(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)
There are five steps to answering your child’s questions about sex and sexuality. Let’s use an example to show you what we mean. Suppose you have a 12 year-old daughter who asks the question, “What does sex feel like?”
Here we go…
Step #1: Reassure your child that it is good to ask questions. Being positive makes you "askable." You might say to your child:
“What a great question!”
"I'm glad you asked me that."
"Good for you for noticing."
"Yes, that's an important question."
Or just smile and nod.
Believe us, you want to be “askable” – because if your child doesn’t ask you the questions, they’ll ask someone else, and you might not like the answers they get.
Yes, even if your child asks an incredibly unnerving question, you still need to say something like, “What a great question!” Here, why not practice your enthusiastic response to the following three questions:
Daddy, daddy, can I watch you and mommy having sex?
Mommy, mommy, can human beings have sex with dogs?
Mommy, mommy, do all the women on this bus have vaginas just like me?
That was fun, wasn’t it? It might help if you don’t even think about the content of the question before you exclaim, “What a great question!”
And remember, no making horrible faces when you say, “What a great question!” Your child will soon figure out that the questions aren’t so great after all.
By the way, you don’t need to answer tough questions (like those three we just gave you) right away. Find out why by reading the Tips for Talking with Your Child about Sexuality or Tips for Talking with Your Teen about Sexuality.
But first, back to your 12 year-old daughter who asked, “What does sex feel like?” What do you say first? That's right, “What a great question!”
Step #2: Find out what your child thinks/is really asking. You could do this by saying:
"What do you know about that?"
"Can you guess?"
"What have you heard about that?"
"What do you think?"
"Have you got any ideas about that?"
Don’t say, “Why are you asking that?” It could put the child on the defensive.
This may be the most important step of all because you can’t give a good answer if you don’t know why the child is asking the question. And the best way to find out what the child is really asking or thinking is to start by finding out what they already know.
So, let’s consider your 12 year-old daughter who asked, “What does sex feel like?” Find out what she already knows by asking, "What have you heard about that?" or “Can you guess?” From the discussion that follows, you’ll learn why she really asked the question. It will probably be for one of the following reasons:
1. She’s curious.
2. Her friends were talking about it.
3. She saw something on TV.
4. She accidentally saw her parents having sex.
5. Her boyfriend has been pushing her to have sex. He keeps telling her it will be great.
6. She’s already had sex and it wasn’t as great as she heard it would be.
7. She has been sexually abused.
Now you can begin to understand why it is so important to know why the question was asked before you answer it. The answer you give to the curious girl is going to be a whole lot different than the answer you give to the girl who’s being pressured by her boyfriend to have sex or to the girl who’s already had sex.
Step #3: Decide what messages you want to give. Those messages might be:
It's okay to be curious.
It's okay to ask questions.
I'll give you the answers to your questions.
You can learn correct words from me.
You are fine the way you are.
You will probably need to consider other messages based on what you learned in Step #2.
Once you know why the question was asked, you need to decide what messages you want the child to receive. The messages in your mind may not necessarily be the same thing as the answer that comes out of your mouth. Answers are built on messages, and messages are based on your own values and beliefs. That’s why it’s a good idea to already start thinking about where you stand on different sexual issues (for example, dating in middle school or premarital sex) before your child even brings up the topic.
Back to your 12 year-old daughter and her question, “What does sex feel like?” If she asked the question because she was curious, then you might have the following messages in the back of your mind:
I want my daughter to know that she can always come to me with her questions.
I want my daughter to know that it’s good to be curious.
I want my daughter to know that sex can feel good when it’s between two consenting adults.
But what if she asked the question because her boyfriend has been pressuring her to have sex. The messages might look something like this:
I want my daughter to know that she can always come to me with her questions.
I want my daughter to know that it is never okay for someone to pressure someone else to
I want my daughter to know that healthy relationships are built on mutual consent.
I want my daughter to know that she’s too young to have sex. There are just too many possible
consequences that she can’t handle yet.
Again, answers are built on messages, and messages are based on values and beliefs. Depending upon why the child asked the question, different messages will need to be considered before giving your answer.
Step #4: Answer simply, using correct vocabulary.
