by Deb Elliot-Pearson, M.D.
The most important thing about talking to children about anything is to relate to them on the level where they understand. Discussing this important topic is no exception.
It does no good to discuss things in correct anatomical terms if the small person you are talking with has only understood the lay terms used with them in the past. Some well-known child educators advocate using proper anatomical nomenclature from the first. If you have done this, it makes the conversion simple, but it is somewhat disconcerting to other people in the medical and psychosocial fields to hear a 2-year-old child talking about her "vagina".
This is a topic which should be introduced gradually. When children ask questions about things they see, it is a good time to begin with acknowledging differences between men and women, talking about how mommies and daddies make babies together. You don't need to go into lots of detail, just give them the information they need at that moment.
By the time a child reaches grade school, the common knowledge of their peers will likely lead to many more questions. I'm sure all of us can remember that one classmate who knew much more than we did, and made sure we knew what neophytes we were. If you keep the door open for questions, your children will bring that information home to you and you can then correct the misconceptions and allow them to explore the topic again. At this age, there are simple pictures and examples that will help clarify what you are saying.
Once grade school ends, there is a real need for correct information about topics such as whether kissing can cause pregnancy, and whether you are still a virgin if you date. We can provide this information for our children, or we can allow them to get their information from other preteens. If you want them to be safe in their relationships and are not planning to be a grandparent at an early age, you are best advised to be very concrete and exact with them. It is important for any child to know what you expect from them, and what the consequences of other actions might be. Often this is easier than you think. Ask your child what he/she knows. Don't laugh. If you seriously give your attention and tell them that having intercourse causes pregnancy, that unprotected sex is dangerous, and that you are listening when they have concerns, you will keep the door open for dialogue. Even in the years between 13 and 18, when parents suddenly lose half their IQ points in a teenagers mind, this information will be there and help them to make better decisions, avoiding costly mistakes.
Elliott-Pearson D. Talking with your child about sex. [Online] Available http://www.medjournal.com/
August 2, 1999.