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Sexuality education begins at home. Parents should answer all questions about sex in an age-appropriate manner, just as they answer other questions about the world. Ideally parents will provide accurate information, convey the idea that sex is natural and pleasurable, and instill a sense of responsibility towards self and partner that must always accompany this natural pleasure.

If parents don’t answer the questions their children ask about sex at all, or if they answer them in a constrained way, sex will stand out as a different and forbidden-to-ask-about topic. Your child’s curiosity about sex may be heightened, not because you have given the child too much information, but because you have turned an innocent question into an unanswerable one.

Children process all information, whether it’s about sex or Santa Claus, in the same way. They transform the information to their own level of understanding which is determined by their age. Children who are too young to understand what they hear simply do not deal with the material; it goes right over their heads.

This makes the “rule” about early sexuality education very simple: answer questions when they are asked. And if a child reaches five or so without asking, bring the subject up yourself by talking about a friend who is having a baby, for example. What to say if the child has not asked any questions? “We think you may be curious about where babies come from. We were when we were your age.”

Children may ask where babies come from as early as 2 or 3, especially if Mommy or someone else they know is visibly pregnant. They later become curious about where the baby grows inside the mother and how the baby gets there.

When they are older the topics for discussion and the questions become more specific, like what do people do when they have sex, what is a contraceptive, etc.

In a helpful new book entitled Questions Children Ask (DK Publishing, 1997), Dr. Miriam Stoppard, an English pediatrician, covers questions about sex, the unknown (death and God), relationships (friends, divorce), differences (why is my skin brown? why can’t she walk?), and safety (why can’t I talk to strangers?). Answers to each question children are likely to ask are divided into four age groups: 2 to 4, 4 to 6, 6 to 8, and 8 to 11. If a question is not asked in the early ages, the author suggests using information from previous age groups. This book is a resource for parents who need a bit of help with what is age-appropriate, to what extent they should discuss a topic, and how explicit they should be.

Parents often ask me how much they should tell and how explicit they should be. Tell the child a little bit more than is necessary to make it very clear that you are what educator and author Sol Gordon calls an “askable parent.” Your child learns that you willingly provide honest answers; you don’t get embarrassed or angry or make jokes when the subject of sex is brought up. In today’s world where the media presents such a blatantly inaccurate and tawdry view of sex, it’s more important than ever that a child has an askable parent.

I know from the experiences I had with my own children how difficult it is to talk to children about these intimate matters, even if one is committed to the concept of sex education. It took an effort on my part to overcome my hesitancy and learn how to become comfortably askable.

What does it take to become an “askable parent?”

A commitment to the concept that sexuality education must start at home and continue in the schools.

A comfortable working knowledge of human sexuality including an understanding that sexuality begins in infancy.

Knowledge about child development so that you know when to expect what questions and how the child’s mind works.

Comfort with your own sexuality, as well as comfort with demonstrating affection in front of the children. (It’s healthy for your child to see Daddy lovingly pat Mommy on the fanny.)

The ability to communicate with your child, because sex education is much more than presenting the facts — there must also be an on-going dialogue between parent and child about values.

In times past parents weren’t into early sexuality education. When Junior reached puberty Dad was supposed to tell him to not get a girl in trouble or contract a disease. And Mom was supposed to talk to Sis about menstruation, preferably before it happened. Both kids got lots of misinformation from their equally uninformed peers long before their parents spoke up.

The world has changed. Unless you want your young child to learn about sex from MTV, you must be prepared to field early questions about sexuality yourself. Because there is no way parents can shut out the world, parents also have to “interpret” the world for their children in terms of the family values. When the 5 o’clock news has a story on child prostitution or teen pregnancy, parents should talk about the horrors of exploiting other human beings and the consequences of teen pregnancy.