Finally, you get to answer the question. Remember to answer the question as simply as possible. If your child wants to know more, they will let you know.
So, if your 12 year-old daughter is only curious about how sex feels, you can respond by saying, “Well, if it’s two consenting adults and they’re both in the mood, then sex can feel pretty good.”
But if your 12 year-old daughter has already had sex, then your answer is going to be a lot more complicated.
Step #5: Encourage your child to give you feedback. You could do this by saying:
"Do you understand?"
"Does that make sense?"
"What do you think about that?"
"Do you have any more questions?"
Okay, you’ve just finished answering the question, “What does sex feel like” and you are drenched in sweat from head to toe. You never want to answer another question about sex for as long as you live. Too bad you’ve got one more step to go… Step #5. Smile and ask your child, “Did that make sense? Got any more questions?”
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Time to Practice
Here’s your chance to practice answering real questions from real children. Be sure you follow all five steps in answering the questions.
For each question, try to come up with as many reasons as possible for why the child might have asked the question. Then consider the messages that might apply to each possible reason. Finally, come up with an answer for each possible reason why the question was asked.
0-9 years old
Question #1: This question came from a 3 year-old girl: Why don't I have a thing like Stevie?
Note: Did you realize that this question might not have anything at all to do with sexuality? It’s quite possible that the girl is asking why she doesn’t have a toy airplane like Stevie!
Question #2: This question came from a 4 year-old boy: Where did I come from?
Note : Did you realize that this question might not have anything at all to do with sexuality? Sometimes the child just wants to know what city they are from!
Question #3: At a supermarket, a 4-year old boy points to a pregnant woman and asks, "Why is that woman's stomach so big?"
Question #4: This question came from a 6 year-old boy: How are babies made?
Note: There’s a common complaint we receive from parents regarding this question. It goes something like this:
My child asked me the big question, “How are babies made?” I answered simply by saying babies are made by moms and dads. But then my child asked, “How?” So I said it takes an egg from the mom and sperm from the dad to make a baby. But then my child asked, “But how do the egg and sperm meet?” So I explained about the penis and vagina, but still my child kept asking, “How, how, how?” Tell me, what should I do to stop this?
To which we respond, “Stop it? Stop it? You should be congratulating yourself instead of trying to figure out a way to end the conversation. You are an “askable” parent. Your child recognizes that you’re willing to answer all of their questions about sex, and when they get older, you have no idea how important that might be. So, don’t try to stop the questions – instead, just remember that you can’t tell your child too much and that eventually you will say something that goes over their head. At that point, they’ll walk away or find something else to talk about.”
Question #5: This question came from an 8 year-old girl: Why does my bathing suit have a top?
Question #6: This question came from a 9 year-old boy: How old do I have to be to have sex?
Question #7: This question came from a 9 year-old girl: If a girl does not develop until she is eighteen, can she have a baby?
Note: The most likely reason why this question was asked is that the 9 year-old girl has not had her first period yet. In other words, the question has nothing to do with an 18 year-old and everything to do with a 9 year-old who’s worried that something is wrong with her.
9-18 years old
Question #1: This question came from a 9 year-old boy: Do you need to wear a helmet for sex?
Note: Did you figure out that “helmet” is a slang word for condom?
Question #2: This question came from a 12 year-old boy: How do I get someone to like me?
Question #3: This question came from a 13 year-old girl: Does it hurt the first time?
Question #4: This question came from a 14 year-old girl: What's a dental dam?
Question #5: This question came from a 15 year-old boy: Do just homosexuals masturbate or does anyone else?
Question #6: This question came from a 16 year-old girl: Can girls get pregnant during their period?
Question #7: This question came from an 18 year-old girl: Why do guys always want to have sex?
Need More Practice?
Then turn to Questions Youth Ask, a list of questions that was gathered over the years from children and teens. No, we didn't make up any of these questions!
Use the five-step method to answer any or all of these questions. Remember, the person asking the question is not standing right in front of you, so you will have to figure out all of the possible reasons why they may have asked the question. While you're at it, try and decide which of these questions might indicate a serious situation.
Adapted from Healthy Foundations: The Teacher's Book, The Center for Family Life Education, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey , 1993.
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