Sex education: Talking to your school-age child about sex

Sex education doesn't need to be a single tell-all discussion. Follow your child's cues about what he or she needs to know — and when. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Sex education often begins as simple anatomy lessons during the toddler years. But during the school-age years, your child might start asking specific questions about sex. Not sure what to say? Consider this guide to discussing sex with your school-age child.

Expect detailed questions

Toddlers and preschoolers are often satisfied with vague answers to questions about where babies come from. But school-age children tend to ask more-specific questions about the connection between sexuality and making babies. As your child's questions about sex become more complex — and perhaps more embarrassing — he or she may turn to friends or other sources for information.

When your school-age child inquires about sex, ask what he or she already knows. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer enough details to answer the specific questions. Don't laugh at your child's questions or use nicknames for your child's sexual anatomy, which may send the signal that these body parts shouldn't be discussed.

Consider these examples:

  • What's an erection? You might say, "A boy's penis is usually soft. But sometimes it gets hard and stands away from the body. This is called an erection." Describe how an erection can happen while a boy is sleeping or when his penis is touched. This might also be the time to describe a wet dream.
  • What's a period? You might say, "A period means that a girl's body is mature enough to become pregnant." Explain how menstruation is an important part of the reproductive cycle. You might offer details on bleeding and feminine hygiene products.
  • How do people have sex? If your child wonders about the mechanics of sex, be honest. You might say, "The man puts his penis inside the woman's vagina." Consider using a book with illustrations or diagrams to help your child understand.
  • Can two girls have sex? Or two boys? It might be enough to say, "Yes. There are many types of intimate relationships." If your child wants to know more, you might take the opportunity to talk about respect for others or to share your personal thoughts about homosexuality.
  • What's masturbation? You might say, "Masturbation is when a boy rubs his penis or a girl rubs her vaginal area." Remind your child that masturbation is a normal — but private — activity.

Even if you're uncomfortable, forge ahead. Remember, you're setting the stage for open, honest discussions in the years to come. Consider who's best to educate your child — you or the TV, the Internet or your child's friends?

Preteen angst

Between ages 8 and 12, children often worry whether they're "normal" — particularly when it comes to penis size and breast size. Explain what happens during puberty for both boys and girls. Offer reassurance that children of the same age mature at different rates. Puberty might begin years earlier — or later — for some children, but eventually everyone catches up. You might want to share experiences from your own development, particularly if you once had the same concerns that your child has now.

Apr. 30, 2011 See more In-depth