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Sex Education: How Early Should it Start?

By Alice Bradley

It’s started: Henry wants to know where babies come from. “How did I get in your stomach?” he asks one night. “Well, you weren’t in my stomach,” I say, hoping to distract him with technicalities. “You were in my uterus.” “Yes, but how did I get in there?” He will not be deterred, I can see. And yet I find myself really wanting to deter him.

The thing is, I’m surprised by my reaction to his questioning. We’ve always been forthright with Henry. We don’t give body parts cutesy names. He knows all the official terms. But there I am, boiling water for pasta, and he’s looking at me with those big blue eyes, and he’s only five; does he really need to know the mechanics of how he got in there?

“Your Dad and I, we, uh, we gave each other a special hug,” I tell him. He’s never going to be happy with that, I think. I need a back-up plan. How can I set off the smoke alarm?

He raises one eyebrow. “A special hug?”

“Yes. A special hug that grown-ups do when they’re in love.”

He sits with this for a minute. “And can I see this special hug?” he asks.

I explained to him that “special hugs” (a term I still can’t believe I used with a straight face) were private moments between people in love, and that seemed to mollify him for the time being. And frankly, I think I did an okay job; I don’t think he needs specific instructions on how babies are made, just yet. But the details are going to come up, and they’re going to come up soon. He’s already surfing the Internet, after all. True, he’s only looking for Legos, but the day will arrive when I turn my back for a moment and he finds some kind of Lego fetish website. And then I’ll have some in-depth explaining to do about how and when that “special hug” can be employed. And I don’t know if I’m ready for it.

Theoretically, I’m all for full disclosure, sexuality-wise, when it comes to my kid’s questions. But in practice it’s hard to be as blunt as I think might be helpful. That’s why, frankly, I’d be all for the topic coming up in school. As you probably know, in a recent attack ad John McCain accused Barack Obama—inaccurately—of passing legislation that would require sex education for kindergartners. “Wrong on education. Wrong for your family,” intoned the McCain ad. The Obama campaign called out the McCain camp for mischaracterizing his involvement—in fact he had nothing to do with the legislation; he merely supported it. But the controversy leaves me wondering why people think sex education for young children is such a bad idea.

I don’t mean sex education in the junior-high sense; you don’t teach someone “The Mill on the Floss” before they know how to read. I mean teaching them how their bodies work, and what it means to be a boy or a girl. Or teaching them what parts of their bodies are private and what parts can be showed to the viewing public. (Henry, for instance, is a little confused on the whole private-parts issue. He likes to yell at me for, say, adjusting his shirt-collar, insisting, “You touched my NECK and that’s a PRIVATE PART.” I’ve tried to explain his mistake, but he just rolls his eyes.) We can say that parents should be teaching their children these basic lessons, but the reality is that people are uncomfortable with sexuality, and they just… don’t. Not to mention, 90% of sexual abuse cases occur either within the home or by someone close to the family. And even if children are safe, even if they’re taught these things at home, this is important stuff that should be reinforced at school. The best weapon against sexual abuse, after all, is education. Pedophiles target children who don’t recognize inappropriate behavior.

Young children have questions about their bodies. Shouldn’t school be a place where their questions are explored?

As always, your thoughts and opinions are welcome. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, trying to come up with a less inane explanation than The Special Hug, when the topic comes up again next week.


Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • Ariel

    September 19, 2008 at 10:59 am

    My 4 year old asked this question about 4 months ago completely out of the blue-
    and her (step)Daddy told her (in panicked tones) that “Storks bring babies!” while I told her at the very same time “when an egg cell and a sperm cell unite a baby is made”.
    She looked at us both and said “Oh.”
    I’m expecting to hear back from her soon…

