Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

My Kid Needs to Know What? An Age By Age Guide to Sex Education – And What to Do! (by Cath Hakanson)

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My Kid Needs to Know What? An Age By Age Guide to Sex Education – And What to Do!

When it comes to sex education, parents usually have many questions. How do I start? What do I say? When do I say it?

Sex education has (thankfully) changed since we were kids. You simply cannot do sex education with a big one-off talk (even if you think you have covered everything). Today it is about lots of small, frequent, repetitive conversations with your child.

So why do you need to talk to your kids about all this stuff?

Firstly, your kids are going to hear about sex, from their friends, from surfing the internet, and by watching the television. By getting in first, you are making sure that they receive the right information and more importantly, that they know how you feel about it.

Secondly, is that you are actually influencing what your kids will one day do about sex. Kids that receive good sex education are more likely to delay having sex and when they do start, they are more likely to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections.

Here you will find an outline of the different things about sex that kids eventually need to know about. The topics and ages are just a guide, and are based on what we know about child sexual development, and in keeping our kids healthy and safe in our world today.

Babies and toddlers (0-24 months)

  • The names of their body parts- yes, the penis and vulva too!
  • That it is okay to touch all parts of their body – let them grab their vulva or penis at bath time or during nappy changes.
  • Start pointing out the differences between boys and girls – boys have penises and girls have vulvas.
  • Start talking about the functions of our body parts – urine comes out through your penis/vulva, poo comes out through your bottom/anus (and it is okay to use appropriate slang, just not all of the time).
  • If they like being naked all the time, start introducing boundaries about nudity – there is a time and a place to be naked (and it isn’t at the park!).

The support they need.

Technically, it isn’t really sex education at this age. It is really just about letting your child explore their whole body and to start pointing out simple differences between boys and girls. When naming the parts of their bodies you can also include their penis or vulva and also talk about what they can do – ‘yes, that is your penis and your wee (urine) comes out of there!’. The end goal is for your child to be comfortable with their whole body and to see all parts as being equal (with no shame).

Early childhood (2-5 years)

Our bodies
  • The correct names of the body parts and what they do.
  • That boys and girls are different but are also the same – girls have a vulva, boys have a penis but we all have nipples/bottoms/noses/hands, etc.
  • That our bodies are different and that is okay to be different.
  • That our bodies can tell us what we are feeling – we have many different feelings and we can feel them in our body.
Privacy
  • That some parts of the body are private -these aren’t for the whole world to see.
  • That there are private and public places and times – this one is a tricky one for kids to learn as it changes. For example, it might be okay for your child to be naked at home when their grandmother is visiting but not the plumber!
  • To respect other people’s privacy. For example, if the bathroom door is closed, that they should knock and ask if they can come in.
  • That they are entitled to privacy too – like when they go to the toilet, are in the bath or getting dressed.
  • That conversations about bodies are for private times at home and with their parents (not in the school yard).
Touching ourselves
  • That it is okay to touch their penis or vulva but that there is a time and a place for it.
  • Set limits around genital play. Explain that touching your own genitals can feel good but that it is a private activity, like toileting, and it should happen in a private place, like in their bedroom.
  • If your child grabs their genitals when they are out socially, gently remind them that they need to keep their hands out of their pants. Don’t make a big fuss as they are doing it because it makes them feel more secure. Eventually they will outgrow it!
  • If found playing ‘doctor’ with a friend (looking at each other’s genitals), take a deep breath, calmly interrupt them, ask them to get dressed and distract them into another toy or game. Later on, you can discuss privacy and rules about touching.
Babies
  • That all living things reproduce- trees drop seeds, dogs have puppies and humans have babies. Slowly start pointing out examples of reproduction when you see it.
  • A baby grows inside the woman – uterus or baby bag or even tummy (you’ll get specific later on).
  • Both a man and a woman are needed to make a baby.
  • How a baby is made – that you need a part from a man (cell or sperm) and a part from a woman (cell or egg) to make a baby. ‘Where do I come from’ is usually the first question kids ask!
  • That a baby grows inside a woman. Keep it super simple – they only want basic concepts. The details come much later.
  • If they want to know how the baby comes out, just explain that it comes out of the woman’s stomach or through her vagina.
  • That making babies is for adults and not for kids to do. Get into the habit of reminding them of this, every time you talk about it.
Body ownership and touching
  • That they are the boss of their body and have a right to say who can touch their body (you included).
  • That it is not okay to hug or touch someone if they don’t want you to (and vice versa).
  • That sometimes there are reasons for an adult to look at or touch their body, like a doctor or nurse.
  • That we don’t keep secrets about our bodies. Secrets can be about surprises and presents.
  • That they can always tell you about anything that makes them feel bad or funny.

