How to Teach your Kids the Facts of Life Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Teach your Kids the Facts of Life

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A picture of a bird, a bee and various sperm all flying towards an egg.
Is sex dirty?
Only if it's done right.

- Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (1972)

Nice quote. But sometimes it's very hard to give pithy answers when your kids start asking you questions about sex. So do you bring the subject up with them first? Do you try and pre-empt stuff they'll hear in the playground that might lead to great confusion? (This Researcher - who's male - was convinced that he too would have to have a baby. The thought terrified him for ages because he didn't want anyone to cut open his stomach. It wouldn't have been so bad, but he was 28-years-old at the time...).

Or do you take the euphemistic approach? What do you say when little Jimmy bounds into the bedroom to find Mummy and Daddy 'wrestling' with each other underneath the duvet? 'We're just playing hide and seek, darling!' I don't think so. Do birds, bees and storks mean anything these days when scenes of gratuitous sex, or at least images which imply it, are everywhere? Just how do you teach your kids the facts of life? It's not easy.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and advice posted by various members of the h2g2 Community, and, taken as whole, they make for an excellent entry offering some sound, heart-felt advice.

How Not to Talk to Kids

Not having any kids, I don't know how qualified I am to talk on this subject. However, having been a child myself, I do consider myself qualified on how not to talk.
  • Don't assume that kids simply already know all they need to. Case in point - until I was four or five, I thought that there were three genders in the world: boys; girls; and astronauts. Why? Because I was told that I couldn't be an astronaut because I was a girl. It didn't occur to me that only boys were astronauts, I just assumed that they were some elusive third gender. At this point, I also thought that what you named a child would determine what gender it would be. If you named your child Tommy, he would be a boy - if you named the same child Mary, she would be a girl. Of course, I wanted to name my new sibling 'Fruitin', because then it would be an astronaut...

  • Don't oversimplify. After I was disabused of this notion, I believed that men had boy babies, and women had girl babies. Why? When I asked why my brothers lived in a different house than I did, I was told that my three older brothers were my dad's children, and that my sister and I were my mom's children. Obviously, then, men have boy babies and women have girl babies.

  • Don't use play names for body parts, and especially don't use names that actually mean something else. Sadly, I was pretty shocked the first time I had a good look at male genitalia when I was around ten - I had fully expected it to look like a peanut...

  • Don't ignore the topic altogether. I was given the little talk about 'now you have your period, and that means that if a man's sperm got inside you, a baby would be conceived' when I was around ten or 11. Neither of my parents ever mentioned sex again, even when I started taking birth control pills in high school.

  • Be aware of the fact that information and misinformation is quite often handed down from sibling to sibling. Given the point above, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - otherwise I might still be confused about the whole tab A into slot B thing.

  • Always ask more questions before you offer any possibly over-complex information. Kids are sometimes simpler beings. And very literal. You could find you've just done the whole shenanigans and they only wanted to know where the baby grows. Which, if the child is very young, it only needs a finger pointing to the tummy. Don't rush to offer all the facts, but keep an open conversation going. Till when? Till they stop asking, be it 18 or 80!

Other People's Kids

This entry should really be called 'how not to teach other people's kids the facts of life'. My child knows as much as he asks, suitable for his age (he's six). I tell him [things] simply and truthfully. He still asks odd questions though; on seeing a girl naked he asked how she went to the toilet. Then I wonder why I bother telling him anything!
What gets awkward is him telling other children, as he is not old enough to know what should be repeated. It makes it hard to walk a fine line. He was busy telling a nine-year-old boy he'd known for ten minutes that our dog has had his testicles removed so he couldn't have puppies. He also knew at four not only how my pregnant friend would have her baby, but how she got that way. Her seven-year-old daughter had been told it would come out of the navel. Trying to stop him telling her about seeds and eggs was not easy in front of a frowning mother. So only tell your child what you can trust them not to blab around. Let other children have the privilege of being told by their parents too. And never, ever discuss your own sex life. Sex in general is fine, they have a right to know that, but not details of what you do and don't like.

Don't Patronise Your Children!

If a child is ready to ask a question, then s/he is ready to be told an answer. Not a fabricated half-truth brought up in an embarrassed rush from the bowels of parental fear that their little angel is growing up too fast, but a straightforward response that respects their trust in you for asking the first place, and which leaves them reassured that you will help them again if they need you.
How you tell them directly correlates with how they will view the subject, long term. If you avoid it, they will categorise it as taboo (not a healthy attitude); if you cover it up with pink fluffy Disney fantasy, such will be their naivety; if you react by questioning angrily where they heard of such things, they will reach adulthood as sexually repressed as you probably were.
Let's not patronise our kids; let's teach them exactly what they ask to know.
I totally agree. Don't talk about birds and bees (unless your child wants to know where all those birds come from). It just complicates explaining the facts of life, as you'll have to explain similarities and differences.
But do take into account the age of the child. A question asked by a four-year-old calls for a simple, clear answer appropriate for his/her age. The very same question asked by an eight or 12-year-old deserves more detail. I find if I answer them in a casual, matter of fact manner, my kids do not hesitate to ask for more detail or clarification. (Although I do get the occasional 'eeeewwwwwwwww!')

The Internet

Let's face facts; our children are the Internet Generation. My three-year-old can almost type his name unaided but still can't hold a pencil properly. If he wants to know what pole vaulting is (for instance) a quick search engine query supplies not only pictures but video of pole vaulters in action. Now, if our search had been for 'birds and bees' related info... ! Searching for sensible, straight forward, reasonably unbiased info relating to anything sexual on the web calls for really creative back door approaches, so as to exclude unwanted and often disturbing content - even when it looks OK at the search engine end! This is one web search I will be doing well before time and after the kids are in bed asleep! Then I will be prepared with a list of researched favourites that I feel are suitable for my children and their family situation.
It's a sad fact but many of his generation are going to see porn, explicit sex etc, on the screen well before they discover dad's stash of 'Penthouse'...

Some Very Good Sources of Info on the Net

In today's technological society the Internet holds a wealth of information about 'the facts of life' of which some may be appropriate to teenagers and older children. During a recent re-vamp of the website for Bath Spa University College one Researcher was part of a group who added a welfare section covering (among other things) sexual health information. A number of website links were included and feedback from the site indicates that many of our users have found the following sites useful:

  • BBC Sexwise Online: A global online sex education project from the BBC World Service. A guide to sexual well-being in 22 different languages, excellent site with audio links to listen to real people‚Äôs experiences, useful global contacts and news reports on sexual health from around the world.

  • Marie Stopes International - International organisation that provides reproductive healthcare. Website gives details of UK services and advice to teenagers and sexually active couples.

  • TheSite - Aims to enable young people to make informed decisions for themselves and strive to be the best they can. Looks at a range of issues that affect the lives of young people such as health, sex and relationships. Chat rooms, articles and resources.

  • Go Ask Alice - American website providing factual, in-depth, straightforward and non-judgmental information to assist readers' decision-making about their physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual health. It uses a questions and answers format.

  • Brook - Brook provides free, confidential sex advice and contraception to all young people. Its website has information on the services provided, FAQs and details on how to get in touch with your local Brook centre.

  • TeenWire - The Planned Parenthood Federation of America has recently put together a guide to sex for teenagers and young adults called TeenWire. Its aim is to act as a private place on the Internet where you can get information and news about teen sexuality, sexual health, and relationships.

Other Sites:

British Pregnancy Advisory Service
Society of Health Advisers in STDs

The Channel 5 Method

OK, here's a not-very-serious suggestion:

In modern British society, there is only one way in which to instruct our children in sexual matters - let them watch late-night Channel 51. That's it. During the school holidays or at the weekend, 'accidentally' leave your child alone to watch half an hour or so of Channel 5, ideally though not essentially, after 11pm. Its mix of soft-focus sex films and 'insightful' documentaries on the sex trade will soon have your offspring extolling the values of the missionary position or lauding the sexual appetites of American strippers. Heck, they'll probably even be able to teach you some things! The Channel 5 method should not be confused with the altogether more cultural Channel 4 method.


But we don't get Channel 5. They've watched a lot of natural history programmes though. Every time we hug each other they shout 'Mum and dad are mating'.

A Final Concluding Word

The best way to prepare your child for their teenage years is to provide an environment where they feel comfortable enough to approach you with questions about sex. The surest defence against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy is accurate information and an open line of communication. The stakes are too high to allow this subject to be ignored, and after all, why should it be? Treat it like any other subject you'd give your child information on and avoid the hang-ups and misinformation that can cause so many problems later.
1At the time of writing, Channel 5 is a relatively new British terrestrial TV channel that shows, among other things, progammes that have a decidedly sexual/titillating flavour to them.

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