  • Amy

    September 19, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    My oldest was 2-1/2 when we started having the discussion about her “private body” and how no one is allowed to touch her “private body” unless they’re helping her go to the bathroom. We don’t even wash her privates in the bath – we give her soap and let her do it – to reinforce the idea of that area being private and only for her.
    As for more specific questions, I’ve always liked the “Daddy planted a seed in Mommy’s uterus,” angle. Because it’s technically true, and it relates the information to something they probably have experience with (seeds and plants).
    When they get a little older, they’ll probably ask where the seed came from. We all know the correct answer. Could you tell a 5 year old that the seed came out of Daddy’s penis? I don’t know. I think it depends a lot on the 5 year old. Some may be mature enough to handle it, others may not.
    I think we owe it to our kids to handle this conversation (which should continue from the time they’re toddlers and asking about their “private bodies” until they’re teenagers, ideally) frankly, with tact and truth, and without embarrassment. But it’s also important to give the facts in small, easily digestible, age-appropriate chunks. It’s one of the toughest things we, as parents, must do, and one of the most important.
    Amy @

  • Jane Plane

    September 19, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    It’s strange; I absolutely support sex education in schools, starting in fifth or sixth grade seems about right to me. And, yes, it should range from how bodies work to facts about contraception and STDs and whatever else. Facts.
    But I don’t believe that schools should be responsible for telling children what is and isn’t appropriate, that’s a judgment call I think is best reserved for the family. (private areas, for instance) That’s where I think a line is crossed. Many families have a different view of appropriate – for instance some families are more open about parental nudity than others, and I don’t want a teacher to all of the sudden have the responsibility of drawing a line. Even though the majority of sexual abuse is from family members, which is awful to think about, really, I don’t think a school should be teaching kids “right” from “wrong.”
    As to how I’ve talked to my kids about babies being made, I always started inside-out (inside an egg and sperm meet and create a baby) rather than outside-in (special hug!). Don’t know if it’s right or not, but it seemed to make sense to me.

  • bessie.viola

    September 19, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    I love how you handled this. I was pretty upset when I saw the abject dismissal of the “sex ed” for kidnergartners – like you, I was thinking not so much about sex itself, more like body awareness. When I was little it was a 1-week session in school where they said “no one should touch your private parts” and that was it.
    I just think we could all benefit if a mature, educated discussion was ongoing rather than begun/ended abruptly in 8th grade.
    I’m hoping that as a country we’ll all soon be much less squeamish about the topic – we glamourize sex wherever we can, but still seem unable to talk about it. We owe our kids better!
    I think that your “special hug” response was perfectly age-appropriate.

  • Becky

    September 19, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    It always interests me to see these discussions, because I’m not yet a parent, but I will be someday. But it kind of scares me that some people don’t think you need to discuss sex-ed with kids until their bodies are already on the verge of a major change, which is scary enough for them.
    Two of my sisters became sexually active when they were in 7th grade. We don’t come from an inner-city poverty stricken neighborhood. We lived in a small, safe town hours from any sort of “city.” Pretending to ourselves that kids don’t or shouldn’t know anything about sex until they are in middle school because we don’t think they could possibly be involved in that kind of behavior is dangerous.

  • Abby

    September 19, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    I don’t think it’s as important ‘how’ you talk to your kids about sex, so long as it’s happening- a little honesty thrown in for good measure is probably a good idea as well. I have two kids, 2 1/2 and 9 months and the oldest hasn’t started asking many questions…yet. But, if you have any advice on how to deal with him standing in the bath tub ‘tickling’ his penis and saying things like, ‘wow, it’s getting big!’, I’m open to suggestions.

  • Becky

    September 20, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    When I try to think back on how I learned about sex and bodies, etc. I really can’t pinpoint anything. I mean, we had health in 5th grade (basics, periods, etc.) and then more of a sex ed in 8th, but I don’t think either of those taught me anything I didn’t already know, with the exception of the names of the STD’s.
    It helped that I was raised in the suburbs to a father with a farm background, an regular access to farm animals. It’s likely I had been asking those questions and *seeing* the answers since I started talking, and my father is one of those open, unembarrassable types. The man made me demonstrate that I knew how to put a condom on correctly when we had the sex talk, for goodness sake (NOT with real body parts, people. No need to go there.
    I’m hoping to use nature as my teaching tool, as well. I think it’s easier to talk about animals and draw parallels than it is to talk about what Mama and Daddy do behind closed doors. No one really wants to think about that!
    Also, we’re going to spend a lot of time at Grandpa’s. He has no qualms about what to say!

