Let's Talk About Sex: How to answer my child's questions about sexual topics

·Lifestyle Editor
·5-min read

Let's Talk About Sex is an article series that covers science-driven topics about sex, sexuality, feminine issues and more. This is a safe space to demystify and de-stigmatise the topics around sex in a secular and healthy way, with education as the main goal.

While browsing through Instagram the other day, I came across a friend's story to my great amusement.

"Erin* told us how babies came about. She told Benny* that Mommy just chose some food and ate it, and "it slides down into mommy['s] stomach then one food become[s] u and one food becomes me."

Screenshot that kickstarted this article. 
*Names have been censored to protect the children's identities.
Screenshot that kickstarted this article. *Names have been censored to protect the children's identities.

This random story got me thinking. When is it appropriate and how do parents talk to their children about these often hard-to-navigate topics around sexual behaviours? Especially at the age when children tend to ask more questions to develop their understanding of the world, the questions they pose may be awkward for parents to answer.

When does sexual curiosity start?

According to research, children can start showing curiosity about gender and sexual identity from the age of two. By age five, most children would have asked some questions about sex, such as where babies come from, the physical differences between males and females, body organs and functions, and even engage in sexual play.

Before you get alarmed, this form of play is distinguished from problematic sexual behaviours. Sexual play is common for preschool-aged children who are often curious about their own bodies as well as the bodies of others. These acts – which includes showing, looking and touching briefly of one’s or another's body parts – occur spontaneously and intermittently, are mutual and non-coercive and are not associated with strong negative emotions or reactions in the children.

Asian mother and daughter at home together
Make yourself available as an avenue of information for your children. (Photo: Getty Images)

Talking to my child about sex

We spoke to clinical psychologist Vyda from Think Psychological Services for more insights.

"It's very important that children can speak openly. That's because if they don't know those are the body parts they need to protect, they may find it difficult or shameful to have conversations about modesty, boundaries, what's right and wrong and more."

She acknowledged that it's not because parents don't want to engage in such topics, but it's because they don't know how to. However, she highlighted the dangers of not making yourself available as an avenue of information for your child.

"If you're not going to talk about it, they might find it somewhere else, and it might be misinformation," Vyda stressed.

"You need to be prepared to have these conversations with your child."

Comprehension kicks in when language starts

"Every child has different language development. When you have a certain level of language development, comprehension starts to kick in. So if your child is an early speaker, starting to be more curious, and labelling things, (it's a good time to introduce learnable terms)," Vyda explained.

One way to do so is to start referring to genitalia by their accurate names.

"Keep it factual, instead of giving different names to the private parts such as 'woo-woo' or 'pok pok'. It can be quite important for your child if one day they have pain in certain areas or if boundaries were crossed in any way, they will be able to identify what happened to them earlier."

When I presented this question on my personal Instagram on how the mums in my circle talk to their children about their genitalia and more, the responses were encouraging.

Esther Au Yong, editor-in-chief of the Yahoo news team, had this to say, "My kids are told the (simplified) truth when they ask, regardless of age. They also referred to their privates using the correct terms."

Another friend Stacie Henson echoed the thought. "Getting used to these terms are highly important to me. There shouldn't be any ambiguity about it. I feel that it will help my children understand that physically, there are differences between the sexes."

To Stacie, helping children understand the differences between the genders and being comfortable with saying no will teach them about consent.

"Their little hearts and minds have to be nurtured and protected. Only then will they have the same capacity to show respect and love the people around them."

Keep it factual, accurate, short and sweet

You don't need to be a professor in biology to teach your child about body parts.

"You can keep it simplified at first. For example, when showering your toddlers, you can start using such as "wash your bottom" and "wash your chest", Vyda said.

If they ask something that you don't know, be comfortable to acknowledge that, and circle back to answer the questions when you can.

Regarding sexual behaviours, parents should always investigate where they might have come from without judgment. Always take the questions seriously, and be able to ask “what made you ask me this question?”

Make use of teachable moments

"More often than not, kids will come and ask you anyway, so take every moment as a teachable one," Vyda chuckled as she said that.

Teach them about privacy if they walk upon parents having sex. Teach them that it's not the tummy, but an area below the tummy that acts like a sac that carries babies. Let them know that the body is a temple, about safe touches and unsafe touches.

The good thing is, parents are not left in the lurch as there are plenty of educational programmes out there to teach their children, even if they're not versed in biology. Of course, parents should review the programmes as a whole before showing their children anything.

"I would like, in this era, for children to be able to approach their parents when they have any concerns in that arena. Be open about it, because sex is a part of life."

Vyda is a registered Clinical Psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society (MAPS) and AHPRA – Psychology board of Australia and is a full member of Singapore Psychological Society (SPS). She is also a Fellow of the APS College of Clinical Psychologists, and is a Clinical Supervisor registered with the Psychology Board of Australia and with the Singapore Register of Psychologists. Vyda has over 18 years of experience in diagnosis, psychological assessment and treatment of children with developmental disorders, including autism.

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