“Hey, Alexa, how are babies made?” Kids as young as 3 or 4 have turned to voice assistants to ask this question. Just like that. It’s no surprise because sex is a normal part of life, not “taboo” or “dirty.” As a pediatrician, parents ask me all the time:

“When and how should I start talking to my kids about sex?”

My answer: start answering their questions right away. There are three steps: 1) Clarify what your child is really asking; 2) Find out what they already know and; 3) Keep it age appropriate.  In this blog, we address the topic of sex for kids 9 years and younger. 

1. What is your child really asking?

"Where did I come from?" is a common question, and also the title of a popular sex-ed book from the 1970s. But that question carries weight. For all you know, your child could be asking what town they were born in, while you might feel the need to launch into a long, age-appropriate explanation of human anatomy. Before getting into it, ask clarifying questions to find out what they really want to know. 

2. What does your child already know about sex and sexuality?

Kids are sponges and they probably know more than they let on. Talk openly with your child, let them ask questions freely and respond with curiosity and enthusiasm instead of discomfort. Here are some tips:

  • Use encouraging phrases and keep it short.
    “That’s a good question,” “I’m so glad you asked that question,” and “You must be so curious. Tell me what you already know!” are good places to start. 
  • Be patient and keep calm. 
    You might need to repeat yourself and act as matter-of-fact as possible. If your child senses too much seriousness, they’ll shy away from talking about it all together, which you don’t want. 
  • Use real words.
    This is important in having an honest conversation. Use real names for body parts and don’t use nicknames because that sends the message that there is something weird or secret about them. For example, instead of saying, “It looks like your pee pee is a little bit red,” say, “It looks like your vulva is a little bit red. I’m going to put some cream there.”

>>Helpful resource: @birds_bees on Instagram features ways to talk to your kids about sex. 

How to talk about sex and sexuality by age.

Toddlers: 18 months to 3 years old

Kids are more curious than ever at this age about the human body. Toilet training is a turning point because they are forced to learn about anatomy and how it works. Bath time is great teaching moment, too.

  • Teach them bodily autonomy, or how to protect their own bodies.  
    Tell your child to ask others for permission to hug or kiss, and that they may also tell others, “Please don’t touch my body.” High fives or elbow bumps are great alternatives. 
  • Show them which body parts are private.
    Remind them that any parts that are covered up by a swimsuit, and also their mouth, should not be looked at or touched by other people without their permission. 
  • Expect questions.
    This will happen in daycare settings or at home with siblings. Questions like, “Why does Xavier pee standing up?” are to be expected. Again, use simple terms. “Boys and girls have different parts. Boys have a penis which means they need to stand up to pee because it’s easier for them.” Don’t cringe in front of them.

Kids: 4 to 5 years old

Kids like to explore at this age, and become curious about their own body as well as others’. Don’t be alarmed—this is to be expected.

  • Reinforce bodily autonomy, as mentioned above. 
  • Expect more detailed questions.
    This is when kids start to ask where babies come from, or why male and female body parts are different. Instead of getting detailed, keep it abstract: “When two people love each other very much, they decide to have a baby.” If they persist, change the subject. They are still too young to grasp the concept of sexual intercourse. 
  • Set limits to bodily exploration, but without shame and blame. 
    If you notice your child touching or rubbing their genitals, avoid a strong reaction. Again, this is part of exploration and also comfort seeking. Instead, you could ask if they feel itchiness or pain. That way, you are addressing any medical issues first. If this becomes a pattern, you could say, “We do this in the bathroom, in private.” 

Kids: 6 to 9 years old, or before puberty starts

In elementary school, kids are in the throes of learning and curiosity. They’ll pick up conversation topics from their peers and the world around them. This is a good thing, and your parenting radar doesn’t always have to be on high alert. Here’s what might happen, and some pointers: 

  • They’ll recount something they heard from a friend.
    This is especially true if that friend has an older sibling at home. Ask what they know, and then open the floor for questions. Answer those questions honestly. 
  • They’ll express more interest in consensual sex between adults.
    This can take many forms as they develop friendship and relationship skills. They’re still trying to grasp the connection between sex and how babies are made. They might even ask questions lie, “What’s sex?” Please do not tell them a stork delivers babies, and don’t just hand them a book! 
  • Expect questions or observations about LGBTQIA relationships. 
    How exciting to raise kids in such a progressive time! They have the opportunity to be the voice of diversity, equity and inclusion in society. Here, your job is to model open thinking with a judgment free voice. You can say, “Loving someone has nothing to do with gender or sex,” or, “Families are all different; how cool is that? Some families have a mom and dad, others have two dads or two moms, and some have one mom and one dad.”

Up next: talking to preteens and teenagers about sex and sexuality. Stay tuned!  


Keep Calm and Parent On.

You deserve to live your best family life. Sign up for parenting tips delivered right to your inbox.