The support they need

Preschoolers are the easiest age to teach. They are like empty sponges, ready to soak up information about anything and everything. If they haven’t had an explanation that makes sense to them, they will use their imagination to make up their own reason. Get ready to repeat yourself as they easily forget and sometimes they don’t understand you the first time or only hear part of it. And don’t forget to ask them what they mean, so that you give them the right answer!

You want to set yourself as their number one source for information. This means being honest and answering their questions about babies. By answering, you are giving your child the message that they can talk to you about anything and that you are a reliable source for information. This is a good thing, especially once they start to have contact with other kids.

If you are struggling with the words to use, there are some fantastic sex education books that you can use. They provide the information and are written in an age-appropriate way. Also, at this age, they don’t notice if you slip an educational book into the pile of books that you read before bed each night!

Middle childhood (5-8 years)

Our bodies
  • Know what words to use when talking about body parts (both boys and girls) – penis, testicles, scrotum, anus, vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus and ovaries.
  • To have some knowledge of the internal reproductive organs – uterus, ovary, fallopian tubes, urethra, bladder, bowel.
  • That bodies come in all different shapes, sizes and colours.
  • Both boys and girls have body parts that feel good when touched.
  • To be able to look after their own body i.e. private parts, hair, teeth, skin, etc.
  • To have refusal skills in place – ‘Stop, I don’t like that’.
Puberty
  • That their bodies will change as they get older.
  • That puberty is a time of physical and emotional change. If they want to know what changes, just talk about how this is the stage where they grow into an adult.
Sexual intercourse
  • That a baby can happen when a man’s sperm joins a woman’s ovum and that it usually happens by sexual intercourse (IVF is another way).
  • That a baby is made when sperm leave the man through his penis and go into the woman’s vagina. They then find their way to the place where the egg is. The egg and the sperm then join together, and grow into a baby.
  • That adults have sex and that it’s a natural, normal and healthy part of life.
  • That adults often kiss, hug, touch and engage in other sexual behaviours with one another to show caring for each other and to feel good.
  • That sex is an adult activity and is not for kids.
  • That adults can choose whether or not to have a baby.
Sexual behaviour
  • Masturbation – some kids do and some don’t.
  • That all sexual behaviour is private i.e. masturbation, sexual intercourse.
  • That bodies can feel good when touched.
  • That sometimes people look at pictures of naked people or people having sex on the internet and this is not for kids. You also need to discuss with your child what they should do when (not if) they come across these images.
  • Explain that there are different sexual orientations such as heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual.
Love
  • Love means having deep and warm feelings for yourself and others.
  • People can experience different types of love.
  • People express love in different ways to their parents, families and friends.
  • Dating is when two people are romantically attracted to each other and spend their free time together.
  • Dating starts as a teen.
  • People can experience different loving relationships throughout their lives.
Friendships
  • You can have many friends or just a few.
  • You can have different types of friends.
  • Friends can be angry with each other and still be friends.
  • Friends spend time together and get to know each other.
  • Friends can hurt each other’s feelings.
  • Friendships depend on honesty.
  • Friends can be older or younger, male or female.
Families
  • There are different types of families.
  • Families can change over time.
  • Every member has something unique to contribute.
  • Family members take care of each other.
  • Families have rules to help them live together.
  • Members of a family can live in different places and still be a family.
Personal skills
  • Everyone has rights, kids too.
  • People communicate in many different ways.
  • It is okay to ask for help.
  • Start practicing decision making around the home.
  • All decisions have consequences – positive and negative.
  • Practice assertiveness.
  • Practice negotiation skills to resolve a problem or conflict.

The support they need

This is the stage where your kids believe and absorb everything you say – so don’t waste this opportunity to set yourself up as their main source for information. If you don’t they will just get it from somewhere else (friends and the media).

There is a big difference between what a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old needs to know – as they get older, you need to give them more details and repeat yourself a lot more!

Try to answer their questions as honestly and matter-of-factly as possible. Ask them ‘what do you think?’ – this helps you to work out what they already know and what they want to know. Make sure that you give them enough information so that they don’t make wrong conclusions, e.g. if you say that a baby is made when a man and woman sleep together, they may think that means when they lie down next to each other. Check that they have understood what you have said and to see if they have any more questions.

