When I was 5 or 6 years old and I found a book in my mom’s room about Motherhood and pregnancy. I remember it had a light blue hardback cover with the face of a smiling woman on front. It would have been published in the 1950’s and it showed by the pre-MRI black and white line drawings of a women’s body with all it’s parts labeled. It showed a cross section of a pregnant women and the baby inside her at all different stages of gestation. I opened the book and must have sensed it was something very private because I remember taking the book and hiding under the covers of my moms bed, out of site, to look at all the pictures. After I’d been looking for who knows how long my mom pulled back the blanket and found me. I thought I would be in trouble looking at the book. But my wise mother sat down beside me and asked what I was doing (although I’m sure she already knew). She explained to me that if I was looking at the book as something nasty or to laugh at that that was wrong, but if I wanted to know about the body and about how babies grow that I could look at it all I wanted to learn about the miracle of birth.
Fast-forward almost 50 years – Recently I went to the library and checked out all the children’s books I could find on conception and birth. My plan was to make a reading list of books parents could read to their children to help explain the human reproductive process. I took the books with me to our cabin and my grandchildren happened to be there. So in the afternoon I got permission from my son and daughter-in-law to read the books to their children. My initial thought was how fortunate I was to have a practice audience, but I was surprised the different feelings I had as I read. I was sitting on the porch on the bench swing in a cool breezy afternoon with two little boys I loved dearly snuggled close when I opened the first book. The first few pages were comfortable to read and we were all chatting about the pictures and enjoying it. As we got further into the book the pages started showing male and female body part and labeling them with their correct name. I started to get a little uncomfortable. This was sensitive ground and I began to remember why it was difficult for to talk to our kids about conception, birth and all the other things that come along with that topic. I also found it interesting how differently the 4 ½ year old responded to the information compared to the 6½ year old. The older one got real quiet while the younger one pointed out pictures on the page that were totally unrelated to the subject at hand, like the cute cat that appeared on each page. I learned and was reminded of several things by this experience.
Parents should start young and talk often about the facts of life with their children. Berkendamp and Atkins, authors of, Talking to your Kids About Sex” suggest that “starting the conversation about sex with your kids when they are young helps set the stage for open and honest communication throughout their lives- especially at those time when it will matter most”.
Meg Hickling in Speaking of Sex writes, “For children, silence on the part of the parents becomes a profound message to the child that this is a taboo subject. ‘My family does not talk about this, it must be bad, and I’ll be in big trouble if I mention ‘it’ or ask about ‘it’”. Children need to be shown that talking about sex is private but not secret.
Only tell them what they are ready for. One day a young boy came home from school and asked his mom, “Where did I come from”? His mom thought, “Oh no, the time has come…” and she proceeded to give him a detailed lesson on the facts of life. After the mom finished her explanation the wide-eyed boy was silent for a moment and then answered, “Wow, Johnny just said he was from Cleveland”.
To avoid giving more information than your child is ready for, paraphrase the question they ask before you answer. This helps make sure you understand what your child wants to know.
When your child comes to you with a question about sex immediately say, “I’m so glad you came to me to ask that”. This not only puts your child at ease because they see you are not mad at them for asking the question, it also give you a few seconds to calm down and decide how to answer. Also, it’s okay to say, “I need time to think about the best way to answer this, I promise we’ll talk about it after dinner tonight” then make sure you do.
Create a comfortable setting. A counselor friend of mine once told me that when he had a child client with tough things that needed to be talked about he’d take them to the park to feed the ducks. In his experience, conversation flowed easier while gazing at the lake than if they were sitting across from each other trying to make (or not make) eye contact. I also found it helpful to talk about these types of things while lying next to my child, at bedtime, with only the night light on. I even once had a discussion with a child about birth control while we rode bikes on the boardwalk next to the ocean.
Talking to children about this subject will be very different depending on the age of the child. Teaching children about where babies come from is more that just teaching about sex. Below is a very abbreviated list of what to talk to children about at different ages.
Toddlers –This age is curious about their bodies and how they work. This is the stage for teaching about gender, functions of the body, parts of the body and their correct names.
Preschoolers- At this age boys and girls will notice boys and girls bodies are different from each other. Teach about appropriate/inappropriate touch, and that we only talk about these personal things in private (not blurted out in the grocery store isle).
Six to nine year olds- Kids at this age are starting to think more concretely and want some strait answers. They are starting to think things like, “How did that baby get in mom” and “how does the baby fit in mom’s tummy with all the food she eats”? If these type questions leave you speechless, there are books that can help parents know good answers to questions kids ask (see our reading list below). They might also tell you that the whole idea is gross (remember this is the age when they see people kissing on the lips and say, “Yuuuuck”). They also might say they will never do THAT! To which you can respond, “That’s good you don’t want to right now, because you’re too young” or “When you grow up you don’t have to if you don’t want but when you’re older it might seem like a good idea to you”.
Pre-teens and teens- At this age kids will probably not want you to talk to them at all about the topic. I think a few kids will be brave enough to ask a parent a question, but if there has not been ANY conversation between parent and child before this point, it could be an awkward to time to begin teaching about the subject. This does not mean you should not try. Look for opportunities to bring up the subject; watch a NOVA or PBS special together and let them know you are always open for questions. Remind them that you are there to offer correct information as what they have heard from friends or other sources may not be accurate.
Bringing home a new baby or visiting someone who has a newborn seems to be a catalyst for good discussion.
So each stage our child is in requires a different approach. There are some books I found that I think contain good words to borrow to answer some of the questions your kids might ask that could leave you speechless. The picture books can be a good springboard to start conversation on the subject.
What’s the Big Secret? By Laurie Brown and Marc Brown
The Baby Tree by Blackall
It’ Not the Stork by Harris and Emberley
Getting Ready For New Baby Harriet Ziefert and Laura Rader
The Visual Dictionary of the Human Body Eye Witness Visual Dictionary
Book for parents
Talking to your Kids about Sex from toddlers to preteens. By Berkenkamp and Antiks (Don’t let the silly illustrations scare you away from this book, the info they write is excellent).
Speaking of Sex by Meg Hickling
So You Want to Raise a Boy (see pg 283-285 for typical questions of children)
This may be a difficult subject for you to approach with your child but remember, as a parent YOU ARE YOUR CHILDS BEST TEACHER. Telling your child, “As you get a little older and your hormones start to kick in, you will have feelings you’ve never had before. You may start to think things you never imagined, but that’s all normal, it happens to everyone” will help them know nothing is wrong with them.
Start early, mention it often, and try not to panic no matter what they ask.
From a teacher’s perspective, Lindsey adds:
Nature seems to bring up a lot of questions regarding reproduction. I know that more than a few times I have had students in my class ask why some eggs have chicks inside and we could eat the other ones. They wanted to know the difference between the eggs, how to know if it would have a chick or if it would be safe to eat, etc. Since I was their teacher and not their parent I would say, “That’s a great question, you should ask your mom or dad about that”.