Helping Your School-Age Child Learn About the Body
As a parent, you are the ideal teacher to help your child learn about sex. Open communication about sexuality helps your child understand his or her feelings and encourages a positive attitude toward a natural process.
Your explanations should be honest and simple. Because children's cognitive growth is ongoing, a 6-year-old child often is not able to fully grasp the details about sexuality that a child who is about to enter puberty may need to have explained. A good way to gauge children's readiness for information is to first find out what they think the answer might be to their own question. Then provide as little or as much information as you think is needed. Keep your conversations ongoing, so that more sophisticated information can be given at appropriate times.
Some common behaviors and issues to discuss may include:
- Masturbation or playing doctor. As children begin to develop a clearer self-concept, they become curious about their bodies and others' bodies. They often satisfy this curiosity through exploration. Masturbation and games like "doctor" are common ways for children to learn about their own bodies and compare them to others. If you discover your child masturbating or playing doctor, try not to react with anger or outrage. That will only make your child feel ashamed and embarrassed. These are ideal times to teach your child about sexuality and about the differences between public and private activities.
- Where babies come from. By the time children are 6 years old, many have asked about where babies live before they are born. These questions can be answered with general conversation about how the baby grows in a special place inside mommy's tummy. Most younger school-age children are not ready to learn all the details about how the genitals relate specifically to sexuality and reproduction. They usually are not yet curious about how the baby got there in the first place. If your child asks more questions, you may want to give him or her an age-appropriate book on the subject to start, and be prepared to provide more explanation as well.
- Sex organs and their purpose. By the time girls are 8 or 9, they may ask questions about their genitals. Boys may wonder about morning erections. As children move closer to puberty, they should know the proper names of the sex organs and how the body changes during puberty. They should understand how babies are conceived.
- Respect and care for the body. Although children this age are naturally interested in knowing about their own genitals and sex, their outward attitude is that it is "yucky." In your discussions, try to stress that the body and sex are not dirty.
- Reassurance about their body shape. As they become more aware, it is common for children to feel that their own bodies are not right. School-age children often fret about their size or believe that they have some sort of physical defect. It is common for children around age 8 to become increasingly modest and to avoid situations in which they have to undress in front of others. It is often helpful for these children to understand that bodies come in a wide range of sizes and shapes and that nearly all children their age have the same concerns.
Many groups, such as Planned Parenthood or those sponsored by your local hospital, offer classes that you can attend with your older child that address sexuality, what to expect during puberty, and similar topics. Enrolling in such a class may make it easier for you to start an ongoing dialogue with your child.