Sex education and the young ones

Generally children under 9-years-old ask questions about (1) things they have heard and seen grown-ups talking about and doing and (2) things their friends have heard and seen grown-ups talking about and doing. So the long and short of it, if the child is asking, as the adult you have to answer because the kid has some personal knowledge they’re trying to work through. But before you jump headlong into an elaborate, wordy explanation of oral sex and mutual pleasure, stop and take a breather. Ask the kiddo some questions to get a clear picture of just exactly what they are asking. It’s probably nothing like what you assumed.

However, if your kid really is asking what you were worried they were asking, you can feel free to say: A man’s sperm meets up with a woman’s egg to make a baby, and then the baby grows in the woman’s tummy. If questioned further, you can even say that the sperm and the egg meet in the woman’s tummy because that’s where the baby grows. Further question can be followed up by saying that the man’s sperm gets to the woman’s tummy by the man’s penis going inside a woman’s vagina and leaving some sperm inside her. That will probably be enough to seriously gross most kids out. Follow that description up by saying that’s an adult thing to do, kind of like driving, voting, and drinking alcohol.

Particularly in this age of visual images, so many of them sexual, bombarding our lives, it is important to address what your kids are seeing around them. Teach them to analyze and criticize hyper-sexual images. Feel free to talk about why it’s inappropriate for children to wear make-up and bikinis, why it’s silly to sell widgets by putting almost-naked women (and occasionally men) on top of said widget, and how girls and boys bodies are different and how they evolve into the differences in men’s and women’s bodies. Feel free to talk about how it’s silly that some people think marriage is only for one man and one woman and that it would make more sense for any two people to be able to be married, whether they’re boys or girls. (Most kids have an innate agreement with this point, because they’re generally focused on same-gender friendships at that age.)

But before I leave off this topic for the moment, I want to impress on you the lightness of most children. They, by and large, haven’t been exposed to much sexuality in other people. They may or may not be enjoying their own sexuality yet. So before they’re 9 or so, they just don’t need much in the way of explanation – just what it is, and whether it’s okay or not. It’s that 9-and-up set that start needing and wanting more explanation and conversation.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I agree that matter-of-fact answers are appropriate for kids. I also feel that the use of euphemisms does them a disservice (your use of the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ makes me think you agree). I would therefore recommend that kids not be told a baby grows in the woman’s tummy — I know of at least one child who was afraid his mom had somehow eaten something to make his baby brother. Instead, I’d recommend saying “inside the woman,” or “in the woman’s uterus” (or, if not comfortable saying ‘uterus,’ then use ‘womb.’). When asked, it is possible to answer “the uterus is a place inside the woman, connected to the vagina, where babies grow.” and leave it at that. “Tummy,” though, is too close to “sTOMach” and likely to give the impression that mommy may digest the baby at any moment.

  2. Hi Liz,

    I agree with you about penis and vagina certainly (and don’t forget the difference between the vagina and the vulva), but I don’t put so much emphasis on where in the mother’s body a baby grows.

    The issue with the correct words for children’s external anatomy is that they can see it and experience it. This is really quite different than an internal anatomy lesson, which I just don’t feel is important for young children – remember, we’re talking 8 and younger here. There are a lot of things about our internal anatomy that younger children don’t understand. My 3-year-old thinks food disappears after she eats it. She laughs hysterically when we suggest that it goes down into her tummy.

    So yes, as children get older and closer to puberty, it is important to give them the correct names for their internal parts – no one wants a mestruating girl to think she’s bleeding out of her stomach!

  3. I agree. The older they get, the more anatomically precise you need to get. Karen, this is a good post, thanks!

  4. Thanks for your reply! I guess this is one of those places where there may be more than one reasonable approach. My kids (now 5 and 7) have known since they were much, much younger that the baby grows in the mommy’s womb or uterus and that food is digested in the stomach — it first came up when my elder child was two and I was pregnant. They also know, and use correctly, the term ‘vulva,’ much to the surprise of many people, including their pediatrician.

    Then again, we have a six-year-old friend with a central line that sends I.V. nutrition into her bloodstream and a g-tube that puts formula feeds into her stomach, so my kids may be more aware than most that there are different parts on the inside, too.

    Anyway, thanks for your response.

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