Remember the story about the stork delivering babies? I don’t know if any parents ever told their kids that in earnest; I suspect it was more of a way to avoid answering the question of ‘where do babies come from’. But I’m sure there were kids who didn’t get the joke and wondered why Mom’s stomach got so big right before the stork delivered a new baby brother or sister. I’m not sure why adults seem so universally embarrassed to talk to their kids about anything regarding sex and reproduction – maybe it’s our puritanical roots – but the lengths to which parents will go to avoid actually answering kids’ questions honestly are truly amazing.
I believe in discretion – Joshua and I do not make a habit of parading around naked in the house, and we are careful about how much information we give and when – but we also don’t make up stories or tell blatant lies to the kids. Ben was born at home, and although Maya was not in the house at the time, having gone next door to stay with friends, she knew what was happening and the basics of how. My friend Hallie has 5 kids, 4 of whom were born at home in a birthing pool, in the presence of husband, midwife and older siblings. Those kids have always known without a doubt where babies come from.
For the most part kids are very matter of fact about these things. In the prenatal class we took before Maya was born, we watched a video of a birth at a birthing center in which younger siblings were present. I’ll never forget the little girl who was probably around 3 years old, trying to crawl underneath her Mom as she walked around the room to check and see if the baby was making an appearance yet. Kids don’t freak out about stuff if it’s presented without shame or embarrassment. They accept it as natural, which it is.
Of course knowing where babies come from and talking about sex are two different things. It’s easy to gloss over the sex part when explaining about the egg and the sperm and the uterus and how they all fit together. But at some point it’s going to come up. And at that point telling lies does no one any good, least of all the child. I think it is healthy for children to know, for instance, that their parents love each other and that sex is part of that expression of love. I do NOT think that you need to be exhibitionist about it or graphic – the details are private and if asked, (which I personally haven’t been) then that’s what I would say.
I also believe that being honest with kids can help them avoid the pitfalls of a manipulative or unhealthy relationship once they are old enough to be in a relationship. Anything shrouded in mystery or half-truths is open to incorrect interpretation – and so something that is inappropriate or unhealthy may not be seen as such by a child from whom too much has been hidden.
So my basic guidelines for talking about sex are:
1) Give information when appropriate in clear simple language (and try to do it without obviously looking like you want to crawl under a table and hide).
2) Please don’t make it a ‘lesson’. As in “Hey kids, let’s sit down at the table now and learn where babies come from. Here are some books with helpful illustrations and photos.” Trust me, the subject will present itself in ways that are much less overt and therefore more easily discussed.
3) Don’t just talk mechanics and anatomy. Yes, that is important, but at some point the relationship aspect of things should come into play.
4) Be open to questions. Be discretionarily (yes, I made that up) honest in your answers.
My friend Karen told me a story once about her daughter Katherine who, when she was around 8 or 9 years old, walked into the kitchen one morning when they were eating breakfast and asked, “Do you and Daddy have sex?” Karen’s husband answered without missing a beat, “Not enough!” and everyone laughed. Karen’s two girls are now grown and have a very healthy attitude toward sex and relationships, and I think their open and light approach to it when the girls were younger is part of the reason why.