Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sexual Education for Toddlers?!? YES!!!

Whether you are teaching preschoolers or have children around you of this age, questions about their bodies and other bodies will emerge.  While some parents and teachers think they are off the hook about talking to their children or students about sex until they get much older, this is so not true!  In fact, we can use preschooler’s everyday questions and turn them into fabulous learning experiences.  In this way, everyone can be a sexuality educator.  The child’s curiosity will set the stage for the beginning of their sexuality education experience! 

During the preschool years, a child becomes curious about his or her body.  They may notice that their older brother looks different “down there” or wonder why their mommy has hair “down there.”  This brings up my first point- I believe it is very important to provide children the proper name for body parts and sex organs.  I am sure everyone can recall various pet names given to genitals while growing up, but didn’t these names more or less teach us that our sex organs were something to be embarrassed about or secretive of?  What is so wrong with calling it a vulva or penis rather than a hoo-ha, willy, or your “privates”?  Most individuals would have no problem telling their children that a knee was called a knee or that an elbow should be referred to as an elbow, right?  The only difference here is the perceived vulgarity or shame associated with genitals. 

When preschoolers ask you questions, try your best to offer them an age-appropriate, direct response.  This works best with my young nieces and nephew.  Bath time was always a time for questions and in turn an opportunistic time for sexual education.  This is when you can explain that boys and girls are different in a number of ways and give them the correct names for their body parts.  It is very important to try not to be embarrassed or ashamed during these learning experiences, as the children will most likely begin to believe our genitals are something to be ashamed of and kept a secret.  This is the last thing we want!  Teach them to be proud of the body they have and who they are!  While teaching them to appreciate their bodies and sex organs, you could also use this opportunity to teach them about boundaries (keep in mind, on an age-appropriate level) and what is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of their behavior as well as the behavior of others.  While perusing various lesson plans on teaching preschoolers the names and locations of body parts, I was disappointed but in no way surprised when sex organs didn’t make the cut.  “Pin the Body Parts on Johnny or Susie” could be all the more beneficial for children if it included ALL of our body parts! 

Books can be very helpful when talking to children about body parts, puberty, pregnancy, etc.  It’s So Amazing! by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley is one of my personal favorites.  Perfect for preschoolers, this book discusses body parts, sex and love, and pregnancy and childbirth.  My favorite parts of the book:  the drawings sure to fascinate children, the fact that the authors discuss all different types of love (i.e. love for pets, parents, friends), and the way in which homosexual relationships are placed on a level playing field with heterosexual relationships.  SCORE!!!  It’s Not the Stork! is another straightforward, picture-filled book for preschoolers written by the same authors.  I love that this book explains that all different types of families and parents exist, not just man-woman-children.  This way, children will learn to appreciate ALL kinds of families they or someone else may belong to…teaching love and acceptance can never occur at too young of an age!



  1. Hi Robin,
    Thank you for listing these two resources. It's fantastic for parents and educators to have these tools. I also agree with you about the importance of teaching kids the proper terminology.
    I had heard one example of how the improper terminology can be dangerous from another volunteer at the child sexual abuse agency I work with that relates to this perfectly.
    There was a little girl who was being sexually abused by a family member, but was too young to understand how to communicate this (and had not been given the proper terminology to describe her body parts). As a result, she kept telling her daycare teacher that said family member was trying to "eat her cookie," but was referring to her vulva.
    AHHHH! (right?)
    Thanks again for your post. It's a very important reminder that words matter.

  2. Hey Robin. great post.

    Like Jamie, this reminded me of a story I heard in class relating to sexual abuse, or the lack thereof. A little boy at school said that his dad put his 'pee pee' on his 'pee pee'. An adult took that to mean penis to penis contact and got a child abuse investigation started. As it turns out, the family's toilet was backed up and his dad had literally put his 'pee pee' on his 'pee pee' by urinating one after the other. If we didn't use all the euphemisms, it would crate much less confusion.

    Also, I think in that same class, someone said that one euphemism they had heard for vulva was 'bumble bee'. thank of the negative connotations of that!

    ~Rachel Girard

  3. Robin,
    Well done! Thanks for providing these two resources. I also heard of another, 'Sometimes the spoon runs away with another spoon'. Its for 4-8 year olds and tries to give a positive message for same sex relationships.
    Speaking openly about body parts and their functions is sooo pivotal. My younger brothers (11 and 9) still think it so 'disgusting' if I ever say anything relating to genitals, sexuality, etc and my dad supports this in an effort to 'preserve their innocence'. While my dad means well, I think this 'protection' may result in some negative consequences in the future.
    Thanks for the post!

  4. Robin,

    This was very enlightening and you bring forth great points. Not only is it extremely important to use the proper words when describing the human body with our children, it is incredibly important to make sure that when teaching children we are comfortable with our own bodies so that we create a positive aura of body imagery and acceptance in children. In today's society there are many young people who are suffering from health and mental health issues surrounding their body image. By teaching positive sexual health and acceptance of a all body types,children can beecome exposed to all uniqueness of the human form. Talking about this issues at the right developmental ages and within the appropriate context, can only enhance a child's knowledge of the human body. Children will hopefully gain a positive self image. As Lady GAGA says:
    "My mama told me when I was young We're all born superstars...It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M...I'm beautiful in my way,'Cause God makes no mistakes I'm on the right track, baby I was born this way..."

