When is the right time for parents to start sex education with their children? This article discusses attitudes and styles of sex education for kids.

All living things engage in the processes of life – nutrition, respiration, excretion, sensitivity, movement, growth and reproduction. As human parents we teach, guide and nurture our children through childhood and adolescence towards adulthood, providing them with the skills and knowledge to make safe life choices on the food they eat, the sports they participate in and safe personal hygiene.

Education is not just about giving people the facts, it is also about teaching skills to enable young people to use that information effectively and to moderate behaviours according to the information and knowledge at hand.

So take reproduction – a life process which is carried out by all living things. Nothing embarrassing about that! As adults (parents, teachers, whanau and friends) we need to teach our children about sex and reproduction, just as we teach them about nutrition, personal hygiene around excretion, the importance of sports to support growth and movement. Parents stress the importance of a balanced, healthy diet to their children and as they get older the children assume more and more responsibility for ensuring they receive adequate nutrition – as they prepare their own pack lunch, experiment with home baking and eventually cook family meals.

Once reproduction is seen as a living process, rather than a source of embarrassment and possible parent/child conflict, it becomes a lot clearer to imagine educating our children about it. It also becomes obvious that there is no right or wrong age at which to teach your child about sex and reproduction. They need to grow up knowing about it, in an age appropriate way – just as they grow up knowing that fruit and veg are good for us and we all need to eat to stay healthy.

Questions need to be answered honestly – not necessarily in full detail, but more on a ‘need to know’ basis. If a five year old asks where babies come from, telling them a load of twaddle about cabbage patches will be very unhelpful later on, when you’re trying to maintain open and honest communication around puberty and adolescence. A brief sentence about mummies growing babies in a special place in their tummy, called a womb, is accurate and as much information as many five year olds will need. A nine year old asking the same question will need the same information, but if they are given the opportunity to ask questions then be prepared to give them the information they are requesting from you. Otherwise, a brief mention of mum’s eggs and dad’s sperm will expand nicely on what they were told last time. Even at this young age, however, it is helpful to link the factual answer you are giving to the human relationship alongside it – this needs to be relevant to your own family circumstances.

By building the knowledge base gradually and honestly, as the child is growing and showing natural curiosity, there may never be a need for that dreaded talk about the ‘birds and the bees’. However, as the child approaches puberty it is worth checking out their knowledge, for gaps and misunderstandings. Do not underestimate how much young people will talk about sex amongst themselves and consider – who you would rather they got their information from!?

But sex and reproduction are certainly not just about facts and knowledge. The information giving is only just the beginning – and probably the easiest bit!

Our young people have life choices to make around sex and reproduction. They need information to practise safe sex, just like they need information to eat healthily. Young people need to develop their own beliefs about what is right and what is wrong for themselves. A conscience, if you like.

Open communication channels are vital to ensure that your child has knowledge of:

  • human reproduction – the human body parts and their functions
  • the possible consequences of sex – pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases
  • emotions surrounding sex and sexual relationships
  • safe and consensual sex
  • how to feel good about sex and help your partner feel good about sex too.

Armed with this knowledge, which certainly cannot be exchanged during one rushed and embarrassing talk at the age of 13, your child will gradually build up knowledge about sexual relationships that will help to prepare them to make good and safe decisions about their own sexual behaviour.

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For more information on Contraception, click here.

This article is part of a series of articles, including –

Sex Education – The Practicalities

Sexual Education and Emotions

Sex Education – Sexually Transmitted Infections

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Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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