  • MamaCass

    September 20, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    My daughter is three. She wears dresses all the time. They no longer come with bloomers. I am totally alarmed by how much this bothers me with a three year old, but it does. I am so careful not to make a big deal of keeping her dress down and sitting with her legs closed in public because I don’t want her to feel self-conscious. Yet she seems to be old enough already where it does matter, and that blows my mind. We too use correct terminology in our house, in a matter of fact way. But how do I carry over the “there’s nothing to be ashamed of” attitude into the public arena, when really naked time is only acceptable at home at this age? And sadly, that is true for her own safety.
    Oprah posted a link on her website this week where people can connect directly to their own senators and request through a form letter that legislation be passed to help fund the prosecution of many known pedophiles. I hope people will go to her website, and help to try and pass this bi-partisan bill.

  • Meg

    September 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I was surprisingly uneasy when my now 7 year old first started asking these questions. Recently we got back into the “special hug” issue as her questions became more specific. (Just how does the seed get into the mommy? Does it happen during kisses?)
    She has a younger brother, so she was very aware of the differences between boys and girls. We talked about how men and women fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, that seemed to make sense to her without being too graphic.
    I know there are more questions coming, I hope I can keep up!

  • Sharon

    September 21, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    My children are all grown up and we still talk honestly about love and sex. I wrote a post about how I handled sex ed in our family for the 50 something moms blog:

  • kim

    September 22, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Wow, I just posted about how I handled The Talk this weekend, and was wondering whether it was appropriate to share with The Internets. I’m still grappling with whether to go back and edit a lot of it out. Anybody got any advice for me on this?
    I think The Talk for girls is different from The Talk for boys. My daughter (at almost nine) really didn’t want to know anything beyond “how do I NOT have a baby?” Also, she thought she’d rather hear about her period from me than from a friend, but I never thought to ask whether she’d be more comfortable learning about it in school. I was just afraid that the 5th grade class that I had in school would come too late for her.

  • Lacey Jane

    September 23, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    I learned sex ed from my older brothers and sisters. And from my parents. And my older cousins. Whenever my best friend and I had a question that we felt was very very awkward- too awkward for family- we always had an older person that we trusted (a babysitter or family friend) that we could ask. It was never an issue. I was very well educated about sex before I started having it- and I never had it in schools. I am all for biology, but a whole class about sex education is a sticky subject for me…(ew…that’s not what I mean…)Now that I have a kiddo on the way, I don’t think I want his school teaching him the nitty gritty about sex. He has godparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and people that he will eventually trust that will be able to answer his questions and give him an array of information about everything he needs to know.
    Lacey Jane from

  • Susan

    September 24, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I never had “The talk” when was younger. My parents were, and still are very active in there church and so I think that they figured since we were at church so often then they didn’t have to worry about it. I remember when I got my period for the first time my mom acted like it freeked her out and asked me if I new what to do and then never talked about it again. That really freeked me out and made me feel like it was something to be ashamed about. I promised myself that if I ever had a girl I would never do that to her, I have a boy but I still plan on more kids so who knows. Because of my moms reaction I have been freeked out since than about talking to anyone about anything sexually. And I really never told my mom anything personal since than so please do not act like that stuff is top secret or that it is something to be ashamed about. I am almost 30 and still have problems trying to convince myself that being a women is nothing to be ashamed about.

  • Cass

    September 24, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    I dont want to promote anyone or anything, and you can delete this comment if you want, but I know an author and she writes on just this topic. She calls it “Body Science”. She has written one book for parents and one for kids.

  • Sandi

    September 27, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I hear you, Abby! My 3 year old son has discovered that he, too, can “tickle” his penis. I don’t want to discourage normal exploration of his body, but also don’t want to encourage all this tickling. My only consolation is that he is very aware and adamant that no one else should tickle it. His sister is 18 months old, and naturally curious about everything from baths to potty time. She tries to touch him sometimes, and he’s always quick to push her away saying, “No, no sister. That’s MY penis. You can’t have it.”

  • Wendy

    October 9, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Although I do not have children, I work as a parent educator and part of my curriculum deals with encouraging my clients to talk openly with their children about sexuality. I also work as a sexuality educator (sex ed teacher!!) in a number of public schools. I would just like to commend you on a well written article, this is one of the most down to earth, practical and eloquently written calls for sex-ed in schools that I’ve read in a while. Thanks!