The Elementary School Years
Though we have separated this resource into sections by age, this is far from a static breakdown. All children are different and it's most important to educate them based on their own personal growth. Your children may ask questions, run into sexual or social problems or may become sexually active earlier or later that you expect, so we welcome you to skip ahead or go back to sections to find the relevant advice. We all learn and grown at our own rate and so these designations are meant to be guidelines, not rules.
Where Do Babies Come From?
As clichéd as it sounds, many children will actually ask this exact question, as well as other questions related to the body. A good rule of thumb is to answer these questions in steps. Your child might not really care about how sex works, so first explain pregnancy and how a baby is made from a sperm and egg, grows in the uterus and is birthed through the vagina. If they still have questions or seem interested, move to the next step. Explain penile-vaginal intercourse, and how this is not only a way to make babies but also to express affection. Your child may think this is fascinating, boring, disgusting or hilarious. Note your child's reactions and respond accordingly. If they think it's gross, explain that it's natural to feel that way, but when they are older they may change their mind. If they are entranced and suddenly can't get enough descriptions of labor or fertilization, try buying them an age-appropriate book about human biology. If you feel comfortable, and especially if they were conceived this way, you can try explaining infertility treatments using simple language. Many of their friends and classmates may have been conceived with help from medical procedures, so "test tube babies" have much less stigma than they once did. Children will often have short attention spans so try not to give them too much technical information at once. Leave some things to talk about tomorrow or next week (and make sure you actually follow through!).
Sexual Life Cycle and Relationships
More and more at this age, children are beginning to notice their own bodies and the bodies and relationships of those around them. They can recognize when their parents are being affectionate and contrast it with the way their teachers interact with each other. This is a good opportunity to teach them an overview of the sexual life cycle, from birth to puberty to pregnancy to menopause. Some early-bloomers will begin to go through puberty at this age so make sure to explain these changes especially thoroughly. For more information, look in the next section under "Puberty." You can also talk about other lifestyles, since they will probably begin to notice that not every family looks like theirs. Discuss homosexual parents, single parents, and parents who are unmarried. Talk about dating, marriage and divorce and what they are. If your values go against any of these lifestyles, try to leave moral judgments out of your explanations to your child. Explain what these relationships are in simple, non-judgmental terms, and then afterwards you can explain how you feel about them morally. Otherwise you run the risk of confusing your child and causing them to think in generalizations.
Masturbation is another topic that will probably come up as many children begin to explore their own bodies and figure out that touching certain places in certain ways can feel really great. It might not seem like the type of masturbation we are used to hearing about (teenage boys with erotic magazines hidden under the mattress), but it is still a form of self-pleasuring. Many parents and children are extremely uncomfortable with this topic, especially at such a young age, and it rarely gets discussed. One scientific study found that a little under half of respondents reported they felt guilt about their masturbatory practices (1), which is an unfortunate negative response to something that many individuals do and has no health risks. This taboo surrounding masturbation is an unfortunate social oversight, not only because most individuals do or will masturbate but also because masturbation is really the only form of safe sex. It can be a healthy way for young children to learn about the different ways their body can feel and for older children to release their growing sexual tension. If your morals dictate that masturbation is wrong, tell your children, but do not lie to them. Do not make up physical ills that will befall them if they do touch themselves (hair on your palms, vaginal numbness, etc). Instead explain where these values come from and why you don't agree with the practice. If you do not fall into this category, make sure your children know that masturbation is a normal, healthy behavior, but a private one. Make boundaries if they are younger and it becomes an issue. Tell them that their body is theirs to explore, as long as it is in their bedroom with the door closed. Make sure not to have different views towards masturbation based on the gender of your child. Socially, male masturbation is much more accepted than female masturbation. This often leads to a gender disparity in knowledge of the body, with boys learning about sexual pleasure and orgasm earlier and becoming more comfortable with it than girls. Make sure not to support these stereotypes and treat your son and daughter's sexual practices with the same attitude.
1. Greenberg, J. Masturbation, Self-Esteem and Other Variables. The Journal of Sex Research Vol. 9. 1973.