    Cupcakes are calling me ... I gotta go--
    Thanks for the post!!!

  5. Great post Robin! Sounds like you could get a job teaching parents how to educate their toddlers on sexuality. You've got the motivation, research, experience and, resources for working with this population. I could not agree more that sex education should start as early as possible.

    In my research findings and quite similar to what you mentioned in your post, the best time to begin discussing sexuality with children is when they ask. Kids often have a limited filter, if any, and the questions will be delivered naturally to parents from their children. I believe it is the responsibility of the parent to address their child's sexuality questions as open and honestly as possible. Talking about sexuality topics with children should not be scary, but rather exciting because as adults we have the opportunity to offer accurate information and provide positive messages that can assist in boosting a child's self-esteem.

  6. ROBIN!

    I LOVE that you talked about these two books. They are actually my token baby shower gifts... I've gotten quite a wide variety of reactions from parents-to-be.

    Now, I don't have kids. And don't plan to anytime soon. But definitely agree with everything you said in your post about teachable moments, role modeling, age-appropriate sex ed, etc. However, what makes me nervous is how childern who are taught about sexuality appropriately will fare amongst their peers. Will teachers scold them for saying "penis"?

    We are all educators because we want to (and WILL) change the world. But the mammoth cultural shift to where children in our society are properly educated about sexuality matters is going to take time. Humph...

  7. Robin, I am in LOVE with these books. Thanks for bringing them up! Even if you don't directly use these books, they are a great resource for educators, if nothing else for their use of language. As someone who has little experience with toddlers and young children, these books have taught me a lot on how to keep things simple and how to effectively get healthy sexuality across to such a young audience. Furthermore, I love the use of imagery in these books. They are so diverse without being in your face about it. Thus, they provide a great general book for many different families and backgrounds. Thanks again for bringing them forward!

  8. I agree! I love the books that you mentioned and use them all of the time with parent education. My favorite part is the description of sexual intercourse. It's great! When bringing up these books with parents, however, I also discuss the importance of parents viewing them first so they can determine what is in line with their own family values. Some topics in the book are not in line with their values and instead of turning them off completely to a great sex ed book, I find that validating the importance of family values is very necessary.

    I appreciate what you said about helping children know the names of their body parts and the places that are private or off limits to others. I recently attended a training on preventing child sexual abuse which reinforced the importance of proper terminology as a way to reduce the risk of abuse. Perpetrators will more often target children who do not have the knowledge of sexuality and are less likely to talk about it with a trusted adult. This is yet another important reason to be talking to children at a young age. Thanks for the post!

  9. This is such a fun topic!

    My family had the book “Where Did I Come From?” and I read it over and over as a kid. My older sister says I would just carry it around the house with me! It was along the same lines as the books you mentioned; it talked about anatomy using proper terms and explained how an egg and sperm combine to form a baby. The sperm even had a top hat- so fancy!

    Because my parents had always given me honest, accurate facts about sex and bodies, by the time I was in middle and high school, I felt like I knew more about sex than my friends. They would tell stories and rumors about sex, but I always knew what was true and what was just made up. I had great sex ed at an early age which made me smarter about the topic as I grew up.

    I appreciate Rebecca’s point about parents becoming familiar with books before sharing them with children. If a parent bought this, then read it and decided they didn’t like it, the book might just sit in the corner and collect dust. But if we (as professionals) can help parents navigate the contents of the books within their own family values, the parents are much more likely to use the book as an educational tool.

  10. Great post, Robin! I really want to emphasize the age-appropriate factor because sex education, like any subject, must be taught from a young age and built upon as children mature and are better able to understand more complex topics. Like math – you don’t start a preschooler with calculus, but rather you begin with counting. If a child never learns to count, they will never (or will have difficulty) learn other math concepts, even simple things like adding.

    I bring this up because my mother told me this weekend about a parent who asked her for help (my mom is a high school health teacher). This parent was upset because her fourth grade daughter had a sex education talk at school. The teacher giving the talk told the girls that they can get HIV through sex. While the statement is true, the girls became very upset, scared, and confused because they did not even know what sex is and they didn’t really understand what HIV or disease is. The parent was upset because now her daughter doesn’t even want to speak with her and the mother really wants to talk with her about puberty so she can begin to understand what sex is. This mother is so upset she wants to report the teacher to the school – not because she is teaching sex ed but because of the way in which she is teaching it, providing age-inappropriate material. How sad – sex education as a whole may be lost to this school if it is reported!

    As we have spoken at length about in class and on this blog, scaffolding is key. We need to start by using words and concepts children understand before providing them with more and more complex information. I hope that in time teaching sex ed to toddlers will become standard practice and we can all follow a path that builds on concepts in the way math education does!

  11. Anornoe here.

    The first book's cover shows a disturbing illustration. The little boy whispering into the little girl's ear about how the lady "got that way". I thought the point was that *adults* have the responsibility to teach it correctly. Repulsive.. and I am terrified for all little girls. What a disgusting little male child. Wonder where he learned it.