My nine-year-old daughter asked me out of the blue last night, “How do you get a baby?” I was a little shocked and, as I was thinking what to say, she then told me that her friend told her that “the boy and girl have to have sex”. She then became shy about it and didn’t say any more. I changed the subject and asked her how her friend could think she would know about these things. She told me her friend had heard it from an older sister. I didn’t say any more and the conversation then moved on.
Now I feel I didn’t handle the situation well and that maybe I should have talked to her more about sex and what she knew, but I did not feel comfortable. Also, I wondered whether she is too young to know the full facts. I don’t know what to do or say next. Should I raise the conversation with her again or let it go?
Most parents find talking about sex to their children a delicate subject to get right and, frequently, like yourself, they are caught off guard with a question they are unsure how to answer.
Though you feel that you may not have handled it well, it is good that your daughter came to you to talk about what she heard from her friend. Often children get misinformation from their peers about sex but don’t check this out with reliable sources such as their parents.
It is important that children hear the facts from their parents as well as their peers, as parents are best-placed to put the information in the context of values and also to help children to think through issues such as safety.
Even though you did not respond in the moment to your daughter’s question, I think you could still get back to her and raise the subject again.
Pick a good time to chat with her, and refer back to her question by saying: “Remember you asked me the other day about sex and how babies were made – this is an important chat we should have together.”
It is crucial to get your tone right. If you appear embarrassed or nervous, then this will make the conversation harder. Or if you come across as moralistic or make your daughter feel there was something wrong in her raising the subject, this could equally close down communication.
If you feel uncomfortable about the conversation, do take time to rehearse it or seek some help from the resources listed below.
As a general rule, when talking to children about sex, it is best first to check what they already know. You could ask your daughter what her friend told her, or what she knows already about how babies are made.
Your role at this point is to be a good listener. Then it is useful for you to tell her any information she needs to know.
When talking to children, a key principle is to be honest and truthful but to impart only the information that they need to know according to their age and understanding.
A preschool child may ask where babies come from and a simple answer about coming from mummy’s tummy might be enough to satisfy their curiosity, but older children may need more factual and detailed information.
Parents worry a lot about what age to tell children about the facts of sex and are particularly concerned about telling children too much too soon. While, traditionally, children tended to be told this information well into their teens (if at all), generally the consensus is that they should now be told at a younger age and in advance of their teens.
Children are starting puberty earlier and thus experiencing sexual feelings and adolescent crushes at younger ages. As a result, they need support and information at younger ages to cope.
In addition, children now are exposed to sexual information at a younger age, whether this is the clear adult themes in soap operas on TV that they watch or within news stories they read or, indeed, in the conversations among their peers.
A lot of this information is inaccurate or out of context, and it is important for parents and other reliable sources to talk to them as well. There is also evidence to show that pre-teen children are less embarrassed and more able to listen to information about sex than teenagers, who might be mortified if parents raise the subject or less likely to listen due to teenage rebellion.
In your own situation, it does sound like your daughter is ready to talk to you and it is important that you respond to her request.
I would suggest that you don’t see this as a single conversation with your daughter but rather as a series of conversations about relationships and sexuality. You want to open the channels of communication, so she feels comfortable coming to talk to you in the future.
You want to tell her the facts but also to talk to her about the big issues of love, relationships, safety, being kind, looking out for friends, as well as all the other important things she needs to know to prepare her for relationships in the future.
Fortunately, there are some great resources and books about talking about sex and relationships to children. In particular, the HSE has produced a book and DVD called Busy Bodies targeted at children in fifth and sixth classes and their parents. This can be downloaded from healthpromotion.ie
Also, the Irish Family Planning Association runs an eight-week course called SpeakEasy designed to provide parents with the information, skills and confidence needed to talk to their children about relationships and sexuality, see ifpa.ie.
Finally, your daughter’s school will also be running their Relationship and Sexuality Education programme when she starts fifth class. Parental involvement is encouraged, and this will provide you with another opportunity to ensure she is well-informed and supported about these important issues.
John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
Sunday 22nd October: ‘Parenting Pre-Teens & Teenagers’ course with John Sharry (9am-1pm) Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin, details here.