As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I frequently hear myself saying to parents is this: “Please don’t call it a pee-pee or hoo-hah.” Yes, this may well be one of the silliest phrases that I ever say, but it illustrates my point about talking to our children about sex: be honest, without shame. And perhaps part of why I make a gentle, lighthearted comment about “hoo-hahs” and “pee-pees” is that I’m sitting with a parent who is not in a light-hearted situation. Often we are talking about talking to children about sex because their child may have been sexually abused.
This brings me to the first important “why” of having this conversation: it is about your child’s safety.
Talking to our children about sexuality helps to protect them.
We talk to our children about not touching a hot stove, about how to tie their shoes, and about riding a bike. We talk to them about other aspects of their bodies. We should certainly be clear about all of their body and what various parts are called.
Call it a vagina.
Call it a penis and testicles.
The alternative is that at some point your child is sitting in front of a child protective services investigator who cannot make a clear determination because they are not sure what “fine china” and “peanuts” actually refers to. Yes, it seems funny … except that if someone is abusing your child you want them to be able to describe what happened.
Talk with your child about their bodies early and often.
These conversations are not “one and done”. When they are very young, the conversation is often along the lines of “That is called your penis/vagina. Remember that that is a place we usually keep covered. If anyone makes you feel uncomfortable about your penis/vagina, it is always OK to talk to us about it. You won’t be in trouble.”
Don’t make a huge deal out of it.
Again, we signal shame when we make this a “super serious talk” with a child. Remember to use the same sort of tone as when you are explaining colors, shapes, or how to catch a ball.
Reducing shame increases conversation.
When we call genitalia by cutesy names, we put shame on those parts of our body. So if anything happens there, to our penis or our vagina, then that child is doubly reluctant to talk about it. After all, the reason we as the adults use the cutesy name is because it is difficult for us to talk about, especially with our children.
Yes, you may end up with the child who says “I fell on the monkey bars and hurt my vagina” in church. That is OK.
Yes, you may have the child who says out loud in the grocery store “when I touch my penis it gets hard and it hurts and it is hard to pee.” That is OK too. Just say, “That is normal. Just wait a minute and try again.”
Do your own work around sex and sexuality.
So as a therapist who works with a wide variety of people, both young and older, I run into a lot of people who have difficulty talking about sex and sexuality. Often that is related to abuse that occurred, but it could also be related to the early messages that you received about sex as a child or adolescent. If you have heard over and over that “sex is bad/wrong/sinful” and/or that parts of your body are “dirty” or “naughty”, then trying to have a healthy sexual relationship as an adult is not so easy.
You are a parent; this likely means that you had sex along the way to parenthood.
So as a parent now, it is your job to think about how you approach sex and sexuality so that you can give your child a healthier view of their own body, how it behaves, and how it can eventually interact with another body, sexually.
Try talking with your spouse or partner more openly. Find a trusted friend with whom you can be open about this aspect of your life. Consider talking with a therapist if these first steps are too challenging.
It is OK to share your values around sex with your child.
Once you have established that talking about sex is OK, it is certainly right and good to share your values around sex. If you believe that sex should be reserved to a monogamous couple preferably in a marriage, then say so. There are definitely some religious values that many of us have around sex; this is OK to share with your child.
But remember that preserving a relationship with your child is important enough that if your child steps outside those values, leave them a path to come home.
Remind them that you love them and care for them, no matter what might happen, whether it is something that happened to them or something that they did. Remembering too that a child’s normal self-centeredness makes them feel that something that happened to them may be “their fault”.
Be honest and accurate and age-appropriate.
So your three-year-old does not need to know what an orgasm is. A 15-year-old might wonder, but potentially be embarrassed to ask. Remember that this is an ongoing conversation that starts with naming body parts appropriately, but ends with details about how their body works, how to protect themselves, how you believe that your values matter, and how you love them.
Do not lie or attempt to scare your children.
They need to trust their parents to be the ones who are giving them clear, honest, accurate information about their bodies. If you lie or attempt to scare them, they will stop talking to you.
And as a therapist, I would much rather sit with you and your child having an awkward but light conversation about sex and sexuality than having to work our way through the distortions that come from sexual abuse.
So, please don’t call it a “pee-pee” or “hoo-hah”. As they move into adolescence they will have enough body image issues with which to reckon without feeling shame about their penis or vagina. It is biology. This is about their health. Treat sex just as you would any other health issue with your child.