Some kids don’t ask questions, which means that it is up to you to start the conversation. You can do this by looking for everyday opportunities to start a conversation – a pregnant woman, a couple kissing on TV, menstrual products in the bathroom. You could also buy some sex education books to read together.

Late childhood (9-12 years)

Puberty
  • All of the above but in much greater detail
  • What physical, social and emotional changes to expect with puberty (both sexes).
  • Girls need to know be prepared for their first period.
  • Boys need to know about ejaculation and wet dreams.
  • That fertility happens once girls start having periods and boys start producing semen.
  • That both boys and girls are able to have babies after they have reached puberty.
Sexual behaviour
  • More details about sexual intercourse and other sexual behaviours.
  • Basic information about STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and how to prevent them through safe sex (condoms).
  • Basic information about how to avoid pregnancy (condoms, delaying sexual intercourse).
  • Awareness of their parent’s sexual values and beliefs – love, dating, contraception, when it is okay to become sexually active, etc.
  • That they will start to feel more sexual and develop romantic feelings towards their peers. Sexual intercourse is not typical at this age, it is more likely to be kissing and hugging.
  • That same sex fantasy and attraction is not unusual and does not necessarily indicate sexual orientation.
  • That sexuality is exaggerated in pornography.
  • How to be cybersmart and to use their mobile phone safely.
  • The characteristics of respectful relationships.

The support they need

This may be your last chance to talk while your child is still willing to listen to you! As they approach their teens, they are starting to rely more on their friends for answers and information. This means that you need to make sure they know that they can come and talk to you about anything (and I mean anything).

So answer their questions honestly and provide them with more detailed information. If you don’t know the answer to their question, look for the answer together. Don’t just tell them the facts but share what your values and beliefs are about it, especially when it comes to topics such as love, dating, sexual intercourse and contraception.

You’ll need to start getting creative and find some new ways to start talking with them (give them a book, talk whilst driving them somewhere, talk about something you both see while watching TV. You can also help them to develop decision-making, communication and assertiveness skills.

Adolescence and beyond…

If you haven’t started talking to your kids about sex by this stage, you had better get moving! It is never too late to start, but it will be a lot more challenging!

Adolescence is when sex education really starts to get sexual! There’s a lot of tough topics out there – dating, contraception, when to have sex, how to say ‘no’, to name a few!

The huge benefit of talking to your kids from an early age is that you have empowered them with the knowledge to be able to make good decisions about sex. You will also have a relationship with them where they know that they can talk to you about anything – and I mean anything!

The information that you have given your child is important, but what really matters is that you are talking about it! That is what really matters!

(And remember, it is never too late to start talking!)


About the Author: Cath Hakanson

Cath Hakanson is a mother, nurse, sex educator and founder of Sex Ed Rescue. Bringing her 20+ years clinical knowledge, a practical down-to-earth approach, and passion for helping families, Cath inspires parents to talk to their kids about sex so that kids can talk to their parents about anything! Sex Ed Rescue arms parents with the tools, advice and tips to make sex education a normal part of everyday life. Get her free Age Specific Topic Guide that you can quickly refer to.

Find Cath on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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23 Comments

Damian Noud

This is an epic article. Thanks Cath. I love the layout of your giveaway too. I think my 7 year old and I are ready to have another chat. Thanks for helping us.

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Michele

Thanks for the reminder that I need to discuss these topics with my 9 year old girl. I thought I could wait awhile longer, but I see that is not the case! Could you recommend a few reputable educational books she could read in private? I’m sure there are a lot of books out there, but I have no idea where to start. Thanks again.

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Michele, yeah, sorry to say it, but the times are a changing! Which means that we need to start talking to our kids a little bit earlier about some stuff! Puberty is one of them!

My fave book on puberty for young girls is Secret Girls Business by Fay Angelo/Heather Anderson/Rose Stewart (they have 2 more that add on the content + a boys one). One talks about relationships, love and sex. Another is the ones by Kelli Dunham – the Girls Body Book (+ a boys one). There are many others but i think that these two are perfect for the first intro to puberty.

Just make sure that when you give them to your daughter, that she knows that she can come to you with her questions. I have just read both of these with my 10 year old in the evening just before bed. It worked quite well and even I learnt a few things that I had forgotten!

I do have a blog post on my website on how to read these sort of books with kids that may help – http://bit.ly/1T33tvn

And kudos to you for getting in now!

