About Me
How to Have ‘The Talk’

by Kellie B. Gormly
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
January 9, 2007

When Betty Hiwiller’s two sons were in their early teens, she put out a book explaining the facts of life, in a clever attempt to broach the awkward subject.

“I just left it out where they would find it, and, sure enough, they found it,” says Hiwiller, of Cheswick. Her sons, now middle-aged, never mentioned it, but she knows they read it.

Of all parenting milestones, few to none are as potentially awkward as “the talk”—yes, that talk. The one about the birds and the bees, sex, and the facts of life. The thought of discussing that with young children makes many adults blush and stammer.

Relax, experts say. Parents can help themselves ease into the subject by realizing that young children need only simple, straightforward facts, not unnecessary and racy details. Young children can barely grasp reality, let alone adult passion and romantic desire.

And, like all awkward situations, a sense of humor helps, says Dayna Jornsay-Hester, coordinator of community education for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

“Humor helps, because parents are oftentimes very uncomfortable—’Oh, how do I do this?’—Parents will have kind of an adult take on it. Toddlers and preschoolers are just curious about their bodies and other people’s bodies,” Jornsay-Hester says.

Yet, humor should not go too far and stretch the facts, she says, especially with tall tales like the stork bringing the baby.

“We want to make sure that we’re not presenting the subject in a silly manner; we want to answer kids’ questions matter-of-factly,” she says. “We want to give them simple truth, and set the stage early on in their family.

“We don’t want to tell toddlers that they came from a cabbage patch,” Jornsay-Hester says.

Parents don’t need to focus so much on having one formal, monumental and dreaded talk, experts say; dialogue about sexuality should be ongoing from the early toddler age through the teen years, with different topics being introduced over time at age-appropriate levels. For instance, a 4-year-old who asks where babies come from probably will be satisfied with a simple answer like “a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg,” or even just “a man and a woman who love each other.”

How the sperm actually gets to the egg, though, can be saved for a later discussion when the kids seem ready, says author Robie H. Harris. She is the author of many children’s books about sex, including “It’s NOT the Stork! A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends,” and “It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families.”

Parents can start at the early toddler age just by telling their children the proper names for private parts, and explaining that boys and girls have different genitals, Harris says. The tots will love those discussions.

“They think all of this is pretty funny, and it’s interesting, and it’s pretty fascinating, and it’s all about them,” she says. “They want to know about themselves, and they want to know about their bodies.”

Parents can frame answers about sexuality from young kids in context of values, such as explaining sex as an act of love, but they never should create an atmosphere of shame about the subject, Harris says. Sex involves, indeed, the facts of life, and sexuality is an inherent part of humans.

“If we don’t answer their questions when they’re little … then we’re saying that there’s something bad about their questions or there’s something wrong,” she says.

If your children don’t hear about sex from you, they certainly will hear slang-filled versions from their peers at school, along with the media, Harris and Jornsay-Hester say. And, we all know how well-informed and positive those messages are.

“My feeling is that if we’re not honest with our kids starting at a very young age, then we have no credibility,” Harris says. “If they know that they can get answers to their questions, then they keep asking the questions, and they’ll come to us.”

Jackie Pfeiffer, of Cabot, Butler County, sometimes gets humorous inquiries about sex from the third-graders she has taught for years at South Butler Primary School. Two girls once came up to her in class and asked her, “What does it mean when a boy humps a girl?”

“You could have knocked me over with a toothpick, for one thing,” Pfeiffer, 54, says, laughing. “We went into a small room, and I said, ‘This is really the kind of question you need to ask your parents.’ ”

But the girls said they would be too embarrassed to ask their parents, Pfeiffer says.

Judy O’Brien, of Kiski Township, Armstrong County, remembers being surprised with a point-blank question from her 3-year-old grandson two decades ago. A pregnant friend had come to visit O’Brien’s daughter, and while they all were sitting in the living room talking, the tot walked up to O’Brien, placed his elbows on her lap and asked her how babies get in your belly.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is going to take something really quick and easy for him to understand at that age’,” says O’Brien, 69.

She told him that when little girls are born, God puts a seed inside them that becomes a baby when the girls get married. The toddler was satisfied, she says.

Jornsay-Hester recommends sometimes turning questions back on children. For instance, if they ask where they came from, ask them, “Where do you think you came from?” Sometimes, children have asked that question—but when parents give a birds-and-bees answer, they discover that the kids wanted to know, for instance, if they came from Cleveland.

It also is OK to postpone answering questions, particularly if they pop out at inappropriate times in public, Jornsay-Hester says. Parents can tell their children that they asked a good question, then answer it with something age-appropriate later, when the time is right.

If children have not demonstrated curiosity about sex and asked many questions, she says, then parents should initiate the dialogue themselves and make sure the kids know the basics before they go to school.

“Once they get into school, somebody is going to be talking about it, and it’s not going to be the teacher,” Jornsay-Hester says.

Answering questions about sex

The American Academy of Pediatrics on its Web site offers these recommendations, based on age level:

18 months to 3 years:

Teach your child the proper names for body parts, and which parts are private (covered by a bathing suit).

4 to 5 years:

Your child might begin to show an interest in sexuality and curiosity about bodies. This is normal, but set limits. For instance, you may teach your child that interest in genital organs is healthy and natural, but that nudity and sexual play in public are not OK, and that no one may touch their private parts, except for medical reasons. When children approach school age, they should know the proper names of body parts and their functions, and the physical differences between boys and girls.

5 to 7 years:

Your children will learn more about how people get along with each other, and might become more interested in what takes place sexually between adults. Their questions might become more complex as they try to make the connection between sexuality and making babies, and they might turn to their friends for answers. It is important to help your child understand sexuality in a healthy way, because it will encourage meaningful adult relationships later.

8 and older:

As your children approach puberty, they should know the body parts related to sex and their functions, how babies are conceived and born, and puberty and how their bodies will change.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics