Updated 04 November 2016

Educate young children about sex

Is sex education appropriate for young children? Or will it lead to promiscuity? An expert gives advice.


Many parents feel that sex education is not appropriate at for children at a very young age. Parents fear that their children will use their knowledge about sex and participate in sexual play resulting in promiscuity. But the normal young child lacks a sexual appetite, and therefore lacks the desire to be sexually active.

Some parents are afraid that the sex-educated child might lose his innocence. A far greater risk exists when children lose their innocence via sexual education or physical exploration with friends, or being a victim of another child's problematic sexual behaviour. Parents are concerned that the child might be shocked with details about sex when the real risk is being shocked with details about sex via friends or the media without the appropriate moral perspective of the parents.

Education: a measure of protection from abuse

Some also don't want to warn their children about molestation because they think it will frighten their children or will cause them to become mistrustful and fearful. They want their children to believe that the world is a wonderful place where sexual crimes don't exist.

Molestation and problematic sexual behaviour in children is a reality and does not go away by ignoring it.

Most parents were not educated regarding sex by their parents, and lack a role model. With the best intentions they wait for children to ask about sex, but often the first question is the result of incorrect information the child has received from friends. This incorrect information is usually shared after the child has been sworn to secrecy not to tell the parent. For this reason, the long-awaited first question often never gets asked. The more the parent avoids the topic, the more it conveys the message that the parent doesn't want to talk about sex. If you don't have the courage to raise the issue, how can you expect your child to initiate the conversation?

Reasons why it is important to sex educate very young children
There are many valid reasons why it is vitally important to sex educate our very young children. Research shows that children who are sex-educated and receive sexual boundaries are less promiscuous, compared to their friends who have no sexual boundaries or sex education.

Because of human nature, children will explore sexually. They will touch and stimulate themselves, and ask their friends to join them in their sensual exploration. For this reason, it is parents' responsibility to teach sexual boundaries and sexual manners. Sex education from parents also satisfies the curiosity of the child and eliminates the forbidden aspect of sex. The urge to gain more information via friends is limited by sex education by the parent. Knowing about sex not only limits the degree of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, but can prevent sexual molestation to a large extent. Children get involved in forbidden sexual acts because of their sexual ignorance, lack of sexual boundaries and because their curiosity about sex hasn't been satisfied.

It is better that they learn from you

It has become the norm to send young children to play-groups, nursery school and aftercare centres. These children have different value systems and different degrees of exposure, experimentation and knowledge about sex. Your child is therefore exposed to different levels of sex education and exploration that are shared and practiced amongst friends. Some will be properly sex educated by parents, some incorrectly by friends and older siblings, and some get sex educated via the media. They watch erotic TV programs or look at erotic books that they've discovered at home or at friends' houses. The latter will give the child cognitive distortions regarding sex, which they will share with the peer group.

Child molestation is on the increase. Children without sexual boundaries who are in an environment where there is a lack of adequate supervision could get involved in problematic sexual behaviour. The child who is exposed to a sexualised atmosphere at home, or who is emotionally abused or neglected can act out problematic sexual behaviour. A child showing signs of problematic sexual behaviour is of great concern because their victims are other children at school. A victim could become a perpetrator, which results in a vicious cycle of sexual misbehaviour. Parents need to protect their children against molestation by peers, older children and adults. By being an informed parent/child team, you can prevent a tragedy.

How to handle the media bombardment

Most children are exposed to television, adverts, magazines and movies that provide the child with inaccurate information regarding sexuality. It is the parents' responsibility to teach the correct information, and to put sex education into the parents own value perspective. When inappropriate behaviour appears, for instance, on television, parents can define the correct behaviour and discuss the values portrayed, and the meaning of the message presented on television. By ignoring the message on sex that the media reflects you convey a message of agreement.

It is important to realise that young children want to learn from their parents. Use this opportunity. When the communication channels are open you can monitor the new facts and impressions your children pick up in their environment. You will be surprised at the misconceptions, but you will have the opportunity to provide them with the correct information. The parent should be moulding their children's perception of sex before society does.

How to give sex education to young children
Parents expect young children to understand complicated tasks and concepts, but are convinced that they are not capable of understanding the biological process of sex. Sex education is just another lesson in shapes and sizes.

  • Sex education starts by explaining the biological process. You can use my example for a five to six year old child e.g. "When Mom and Dad (or the parent and the significant other person) are alone in our bed, Dad puts his erected penis in Mom's vagina. Erected means that a supply of blood has flown into the penis to make it stiff so that it can fit into the vagina. The penis has semen which flows out of the penis inside Mom's vagina. The semen swim to Mom's tubes and clusters around the ovum. Here only one sperm enters the ovum and fertilization takes place. Fertilise means to make a new life." You can leave out some of the detail when educating a three or four year old child.