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Yvonne

What is a good book to give my 12 year old boy. I would like him to be well informed by reading for himself and not influenced by his peers

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Yvonne. Books are a great resource and there are some fantastic ones out there (and some dud ones).

Okay, now my copy hasn’t arrived yet but I do have his other book and it is fantastic and for boys – Jo Langford – Spare me the talk!

Another good one that I do have a copy of and love is by Amy Lang – Dating Smarts: What every teen needs to know to date, relate or wait! There are lots of others but these two people know their stuff!

Puberty ones are Puberty Boy by Geoff Price or The Boys Body Book by Kelli Dunham.

Check them out first on Amazon where you can usually have a peak inside.

Good luck with it – you’re son is lucky to have a protective mother!

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Amy

I am glad you found the article helpful!

Preschool is a great age for books. Now I am away and using my iPad to type this which means I can’t access the direct link, but if you go to this blogpost, you will find an orange button that will take you to a list of books.

There are some books listed there and they are set up based on what you need from preschool and up.

so, from memory, what makes a baby, mummy laid an egg, the bottoms book, any of the individual Robie Harris books would be good to start with.

I hope that helps!

http://sexedrescue.com/2016/reading-sex-education-books/

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Sara

Surprised to see such a gender normative approach. We really need to start early letting kids know that Most boys have a penis and most girls have a vulva…to allow for more gender fluidity, and to create more acceptance in the future. My 3 year old and 8 year old have not had any problems with getting that the gender someone was assigned at birth may not match the gender someone feels they are. I want my kids to accept that as normal from day one.

However, loved the other step by step age based list of what to cover when and I will likely resource it as I move forward with my kids. A decent start to a great resource.

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Sara!

Ooh, you caught me out! I thought about asking Karen to let me change this article at the last minute, but I held off whilst I did further research!

You would not believe how much trouble I had finding stuff on the best way to approach gender in the early years! There is nothing out there that has been updated to reflect intersex and transgender. Current practice is to base the first discussions of gender on our genitals, and to then elaborate further as kids get older and to include it when we start talking about diversity.

I have been chatting to some experts in this area, and they suggest that we say
“most boys have a penis and some boys don’t. Most girls have a vulva but not all do. Some people are born without a penis or a vulva, or ones that look very different.”

I haven’t spoken yet with any child development experts as to what they think.

So you could either start talking about it from the very beginning, or leave it until they are 3ish, when you start talking about same sex attraction,the fact that boys can play with dolls and that is okay, etc.

Personally, I think that it is easier (and simpler for most parents), to start talking about it when kids get that little bit older and are really starting to take an interest in gender.

And an easy way to introduce it is by using books, of which there are some good gender books out there that can be read to kids. I haven’t come across any that talk about genitals ie intersex.

Changes in how we think about gender is relatively new, and the only kids literature that I have found is the stuff by Cory Silverberg.

The important thing is to ensure that kids are accepting of the fact that everyone is different. If it isn’t them that is intersex, it could be their sibling, cousin, friend or classmate! So it is an issue that we can’t ignore as it affects all of us.

Sorry for the long response, and I am glad you spotted it!

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Hey Sigmund

Sara it’s important to be clear about the difference between sex and gender. ‘Sex’ is biological and refers to anatomy, hormones, chromosomes etc. The sex of a baby is decided at conception, depending on whether the father’s sperm contributes an X chromosome (female) or a Y chromosome (male) to the mother’s X. This is what we are born with and this is what is assigned at birth, not gender. ‘Gender’ is what we identify as and it is not assigned at birth. Sometimes sex and gender don’t match, so if someone is born with a penis, the sex of that person would male, but if that person identifies as female, then gender is female. Gender will depend on what the person identifies with but it is different to sex. Sometimes, people can be born intersex, which is where they have the chromosomes of one sex and the anatomy of the other sex, or of both sexes.

Sex and gender have been used interchangeably, but they are actually different, and they don’t always match. Sex is assigned at birth, not gender. I hope this helps to clear things up.

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nicholas

i fully disagree that it’s not appropriate to allow babies to be naked in public, especially if there is a water park

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Cath Hakanson

Nicholas, that is a great comment as it comes down to our own personal values. A lot of the stuff that we talk to our kids about is value laden.

Some parents (and cultures) are totally fine about kids being naked in public whilst others are dead against it.

Often, there is no right or wrong as it is based on what we believe. And as long as there is no danger to the child, whatever we choose to do is fine.

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Alicia

How do you talk to your child (14yo) if they think they are bi-sexual, especially if you don’t agree with it. What would you do in this case?

