Parents should start teaching sex ed while their children are in diapers, experts say
- Experts in sex education say that parents should start teaching children about their bodies before their babies can even talk.
- It's important - from the start - to call body parts by their accurate terms, so that children do not feel ashamed about their bodies, and are able to report abusive behaviour.
- To educate about consent, parents should tell children that they don't have to hug or kiss anyone they don't want to interact with.
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One day, your toddler will point to a pregnant woman, cock their head, and ask, "How did that baby get into that lady's tummy?"
You might think it's too soon to start teaching your innocent preschooler about sex at that point, but it's not. In fact, some experts say, it might even be on the later side.
"Human beings are sexual beings from the time they are born," said Dan Rice, interim executive director of Answer at Rutgers University, an organization that promotes access to comprehensive sexuality education to young people.
That's why sex ed actually should start at a young age. Developmentally, kids are already trying to process their worlds, and their bodies are a critical part of that.
What many adults fail to realize is that consent begins with hugs with relatives, high fives with teachers, and tickles from parents.
"Children are trying to make sense of their body parts, and their feelings" Nora Gelperin, director of Sexuality Education for Advocates for Youth, a group that advocates for access to sexual health education and services, told Insider. "It all feels overwhelming."
If you have young children at home, here are the important lessons you can start teaching them, and how to communicate them in an age-appropriate way.
If you can teach a child to not spread germs, you can also teach them about physical consent.
In preschool, parents are starting to have conversations about what it means to be a good friend. This helps to build a solid foundation for developing healthy relationships now, and later in life. But there's more to the discussion than just using nice words and not pushing others. It's important to delve into bodily autonomy, too.
"When you teach a child to cough or sneeze into their elbow," Rice said, "you're teaching them disease prevention and having concern for not spreading disease to others."
Children can just as easily understand that they don't have to embrace anyone who comes close, even if it's a loving cousin or aunt.
"It's a really reassuring message for a child that you are in control of your own body," Rice said, "and that you don't 'owe' someone a hug or a kiss just because they want it."
Use accurate terminology to name body parts from the beginning, so your child doesn't feel shameful.
Parents might be tempted to use cutesy terms to refer to genitals. Some parents will call a penis a "doodle" or a vagina a "minnie." This isn't a protective measure. In fact, using euphemisms sends the message that the accurate terms aren't OK to use and that a child should feel ashamed of those body parts.
The goal is to teach children that while genitals are private, they can be talked about among parents and trusted adults.
"You call your nose your nose and your elbow your elbow," Rice said. "So when you talk about the vulva or the penis, you should call them those things."
Start early, before your child is even old enough to speak. Gelperin recommends using diaper changes and bath time as opportunities to practice naming body parts with your little one.
That way, she explains, as your child continues to grow and get more verbal, they already will already have the vocabulary to have open conversations about their bodies.
Referring to body parts by their correct names also plays a critical role in preventing sexual abuse.
Teaching your children to name their body parts appropriately is a safety measure since predators often prey on compliant kids who may not know the words for "vagina" or "penis."
Kids who can't accurately name these body parts are less likely to report abuse, Gelperin noted.
"You don't need to go into graphic detail," Gelperin said. "Just name them and explain that it's normal, natural, and OK to ask questions about how their body works."
Identify a trusted adult for your child to turn to in every situation.
It's essential for young kids to know that they can always turn to a trusted adult during a time of need. A helpful exercise is to have them identify one reliable adult at school, at home, and one outside both of those environments. From there, it's all a matter of emphasizing that there are grown ups available if someone has harmed them, has approached them in an inappropriate way, or if they have a difficult question to ask.
"Kids naturally have curiosity, and sexuality is a natural and normal part of being human," Gelperin said. "When you trigger a discussion around those things, this will help communicate to your kid that you value this part of who they are and that you want them to have happy and healthy relationships."
Dispel gender stereotypes from a young age to show that men and women are equal.
Gender-based violence and sexual violence is often rooted in a sense of inequality between genders.
That's why it's important to teach children from a young age that everyone is equal.
"We all deserve to be treated the same," Gelperin said. "If we can start teaching that lesson to children when they are much younger, we're all better off for it."
These lessons can begin with conversations around how there's no such thing as "boy colours" or "girl colours." It's helpful to emphasize there are no activities just for boys, or just for girls. These conversations can extend to toys, clothing, and costumes too.
Educating about self-esteem and self-worth teaches children that it matters how they are treated.
Another critical component is instilling in children a sense of self-importance, and the idea that taking care of themselves is just as crucial as how they treat other people. This is a foundational principle before learning other concepts related to sexual health, and consent, according to Rice.
"A truly comprehensive sex ed curriculum includes things like self-esteem, self-worth, and body image," Rice said, "since those things all impact how we see ourselves as sexual beings as well."
If you need help starting these conversations with your children, consider turning to Amaze Jr. It's an online-platform developed by sexual health educators to help young children and adults communicate effectively about these topics.
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