  • It is best to use appropriate and explicitly illustrated pictures. Be clear and direct. Never avoid a question by ignoring it. Even when you assume the answer is inappropriate for the age of the child, answer the question correctly. The golden rule is to give the correct information and to satisfy the curiosity of the child. If you don't give them the answer, they will turn to friends for an answer. You will also discourage them from coming back to you for more information. Remember to talk as long as they seem interested and quit when they seem disinterested.

  • Focusing on human beings is vital. Using non-human examples can depersonalise sex. Human sex loses its emotional meaning as an expression of committed love when compared to sex between animals. Using an example of your dog will put you in a tight spot when the child observes the dog having sex when, where, how and with any dog it wants to. Explain that sex between animals is a natural consequence of a response to an instinct. Because humans have brains, we have a choice - the choice to have consenting sex in a mature, committed relationship.

  • Your attitude towards sex will determine whether your sex education is successful or not. Children need to know that their parents have a positive, natural sexual relationship. If children have the impression that parents only have sex to make babies, they will go to their friends, who seem to be better informed, for answers. After all, if you had sex only once or twice, you are not in a position to teach others about sex. If parents' sexuality is a taboo subject, you also communicate that sex is secretive and something to be ashamed of.

  • It is very important that children call their genitals by the correct names. Females have a vulva. The vagina is the opening leading to the internal sex organs. Males have a penis and testicles. Because children will be exposed to these terms, it is important that they know the meaning. It limits misunderstandings when children refer to their genitals by using the universal term. The reason why parents give nicknames to genitals is because they feel embarrassed about it. This message about embarrassment is reflected to the child. You don't give nicknames to a leg or an arm. Why give nicknames to genitals? Many parents say that the biological terminology sounds foreign. But it does not take long to get used to it. Soon the nicknames will sound silly to you. Adolescents give crude names to genitals because the real names sound foreign to them and the original nickname don't sound appropriate anymore. These children will embarrass their parents and friends of the opposite sex when they use crude names to describe their genitals.

  • Teaching your child about sex at the right time is vitally important. Don' try to get the job done when your child is not focused and you don't have complete attention. The perfect timing could be when they ask questions about a pregnant woman. If this question gets asked in a public place, explain to your child that you will discuss it when you are at home in private. The right timing could also be when they notice the blood of a mother's period or ask about tampons. You can explain the process of menstruation to a young child. It is an old wives tale that children can't be taught these facts. Lying about menstruation and tampons can harm your child when they realise that you tell lies. Menstruation can be explained telling the child that the ovary releases an egg every month. The unfertilised egg will be expelled via the vagina with some blood. Even the erected penis of an animal does not go by unnoticed. Turn it into an opportunity to explain what a penis looks like before entering the vagina.

  • It is important to reinforce sex education because the message seldom gets through the first time. Children like repetition. They never get tired of their favourite story. Keep sex education interesting by using appropriate drawings, pictures or cartoons. You will notice that they don't get tired listening to the fascinating process.

  • Remember to put sex in your own moral context. It helps to explain the emotional meaning of sex. You can tell them that sex keeps a couple together and that it is shared with someone you love and are committed to. But too many moral lectures can bore children and should be avoided. Teach them about sex, give them sexual boundaries and communicate what you expect from them. Validate each sexual rule or boundary by giving a logical explanation. A young child doesn't need much convincing. Mention that you can get infected by sexually transmitted diseases when sex or sexual games are practiced outside appropriate boundaries. Educate your child on sex, body privacy, sexual boundaries and the social norms of your society.

  • It is important to sex educate your children even if they don't ask questions. The reason why your child is not asking is because of your attitude on the subject. Parents who want to delay sex education argue that their children are not ready for it. But it is the parent who is not ready to talk about sex. Children, regardless of their age, are ready to be taught the basics of sex.

  • The basic rule of sex education is that it is a continuing process. You start by introducing the basics and take it further depending on the questions or the age of the child. Many parents ask when should they teach their children about homosexuality or anal sex. My advice is to follow the development of the conversation. When a child notices a homosexual couple on television or in public, they might ask whether the couple are in love and if it is possible for them to have sex and children. Answer these questions accurately.

It is true that many children are shy when their parents introduce sex education to them. These children have already been sex educated by peers. Children get the idea from their peers that sex is a taboo subject. They get the feeling that it is a secret for grown ups.

Children learn dirty words from peers and start sharing dirty jokes about sex. This contributes to their feeling of shyness and embarrassment when parents talk to them about sex. Even when you introduce sex education late, don't despair. Start now and keep going.

(Joan Campbell, Private Social Worker)


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