals and even show interest in other children's genitals. "These are not adult sexual activities, but signs of normal interest." While hugging and kissing friends and "playing doctor" with peers is normal for preschoolers, calmly explain to your child that touching others in the private parts is not okay, and find toys and books to redirect the children's attention to more appropriate play. Acting sexually inappropriately — such as mimicking or drawing pictures of intercourse or oral sex — can be a sign of sexual abuse, so be aware of the warning signs.
  • Explain to your child that no other person — including close friends and relatives — may touch her private parts. Only doctors and nurses may touch his genitals during physical exams, and you (his own parents) may touch his genitals when trying to locate or treat pain in the genital area.
  • Look for natural "teachable moments" for talking about the topic of sex, the AAP advises. For example, talk about genitals at bath time, and loosely explain pregnancy when you or someone you know is expecting a baby. But don't go overboard on the facts. Preschoolers who ask about pregnancy don't need to know the details of sexual intercourse — just answer their specific questions with a simple, truthful response, like: "Mommies have a tiny egg inside of them and Daddies have something called sperm that can make the egg grow into a baby. The baby comes out of the mom's vagina. This is how a lot of animals have babies, too."
mother, daughter read sex ed book
Ages 6-7: Gathering Clues and Setting Up Boundaries
Your early elementary school–age child is probably trying to gather more clues about everything: how exactly male and female bodies differ, how exactly babies are made, and what takes place sexually between adults. He's also learning to set up boundaries for his own body.
  • Continue to answer your child's questions simply and truthfully without going into too much detail. Turn to age-appropriate children's books to help explain things. In the book It's So Amazing by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (recommended for ages 7 and up), kid-friendly drawings illustrate how boys' and girls' bodies are different: "The parts that are different are the parts that make each of us a female or a male. Some of these parts are on the outside of our bodies. Some are inside our bodies. Some are also the parts — when a person's body grows up — that can make a baby."
  • Teach your child how to protect herself from sexual abuse and let her set boundaries for her body and personal safety. If your child hates being tickled or seen naked, even by immediate family members, allow her to make the rules and say "no" to anything when it comes to her body. It's natural for children to become more modest about their private parts as they get older and more independent, but it's good to teach them that nothing about their bodies is shameful. It's still fine for parents (even of the opposite sex) to horseplay, cuddle, carry kids on their shoulders, and teach kids to shower and bathe themselves, if the child is comfortable with all of these things.
  • Talk with kids about the beauty of romantic relationships, so they learn that love is connected to sexuality. Show affection and respect toward your partner; your child is observing everything. "Lessons and values he learns at this age will stay with him as an adult," the AAP says of this age group. "It will encourage meaningful adult relationships later."
father, son talk and watch TV
Ages 8-12: Preparing for Puberty and Wondering About Sex
In some ways, the years leading up to puberty can feel like "the calm before the storm." Children may be more embarrassed and quiet about sex-related questions than when they were younger. Or, they may be even more openly curious and less shy about the topic. Either way, your tween's gears are turning, and your openness and honesty is more important than ever.
  • Continue to follow your child's lead and readily answer his questions about sex. According to the book Talking to Your Kids About Sex, most kids develop an understanding about the basic mechanics of sex by age 8 or 9. The AAP advises trying to find out what your child already knows, and correcting any misinformation he has picked up along the way. Ask if your child wants or needs to know more during talks about sex. Follow up your answers with, "Does that answer your question?"
  • Use TV-watching and media time as an opportunity to check in about your tween's sex-related questions, the AAP says. Kids who say, "eww — gross!" when they see characters making out in a movie might actually be expressing curiosity about sex, so ask whether your child has any questions. Talk about the depiction of sex and gender roles in the media, and the importance of separating media portrayals from reality.
  • Prepare your child for puberty. Don't leave it up to school health/sex education teachers — their information may be too little, too late. Puberty usually begins between ages 8 and 13 in girls and ages 9 and 15 in boys. Early puberty is becoming more common, so it's wise to let your older elementary school–age child know about the physical and hormonal/emotional changes on the horizon before he (or some of his friends) begin to experience it.
  • When you discuss puberty, you may need to touch on the basics of intercourse, but unless your child has specific questions, you can likely save in-depth conversations about sex until the early teen years. Have separate talks about puberty and sexual intercourse rather than one "big talk," which can embarrass and alienate your child. Let him digest the information one topic at a time.
  • Talk about the normalcy of sexual feelings, "wet dreams," and masturbation (in private), and allow your child some more privacy in his tween and teen years. Don't tease tweens about crushes because their self-esteem and body image can be fragile. Start thinking about and communicating your family's ground rules for dating.
  • Forewarn your child about porn. "The average age a kid sees porn is 10. It's everywhere and it's naive to think your kid won't see it," sexual health educator Amy Lang tells CNN. "Tell them about porn before they stumble across it: 'Sometimes people look at pictures or videos of people having sex. This is called pornography, or porn. It's not for kids, and your heart and mind aren't ready to see something like this.'"
  • Keep an open-door policy. Even if you have been shy about discussing sex until now, know that it's not too late to offer yourself as a resource on the topic. Let your child know you are always available to answer questions about puberty, sexuality, intercourse, and the things she encounters on the Internet or TV, or hears about through peers. You would probably prefer to be your child's primary resource about sex questions — and your family's related beliefs and values — so let your child know early and often that you're always there for her.
  • If your child is too shy to talk, provide him with an age-appropriate book like It's Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (recommended for ages 10 and up) for him to explore on his own.
mother, teen daughter discuss sex
Ages 13 & Up: Dating and Dreading — But Needing — "The Talk"
By now, kids know what sex is (and that it has nothing to do with "birds" and "bees"). But there's still a lot you can teach them about protecting themselves against STDs, teen pregnancy, date rape, and other risks. Fewer than 2 percent of U.S. adolescents have sex by age 12 (phew), but one-third of teens have sex by age 16, nearly half of teens by age 17, and more than 70 percent by age 19, so the early- to mid-teen years are generally a good time to go into some more specifics about healthy sexual choices.
  • Confess your jitters about discussing the sex topic with your teen. This can help break the ice since your teen is probably feeling just as uncomfortable about the subject. Again, consider using TV or the media as a conversation starter. For example, ask your child if the teenage couple on her favorite show have had sex, and whether she thinks it's appropriate.
  • Say whatever comes to mind — just be honest. Here are some key points that can help. Talk with your child about mutual consent, and protecting herself against STDs and pregnancy by using condoms or other contraceptives. Girls should first see a gynecologist when they become sexually active or by age 18.
  • Talk with kids about avoiding Internet porn, sexting, and meeting new people online. Legal consequences for sexting seem to vary by state, but it's best to advise your child to avoid it altogether. Don't spy on your child's every move online, but talk about rules for mobile safety and using apps and social media wisely.
  • Tune into your child's dating life. If your child seems to be seeing someone seriously, it's time to talk about sex and contraceptives. Most U.S. teens (70 percent of females and 56 percent of males) say that their first sexual experience is with a steady partner. "If you find out your child is planning to have sex, it is important to have a direct, open, and non-judgmental conversation," Dr. Berman advises in Talking to Your Kids About Sex. Let your teen know that her sexual desires are legitimate and natural, but that sex comes with tremendous responsibilities. Express your family's values and your wishes for your child to make careful decisions, but remember that she may still engage in sex even if you disapprove, so it's important for you to tell her how she can protect herself.