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There’s no place like home….for sex education

There is a common assumption that if parents talk about sex with their children, the kids will get curious and will want to experience it sooner. However, the reality is very different. Studies are very consistent in showing that children who do not talk about sex and sexuality with their parents often start their sexual life sooner than those whose parents were open about the conversation, and take higher sexual risks in adolescence, such as having intercourse without a condom. One of the rationales to explain these findings is simple: most children are curious about sexuality, but when receiving information at an early age, they will not be as curious. On the other hand, if the parents avoid the conversation, the children will want to find answers on their own.

Culture plays an important part in the expectations of sex education at home. Some cultures believe the school is responsible for this conversation, while others think this should be a responsibility of the family. For example, in the Netherlands and in Portugal, sex education in schools is mandatory. In Brazil, on the other hand, it is not. But regardless of where the child comes from, receiving information about sex at an early age is beneficial for their future initiation in sexuality, and being able to ask questions about it to their parents is important.

Children who feel comfortable asking their parents about this topic tend to not only take longer to initiate their sex life, but also do so more safely, and have better sexual communication with their romantic partners in adulthood. Interestingly, children who are discouraged or punished for asking about sexuality often grow up to have higher sexual inhibition in adulthood than those who had the space to do so.

Perhaps most importantly, sex education at home at an early age can prevent child sexual abuse. Letting the child know that no one is allowed to touch their intimate parts will prepare them for reporting back to you as a parent of caregiver if anything happens.

I know, talking about sex with your child can be uncomfortable and it can be hard to know what you should say, what you should avoid mentioning, and when. Many parents want to talk openly with their children about sexuality, but do not feel prepared to do so. Yet, you should not avoid being the primary and most important sex educator for your child, given that as a parent you exert a most powerful influence over your child’s sexual development.

Then how to show your child that mom and dad (or the caretaker) are askable?

From the very beginning, you have been educating your child about sex. For example, children as young as 3 already have an understanding of sexuality by seeing the anatomic difference between a sibling or a cousin of the opposite sex. Through words or silence, through verbal or non-verbal communication, your responses teach your child a great deal about sexuality such as values and attitudes.

So here are a few tips to smooth the journey:

  • As parents, you should talk to one another about the messages you want to convey to your child about sex.

  • Anticipate sexual questions and behaviours so you can plan and practice your responses.

  • Answer questions as they arise. Replying “not now” and “you don’t need to know that” teach your children that it is not okay to ask. If you want to delay a discussion, try saying “This is not a good time now. Let’s talk after dinner”. Then follow through.

  • If you feel embarrassed, tell your child. To say “this is hard for me to talk about, but I am willing to try” shows honesty, and your child will appreciate it.

  • Answer simply and honestly, leaving the door open to further discussion.

What if my child is fondling their genitals?

Pre-school children often fondle their genitals for different reasons, such as boredom, nervousness, or just because it is comforting. Although shocking for some, this is a normal part of development.

The way the parent/caretaker reacts to the child’s genital play is important. Punishing or pulling away the child’s hand sends the message that genitals are bad, and that is a reason for shame or guilt.

For parents who do not object may want to teach the child where this is inappropriate, such as “this is something you do in private - not where other people can see you.” This will send a message about appropriate behaviour and respect for others.

For parents who oppose genital play, can explain calmingly and lovingly that the behaviour is not acceptable. Yelling at them to stop or distracting them is ineffective.

Whether your child asks you questions about sexuality, or whether you catch them exploring themselves, the general ideia is that you should always be honest with your child. And remember, danger does not lie in “too much too soon”, but in “too little, too late”.

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