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Alicia!

Hmmm… okay by 14 they usually know if they are or they are still trying to work it out. Some research suggests that it is still an age of exploration and that nothing is certain, but others disagree. Either way, nothing at this age is set in stone!

The main thing is to be a loving and supportive parent. ‘Coming out’ is still a hard thing to do (discrimination is still rife, even in this day and age), so your child needs to know that you still love them etc. But, at the end of the day, you can’t change sexual attraction – it is, what it is.

So if you disagree, you need to explain ‘why’ to your child so that they can understand where you are coming from.

Personally, I would take the low key ‘whatever’ approach and see how things develop. And just keep conversations open – by 14 they usually know where to find information and there are a lot of websites and organisations that support youth in coming out. But they still need to know that they can come and talk to you – the fact that your 14 year old has told you this shows that you must be doing something right!

And make sure that you chat about discrimination in general – some teens are very naive about how judgemental society is.

Karen Young may have some other suggestions!

And I hope that I have answered your question for you! let me know if I haven’t!

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Judy

Hi Alicia
My daughter is bi and told me when she was about 14. I had already guessed by the posters she was putting on her wall. It wasn’t a problem for me but because it didn’t change who she was/is or my love for her.

If it is any help for you, she explained to me that she doesn’t see people as male or female, she feels an attraction for them or not. I hadn’t thought about that before. For the majority of kids, it isn’t something they choose or control It’s just how they are.

She is now 26. She has had a long term relationship with a woman and another with a man. She says that men are much easier and she’s not in any hurry to go the woman way again! She said all that PMS at the same time (because women living together tend to synch their periods) was too much!!

It doesn’t matter whether your child is bi or not… you can’t choose their partners for them. You can only wish them happiness!

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Caroline

I caught my son Masturbating himself…I did told him not to do this…What should i do now,Cath?

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Caroline!

A great question! Some kids do and some kids don’t (and both are normal!)

The current ‘trend’ is to let kids know that it is okay to ‘touch their private parts ‘ (or to fiddle) but that there is a time and a place for it.

We tell them that it is a private activity (just for you) and that it should happen in a private place.

Now, it can take a few years for kids to understand the concepts of private and public but eventually they reach an age where iit sinks in, and they then start to ‘fiddle’ in private and you are ‘none the wiser’ to it.

You can use it as an opportunity to start talking about public and private, body parts, etc. You can find some great books that will help you to get started at my new parent resource: http://sexedrescue.com/sex-education-books-for-children/

I hope that helps!

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Onyinye

Dear Cath,
Thanks for your great information. I really have daughters, 12 and 14 years old but have not yet started the sex education because i do not know how to start and what to say to them. Please, kindly recommend a nice book that i can buy for them to read.
Best regard
Onyii

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Onyii
There are some fantastic books out there.
Puberty Girl is a really nice sensitive book that looks at puberty and some sexed.
Another good one that gives lots of info without overloading them is ‘The secret business, of love, sex and relationships’.
You can find a heap more over here (there are affiliate links when you click on the books) https://sexedrescue.com/sex-education-books-for-children/
I have just uploaded a heap of new books to the site today (I have what my husband would call an ‘unhealthy’ addiction to books that make our job as a parent easier!).
Also, if this is of interest, I have started a facebook group for parents where you can ask your questions and get them answered. It is a really nice bunch of mums in there (a few dads too!). And there have been some good conversations so far! https://www.facebook.com/groups/110293296112318/
I hope that helps!

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Cath Hakanson

Hi Jaya, oh look, there is no definitive answer to this one as it depends on so many things!

The main thing is to try and take an everyday approach, which means you need to answer their questions as well as initiate conversations about things that you want to talk about (eg you may have heard a story about porn, so you decide that you need to talk to your kids about it).

There are lots of different ways to start conversations – you’ll find some ideas in this blogpost – https://sexedrescue.com/2016/teachable-moments/

The best way is to slowly start immersing yourself in learning more about what it is all about, why you need to talk etc.

I have a lot of info over on the website, and if you sign up for the newsletter, the first month of emails is sort of a crash course on sex education. https://sexedrescue.com

My FB group is also a good place to start, as it has a bunch of really nice mums (a few dads too), and each week we look at a different topic or strategy to talk about – https://www.facebook.com/groups/110293296112318/

It is tricky knowing where to start and sometimes it can feel a bit like starting a diet or an exercise regime – ie really hard at the start but it does get easier.

I hope that helps!

cath

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