Sex education: Talking to toddlers and preschoolers about sex

Sex education often begins with a child's curiosity about his or her body. Here's how to set the stage for sex education — and how to answer your child's questions. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Sex education is a topic many parents would prefer to avoid. And if you have a young child, you might think you're off the hook — at least for a while. But that's not necessarily true. Sex education can begin anytime. Let your child set the pace with his or her questions.

Early exploration

As children learn to walk and talk, they also begin to learn about their bodies. Open the door to sex education by teaching your child the proper names for his or her sex organs, perhaps during bath time. If your child points to a body part, simply tell him or her what it is. This is also a good time to talk about which parts of the body are private.

When your child asks questions about his or her body — or yours — don't giggle, laugh or get embarrassed. Take the questions at face value. Offer direct, age-appropriate responses. If your child wants to know more, he or she will ask.

Expect self-stimulation

Many toddlers express their natural sexual curiosity through self-stimulation. Boys may pull at their penises, and girls may rub their genitals. Teach your child that masturbation is a normal — but private — activity. If your child starts masturbating in public, try to distract him or her. If that fails, take your child aside for a reminder about the importance of privacy.

Sometimes, frequent masturbation can indicate a problem in a child's life. Perhaps he or she feels anxious or isn't receiving enough attention at home. It can even be a sign of sexual abuse. Teach your child that no one is allowed to touch the private parts of his or her body without permission. If you're concerned about your child's behavior, consult his or her doctor.

Apr. 23, 2011 See more In-depth