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Birds, Bees and Toddlers

I must admit it, this is one of the most uncomfortable topics for a parenting blog, especially in the Indian context. We Indians (traditionally at least) just don’t talk about the big S word. And with the kids, it’s usually a big no no… hush hush…

But I believe it is high time we discard our inhibitions and start talking to them. Not because it is the cool thing modern parents are doing and not because kids are exposed to a lot of sexual matter on media today. But because – it ensures the communication between parent and child remains seamless, even when the topic is “awkward”.

How early are they curious?

Children start exploring their bodies almost right from infancy. But remember that, at that point of time, the curiosity is more about the general mysteries of body function. "Whats this part for?" "Why does it look different from my brother’s?" Young children are natural scientists. They like to experiment, look for reactions, and draw conclusions. And the tools for these investigations are their eyes, ears, and hands. Moreover, they tend to figure out quickly which kinds of questions and actions generate the most interesting responses from adults. At this age kids are also natural mimics, readily imitating adult behaviours.

How do I react when my child touches himself?

First, remember that though you may feel embarrassed, his exploration is completely natural. By the time they are 3 years old, many children have figured out that it feels especially good to touch or rub certain parts of their bodies. They may be direct about this, or they may find an indirect route, like straddling the back of a couch. In any case, you should probably suppress your instinct to say, "Thats not nice." If you are uncomfortable with self-stimulation, point out that it is not it’s not manners to touch oneself, just as simply as you would say that it’s not manners to remove underwear in the living room. However, if you are comfortable with self-stimulation, it is best ignored unless its interfering with other activities or making a social situation uncomfortable. In those situations, the key word is private, as in: "I know that feels good to you, but thats something to do in private, not with other people." Try to stay calm; if this message is delivered in a hysterical voice, your child may realize hes found a powerful new tool for agitating you.

How should I talk about sex with my child?

Experts suggest that kids who start talking with and listening to their parents about sex early in life are more likely to avoid risky behaviour later as teens. But the sex talk with children as young as 3 or 4 years old is more about the parts of the body and how boys and girls are different. That’s what they are curious about. “Why don’t I have a penis that so-and-so has?” or “How did you know that the baby is a girl or a boy?”

The trick is staying matter-of-fact about it - "eyes, nose, ear, penis, vagina" -- while at the same time indicating that certain parts of the body are not to be touched by anybody besides your child or you. Again, the key word is private. By the time theyre in kindergarten, most kids have learned the concept of private parts; many preschools introduce the idea of "good touch" and "bad touch" in an effort to prevent molestation. There are different ways of defining the private regions that are most susceptible to bad touch (schools, for example, talk to children about "the parts covered by your swimming suit"). But when youre talking to your own child, being straightforward is usually the best approach.

How do I answer questions about where babies come from?

Step 1: Calm down. Step 2: This is just another question. Step 3: Be honest and give a simple, straightforward answer at the child’s level of understanding and requirement. Resist the urge to do the whole speech; all the details are not needed right now.

Young children manage uncomfortable information in very small doses. "Babies grow in a special place inside their mother" may be a perfectly satisfactory answer to a 4-year-old, or you might say, "The baby grows from a special egg inside the mothers body." And your pre-schooler might walk away, totally satisfied with that very logical explanation.

But you may have one of those more curious ones, with that dreaded follow-up question. Make it easier to keep calm by planning how you will want to respond. Explain that when grown-ups want to make a baby, theres a special kind of love called sex. "Daddy and Mummy have to be really close for his seeds to join with the egg inside Mummy’s body. If the seeds meet the egg, a baby can grow "At this age, your child probably wont continue asking about how this happens, but if he is that super inquisitive kind, be matter-of-fact and say, "Nature has made men and women differently so they fit together like a puzzle. When Dad and Mum decide they want to make a baby, the seeds come out of his penis and swim inside the Mum’s body till they reach the egg." It is important to emphasize that only grown-ups share this kind of love. (You may want to emphasize further that only married grown-ups share this kind of love).

Keep these strategies in mind when you talk about sex with your pre-schooler.

  • Be reassuring.  Always say, "Thats a very good question." Your child should feel good about coming to you for answers.
  • Make sure you understand every question. For example, "Where did I come from?" may simply mean "Where was I born?"
  • Take your time.  If you are not ready with an answer, it is perfectly fine to say, “I’ll get back to you with an answer”. But make sure you don’t forget to get back to it as soon as possible.
  • Give a simple and straightforward response. Learn not to be awkward around the topic. Also, if youre unhappy with your answer, dont hesitate to go back and clarify it.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. After youve given an answer, ask your child whether you cleared up her confusion.
  • What do I do if my child barges into the bedroom while we are having sex?

    Yes, this is mortifying, but it doesnt mean your child will be scarred for life. Well, if you react calmly, she won’t. First, tell her to wait outside while you get dressed. Then talk to her about why she came to your room in the first place. As you chat, say something like, "When you walked in, Daddy and I were having private time."

    Sometimes kids get scared when they catch you in the act because they think that your husband was hurting you. Or they get confused because they mistake your shocked and embarrassed faces as angry ones. Reassure your child that you were touching each other out of love and that you and Daddy are fine. Your child probably wont want to know anything else.

    My parents never talked to me about sex, and I grew up perfectly well.

    As parents, it is imperative that you reassure children that they can always ask you a delicate question and get a sensitive and honest answer. This way, your child will be more likely to come to you later in life when sex conversations have deeper and broader implications. Keep your calm by having smart responses ready.

    The increased concerns these days about child abuse have made a lot of us feel more concerned about sexual exploration. In fact, many professionals who work with young children now believe that an unusually intense preoccupation with sex may be an indicator that a child is being sexually abused. But the key here is the word intense. If your child seems extremely preoccupied with sexual play, you should speak to his doctor about it. But if his interest has surfaced in just a few episodes, theres no cause for alarm.

    You might even look at this as an opportunity to let go of a few of those hang-ups most of us adults have!

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