mother holding baby and thinking about when to start sex education

When to start sex education

Inside: When do you start sex education? Is there a certain time or do you wait until your child starts to ask questions, or shows an interest?

Knowing when to start sex education is a hard one!

It is a question that a lot of parents ask, often thinking it is a chat that happens at puberty.

So let's look at when sex education could  start (and why).

You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.

In an ideal world

In an ideal world,  sex education starts in the early years i.e. when your child is still a baby or toddler. Which means you shouldn’t be leaving it until puberty, which is what we tend to do!

But my child is too young and doesn’t need to know about sex!

They probably are too young! 

But guess what! Sex is just one of many things that we talk about. And sex (or sexual intercourse) isn't the first thing that we talk about.

The emphasis for sex education is on sexuality,  which is a much bigger thing! Sexuality is more about how we see ourselves, than what we do with our bodies.

So sexuality for young children, is about bodies (their own and others), gender (what it means to be a boy or a girl), relationships (how people get along with each other) and social etiquette (what behaviours are appropriate in different situations). You can read more in this article about what to talk about and when. 

These important conversations help your child to develop a better understanding of themselves and of the world around them (healthy child sexual development). This is the stuff that helps them to grow up capable of having healthy and caring adult relationships.

It is sex education that gives your child the skills to make good friends and to one day fall in love and start a family of their own. Children don’t just learn this stuff in one conversation. It takes many small chats where you start off with the basics and slowly add in more information as they grow up.

So in an ideal world, we start sex education when they are babies and toddlers.

smiling baby

Yes, sex education can start with babies!

In the real world

In the real world, we usually start sex education (or talk to our child about a topic, like sex) when something happens.

We don't just wake up in the morning, and think 'Today, I'm going to start talking to the kids about sex'.

We usually start for a reason, like:

  • our child is displaying a sexual behaviour and we are unsure about how to respond (like masturbating when they watch cartoons on tv)
  • our child is starting to ask questions (like "Where do babies come from?')
  • our child is starting to show some early signs of puberty (like body odour, mood swings, pubic hair or breasts)
  • something reminds you that sex education needs to happen, like an incident at school, a post on facebook, or a story from a friend

Or we might start sex education because of our beliefs. Because we want our kids to have better sex education than what we had (as children).

Many of us grew up with no sex education or bad sex education. We have memories of negative messages and awkward conversations, and we grew up ashamed of our bodies and our sexual feelings. And we don't want our kids to experience that same shame, as they grow up.

So in the real world,  we start sex education when we see a need for it. 

young girl trying on mothers bra

'When can I have my first bra, mum?'

Why we start so early

There is a very good reason as to why we start talking to kids about sex from such a young age.

To satisfy their curiosity

The reason is based on a child's healthy sexual development and their predictable curiosity about the world around them eg we can predict that most children will become curious about where babies come from between the ages of 4-6 years. Just as children develop physically, and emotionally, they also develop sexually. By sexual development, I am referring to all the aspects of a child's growth and development that may shaper their sexuality as adolescents and adults.

Sexual development includes a range of behaviours and most importantly curiosity about the world around them.

We generally do not think of these things as sexually related but these important achievements in early child development lay the foundation for how our sexuality will develop and evolve as children become teenagers and teenagers become adults.

To delay sexualisation

Plus we also start talking so early because of the sexualised world that we live in.

Kids are constantly receiving mixed messages about sex from the media and the world in general, from a very young age. By talking openly and honestly about sex, we are providing our kids with an alternative viewpoint. Plus the simple act of just talking about sex lets them know that we are askable, and that they can come to us with their questions. 

And the kids who have these chats aren't becoming sexualised at such a young age, like their peers. 

Can I start too late?

It is better to be late than to never talk to your child about sex.

Ideally, you should start answering questions about sex when your child asks them.  

For example, preschoolers are usually very interested in the anatomical differences between boys and girls and about where babies comes form. This is the prefect opportunity to start answering their questions in an age appropriate way, and to provide them with the correct information, before they hear about if from another child.

By talking to your child from a young age, you are also setting yourself up as being approachable, which means that your child will come to you with their questions, and not their friends. It also helps to make it much easier, before you get to the tricky stuff, like sexual intercourse.

If your child is older, you can start by talking to them about sex or puberty. There is always some stage in their sexual development that you can use as an opportunity to talk.

By being honest about your own discomfort, you put both yourself and your child at ease, making it less awkward to talk about sensitive issues.

Tell them that you have realised that you haven't spoken to them about sexuality before, but that you are now ready to start talking.

Common fears

Most  parents question whether they are doing the right thing by talking to their child about sex. Sometimes it can feel as if there are more 'what ifs' than reasons to start talking about sex.

I hear you, and I've been there myself!

Common concerns or doubts that you may have about sex education may include:

  • Am I giving them permission to be sexual? (No, you're not)
  • Will I take away their innocence? (No, that heppens becuase of ignorance)
  • What if they repeat what I tell them at school? (that might happen but you can also ask them not to)
  • What if I say too much?

You aren't alone if you are questioning when to start sex education. You can find out more in this article, about the common barriers to sex education (and why they are inaccurate)

And if you are starting to wonder about why we have to do this 'sex education' thing, I have 13 compelling reasons as to why you should be talking to your kids about sex and relationships over here. I am pretty sure that you will find some pretty good reasons as to why you should be talking sooner rather than later.

Resources

My mission is to create resources that will help you to naturally talk to your kids about sex, all while respecting your personal values.

Which means that inside this website, you'll find lots of resources to help you with talking to your child about love, sex, relationships and growing up.

My Sex Education 101 page includes all of the information on sex education. You'll find lots of different blogposts to help with getting started, on a wide range of different topics.

You'll find videos about sex ed in my Sex Education Videos resource page that you can watch with your child or to learn more about sex education yourself.

You’ll also find an extensive range of sex education books for children, for kids of all ages. There's even some books in there for parents!

If you're looking for some ideas on how to talk to your child about bodies, Let's Talk About Bodies, will help you to start naming the private body parts and to have shame-free conversations with them about bodies. It is filled with lots of different ideas on how to have natural converasations with your child about their body. 

You'll also find some child friendly anatomically-correct cartoon illustrations of the genitals and internal reproductive organs that are appropriate for children from the age of 3 and up. Let's Look at Different Body Parts is a printable that will help take the awkward out of talking to your child about their body, so they grow up feeling educated, confident, and comfortable in their own skin.

If you need some help with explaining sexual intercourse to your child, then Let's Talk About Sex, will help you explain sex to your child in a way they will understand. It breaks it down into simple steps that  take the stress out of explaining!

If you're unsure about how to answer your child's questions about sex, then The Sex Education Answer Book will give you age-specific answers to the most common questions kid's ask parents about sex.  Which means you don't need to worry about finding a child-friendly explanation that your child understands. 

About the Author Cath Hakanson

I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. To find a better way to talk about sex, you can join my community of parents and visit my shop for helpful resources.

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