“Mommy, why is your vagina black?” my little guy asked me while I was getting dressed the other week.
Huh?! Oh, right, to a 5-year-old, pubic hair is a novelty.
“Uh, well, umm, you see…” I began, not knowing what on earth I was supposed to tell him. We’re pretty open about sex in my family: we label body parts, discuss where babies come from. Even taking a shower, once considered cherished alone time, has become a free-for-all in this household.
But there I was, totally stumped. It’s never about being truthful (which I always am) or even embarrassed (which I’m not). For me, it’s a fear of revealing too much. There’s only so much a 5-year-old can absorb when it comes to sex, and so I want to be sure I get it right.
“The best approach is to answer questions as honestly and briefly as possible, both to encourage further questions and yet not to overwhelm,” Parenting Network co-founder Doone Estey tells me. “If the child asks a direct question about how the ‘seed gets inside,’ the parent can respond by asking the child what he thinks happens to get a better idea of what is actually going on in that little brain.”
Estey warns that many parents fall into the trap of giving “the sex talk” after receiving one innocent question. You’re better off wading in slowly and finding out what your kid is really after, she explains. “Asking the child what he means can be helpful.”
Of course, it’s important to always be upfront with your kids; otherwise they’ll get their information from the playground and from other kids, which might or might not be accurate. “I remember hearing one story where a child spilled the whole can of beans to an entire kindergarten class and the teacher was forced to admit that the 5-year-old girl was correct,” recalls Estey. “She then had to send a letter home to the parents explaining how the whole scene had unfolded, as she had not initiated the discussion!”
One friend of mine grew irritated by her 4-year-old constantly asking to see her breasts. “Mommy, show me your boobs!” he’d scream. She’d say no, only to have her kid come back with, “But we’re family! Family’s allowed to see each others private parts.” (He does make a compelling argument.) Estey has advice for moms who find themselves in this typical situation: “We can explain that parents do not need to show body parts to their children, but children show their parents because we take care of them (and not vice versa).” But when children express a desire for privacy or modesty, we should comply, she adds.
The bottom line is that parents need to show self-respect and set some boundaries so that children learn to do this with their own bodies, Estey says. And there’s usually no one right answer when it comes to sex ed, which should be reassuring to most moms. “The bad news,” says Estey, “is that as soon as kids reach adolescence and really need the info, they do not ask their parents anymore!”