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Talking with Your Pre-School Child About Sex

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Updated March 30, 2008

While it would be nice if there was a simple flow chart I could offer to tell you precisely how to talk with your pre-school child about sex, one that would cover everything you need to know and every question your child might ask, no such magical flow chart exists.

There are some important preparations you can go through before you talk with your child about sex but in the end, it’s going to take many conversations and much stumbling for you to find your footing. Remember that the most important thing is not to have all the answers and be ready for every question. The most important thing is to listen to what your child is asking and be open to helping find the answers that you don’t have while letting them know that there is nothing wrong with asking questions about sex.

That said, having some idea of what is coming around the corner can help though. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents some general guidelines about what kinds of questions to expect and what information they consider it important for your child to have at different ages and stages. Here is an overview of what they suggest:

From eighteen months to three years old.

Even from an early age your child will likely start exploring his or her body by touching it. The fact is that genitals have nerve endings and touching them feels good and is a way children soothe (and amuse) themselves. This isn’t sexual in the same way we might think of teens or adults touching themselves, and it’s certainly a healthy thing to do.

During these years it’s important to teach your children the proper names for all their body parts, including their genitals. By making up names or ignoring these body parts altogether you send the message that there is something wrong with them and/or that they should be ignored. Sexual health is an important part of overall health, and to keep our children healthy they need to know about their whole bodies.

You can also begin to teach your children about the difference between private and public. One way to do this is to teach them about the parts of their body that are private and should only be touched by themselves (e.g. parts covered by a bathing suit). By making this distinction you are letting them know that there is nothing wrong with their bodies and that curiosity about their own bodies is healthy. But you are also teaching them that there is a time and place for exploration, and that they have the right to privacy and to be free from unwanted sexual touching.

Four to five years old.

During these years your child may begin to show a more active interest in sexuality, both in terms of how their body works, and how other children’s bodies work. They may want to know why girls and boys bodies are different, and they may not understand why they can’t touch other children wherever and whenever they want to.

Your task at this age is to both continue offering accurate information (e.g. about where babies come from, about the names not only for their own body parts but the body parts they don’t have but are seeing on others) and to help your children find and maintain limits or boundaries around exploration. For example your family might be okay with walking around without clothes, but your child needs to know taking off their clothes at daycare or at a formal party isn’t okay. Another example is that its perfectly healthy for your child to want to touch their own genitals, but they need to learn that doing it in public isn’t okay. At a minimum the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that before reaching school age, your child should know:

  • Proper names of body parts
  • Functions of the different body parts
  • Physical differences between boys and girls
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