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How to Talk About Sex: Early, Often, and in Small Doses

We are sexual beings from the moment we are born. So, why is it so hard for so many parents to talk to our kids about sex and sexuality? More importantly, why should we?


Experts say, when adolescents are asked to rank who influences their decisions around sex, parents consistently rank higher than friends, and they wish parents would talk to them more. It turns out, it's best not to wait until puberty to start talking about sexuality.

According to Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist, director of The Intimacy Institute, and the mother of two young children, opening the conversation early…

  • Allows you to give your kids accurate information
  • Lets your kids know you are a safe person to talk to about sex and their body
  • Helps prevent sexual abuse

While young children don't necessarily need to know about sex, it's important that parents talk to them early and often about sexuality – starting with honest answers to their questions about their bodies. One study shows that preschoolers demonstrate greater success learning the names of their genitals when the information is presented by a parent, versus a teacher.

If you're not sure what to say or how to say it, here are two simple points to keep in mind.

Be comfortable talking (and listening)

According to Sandy Wurtele, Ph.D., and Feather Berkower, M.S.W., authors of “Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse", it's best to talk to kids about their bodies and sex often, honestly, and briefly. For example, if your preschooler asks how babies are made, instead of asking why he wants to know, respond with a straightforward, age-appropriate answer.

They also emphasize the importance of responding positively to kids' questions. If, for example, your child says she doesn't like the nanny, instead of saying “The nanny loves you!" and discouraging her from saying unkind things about the nanny, Wurtele and Berkower ask parents not to shut the conversation down. Instead, parents should express curiosity and ask follow-up questions, which may shed more light on the situation. For example:

Child: I don't like the nanny.

Parent: Why not?

Child: Because she's not nice.

Parent: What did she do that was was not nice?

Child: She touched my vulva and told me not to tell you.

Parent: I wish that hadn't happened, but I'm so glad you told me.

If you are not comfortable talking about sex with your kids, know that you can change. Wurtele and Berkower recommend practicing with another adult, such as a partner or a friend. Janet Rosenzweig, author of “The Sex-Wise Parent", suggests role-playing the hypothetical conversation you might have with your child.

While you should be open to any of your child's questions, you do not have to give a biology lesson in answer. For example, when your preschooler asks you how a baby is born, a sufficient answer might sound like this: “Usually the baby comes out through the mom's vagina, or sometimes a doctor makes a cut in the mom's belly to take the baby out through her belly."

If your child has follow-up questions, answer them honestly. But remember, you don't have to give them a lot of information at once.

Use anatomical terms

From the day my daughter was born, I talked through diaper changes, explaining, “I need to get your vulva totally clean" in the same matter-of-fact way I spoke while getting her dressed. “First your right arm goes in the right sleeve. Now the left arm…"

According to Berkower and Wurtele it is imperative that parents use the appropriate anatomical terms when talking about the genitals. This communicates that there is nothing shameful about our kids' bodies. Rosenzweig cautions parents not to “skip from the knees to the belly button when naming the body parts." When a kid uses the correct terms with a sexual predator, it is a signal that this child talks openly with an adult about his body and is not likely to keep abuse a secret, say Berkower and Wurtele.

Skyler recommends telling kids what their body parts are, where they are, and what they do. For example, if a boy asks what his penis is for, you can simply tell him, “Your penis is for urinating." You don't have to say more that, unless your child asks. If he follows up with a question like, “Why does it feel good when I touch my penis?" don't panic. This doesn't mean he's asking you to explain the mechanics of sex. You can say something like, “Our body is built to enjoy touch, and certain body parts, like your penis, feel better to touch than other parts."

Although girls' genitals are harder to see, that doesn't mean you shouldn't discuss them. Generally, according to Skyler, it's enough to start by telling preschool age girls, “You have different holes for different things. One is for pee, one is where a baby comes out, and one is for poop." If your daughter expresses curiosity in learning which hole is which, Skyler suggests explaining things with the help of pictures, or even while sitting on the floor with a mirror, if you're comfortable.

It is enough to say, “Your urethra is where your pee comes out. Your vagina is the hole a baby comes out. Your anus is where your poop comes out." Similarly, while you can't necessarily see the clitoris, when your daughter touches hers or asks about it, consider it a teachable moment, beginning by simply telling her what it's called.

Skyler emphasized the importance of giving children information about their bodies in “bite-size" chunks, early and often, and that these conversations be “non-events." In other words, do your best to treat your kids' questions about their bodies as you would their questions about where clouds come from, or why they have to take a bath – honestly and comfortably, using age appropriate explanations that aren't too detailed.

Of note, in the Netherlands, where parents commonly have these types of casual, age-appropriate conversations, the rate of teen pregnancy is far lower than it is here in the United States.

If you're like me, the parent of preschooler and a toddler, worries like head lice, swimming pools, and trampolines take precedence over the prospects of sexual abuse, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and rape. But the best way to deal with big-kid problems is to start early, when with the little-kid questions arise.

Think of it as beginning to wade into a heated pool now, rather than going head first off the high dive into freezing water later.

Additional Resources

For parents of children ages 0-18

Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse

by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D. and Feather Berkower, MSW

children Preschool to 2nd Grade

What Makes a Baby

by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smythe

For children (kindergarten to third grade)

It's Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends

By Robbie H. Harris

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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