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Talking to Kids about Growing Bodies & Puberty

Alison Macklin, Guest Blogger

September 23, 2019

You want to know what? Being a sex educator, I had these fantasies about how I would have conversations about sex and sexuality with my kids. They would go something like this: My son and I would be reading an age-appropriate book about sex and sexuality and we would go through the book while he sat quietly in my lap asking questions and me, explaining, in my educator language, the scripted “perfect” response. He would nod in understanding and we would snuggle in and he would know everything, and I would pat myself on the back and…” then I woke up. I had my children and with all things that comes with having children, what you imagine when having children isn’t quite the reality.

Instead of my dream scenario, I’m having conversations about sex in-between ordering food at the fast-food restaurant drive-thru in-between chauffeuring my kids between after-school activities, while trying to referee a disagreement between which Pokémon would win in a battle, and instead of answering my question about whether they want combo number 1 or number 3, my 8 year old son asks me, “mom, auntie didn’t choose to be gay, right?” Now, this scenario might phase me, if I didn’t remind myself that talking about sex, especially with young kids, is actually pretty easy. 

I know, I know. You are probably thinking I am being ridiculous but stay with me here. Young children are curious and not ashamed of their bodies and they don’t pass judgement. We are teaching them all sorts of rules for how to be in the world, this is a great time to teach them some rules that have to do with sex too (in an age-appropriate way). Use simple language. Use short answers. If there are follow-up questions answer them again using short basic simple language. Once the kiddo has heard enough they are going to let you know. Here’s the thing, it’s usually us, the parents who get embarrassed. Our kids are the ones running around naked without a care in the world. If you don’t make it a thing, it’s not a thing.

So, what does that even mean? 

  • When kids ask about what their body parts are, use anatomical language. Call a vulva a vulva (or at least use the word vagina) and a penis a penis. They aren’t bad words, don’t make them bad words. If a kiddo says, “look! There is a baby in that person’s tummy!” Gently correct them and tell them it is in the person’s uterus, not the tummy. Depending on the age and the kiddo, some will take that answer and you are done. Others will want to see the organs and understand what the uterus is and how the egg grows. All of that is fine! You can say something like, the sperm come from a penis and the egg comes from the ovary. Remember, keep it basic!

  • Remind kiddos that no one can touch their private parts without their permission and this is called consent. Practice consent in your house when it comes to bodily autonomy. Did grandma come over and want a hug and your child wasn’t in the mood? Respect your child’s wishes and don’t make them give a hug if they don’t want to. They are the boss of their body and make sure they know that.

  • If there is a parent in the house who has a uterus and has a menstrual cycle, don’t hide it. It’s OK to explain that you get a period once a month and that it doesn’t mean that you are hurt, but it means that your body doesn’t need the egg anymore. Also, make sure that kids understand the blood comes out of a different hole than the pee. And here’s an idea, if you are in a heterosexual, two-parent household, push gender-roles and have dad purchase period gear for mom. 

  • If you see a same gender couple, explain how people are attracted to different kinds of people and that love is love and that’s OK and that different families look different.

  • If you see a person who is transgender, and you child asks about them, talk about how that person maybe has a penis but didn’t feel like a boy on the inside so they decided they wanted to be a girl and now they feel much better and are much happier. So, we are going to respect her and help her to be happy because we love our friends and want them to be happy.

So, Alison, what happened in the drive-thru? “We’ll take two number 3’s, Charizard will definitely beat Digglet, and yes, Auntie was born gay.” My son’s response? “I KNEW Charizard would win!”

Alison Macklin is the author of Making Sense of “It”: A Guide to Sex for Teens (and Their Parents, Too!) and has been working in sex education for over 15 years and believes that all people deserve to have honest and accurate information about their bodies and sex so that they can make the best decisions for their life. She believes that all people deserve to have healthy, consensual and pleasurable sex when they are ready free from stigmatization and shame. Alison also believes that life is best lived with sarcasm and heavy intakes of coffee.

Currently the Vice President of Education and Innovation at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Alison lives in Denver, Colorado and is the mother of two children, 3 dogs and a cat that believes he is a dog.