The Birds & the Bees

Can you remember how you learned about how babies were made? Perhaps your parents sat you down for ‘The Talk’ or gave you a book with the facts of life explained in pictures and diagrams? Perhaps you had older siblings who made it their business to keep you in the know? Or maybe you gleaned what you could from the school playground and listened extra carefully when they taught it at school? Whichever way, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you worked it all out in the end (hello, babies!) and are now faced with the task of passing your wisdom on to the next generation.

We all want our children to grow up with healthy attitudes to sex and relationships and to feel comfortable and confident in their own skin. And we all know that reproduction is the most natural thing in the world yet somehow finding the right words to explain that ‘special cuddle’ can tax even the most open parents. When I did a quick online survey for this feature there were as many ‘Argh! No! The stork brings babies, right?’ comments as there were confident descriptions of honest question and answer sessions. Yep, it can feel like a bit of a minefield at times. What information is right for which age group? Should you use anatomical names or nicknames for parts of the body? Do you tell them everything all in one go? Is it better to do a big talk or answer questions as they crop up? What if they never ask you any questions? When do they need to know about puberty? How can you keep the avenues of communication open into their teens?

For all the negativity launched in the direction of the internet on this subject, there’s plenty of useful information online for parents navigating the facts of life chat. There’s advice tailored to different age ranges on the Family Planning Association’s website  and some straightforward guidelines on the NHS site too. Both make good starting points for thinking about how to explain sex and relationships in a context your child will understand.

How you approach all this will be determined significantly by the age of your child and how much they know already (whether from you, playground chat or lessons at school). Earlier this year, the Department for Education announced plans to make sex and relationships education (SRE) a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum, with children taught about safe and healthy relationships from the age of four upwards. Many schools currently teach sex education as part of the science curriculum in Year 5 but some free schools and academies don’t do this. It is a good idea to find out what your school’s policy is and how much your child already knows so you can fill in any gaps. The older they are and the less they know already, the more questions they are likely to ask, so be prepared with some answers.

Books can be great for kick-starting conversations about puberty, relationships and making babies. Many parents swear by the Usborne What’s Happening to Me? books (available in versions for boys and girls aged eight and above) for explaining changes associated with puberty. Parents of curious younger children might like to start with Okido’s My Head to Toe Body Book, which includes a section on babies, or Nicholas Allen’s amusing story Where Willy Went. Courtney Adamo and Esther Van de Paal’s 9 Months does a great job of explaining how a baby develops in its mother’s womb and doesn’t shy away from explaining how it gets out (it does skip how it gets in, though!). There are plenty of other titles out there too, all of which can be a great starting point for questions.

For many parents a natural slow reveal is easier than holding out for the big chat. Children are naturally curious and answering questions as and when they crop up makes information about sex and relationships feel like a natural part of learning rather than a big reveal. You don’t have to go into too much detail – just simple explanations that answer questions truthfully with the option for them to ask more later if they choose. So when your three year-old asks what a tampon is, you tell them. And when your five-year-old wants to know exactly how their baby sibling is going to get out of your tummy, you tell them that too. And if you ever feel like the time isn’t right for the question they’ve asked you (top deck of the no.73, perhaps?) then make sure they know you think it’s a great question and one you will answer at home. By building up their knowledge and understanding slowly and honestly you may never need to have the big talk at all.

Whichever approach you decide to take (perhaps a mixture of all of the above) the end goal is universal, children who are confident about their bodies and growing up, understand the science stuff and are able to tell the difference between a healthy and safe relationship and one that isn’t as they reach that stage of their lives. So what should they know when? There’s no definite answer, like most things it depends on the child, but we’ve put together a few suggestions (gathered together from various sources mentioned above) below.

Age 3–4
Children this age are usually happy with very simple honest answers. They’re interested in differences between themselves and others and often want to know what to call parts of their body. Some parents prefer to use nicknames when talking to young children but it’s a good idea to tell them the anatomical names for penis and vagina, too. They don’t need to know much at this age so it’s best to be led by them. And don’t worry about going in to too much detail when they ask questions about babies and pregnancy. Listen carefully to what they are actually asking as when they say, “Where did I come from?” they might just be wondering which hospital they were born at rather than requesting a full biology lesson.

Age 5–8
Children this age tend to ask lots of questions so books can be excellent back up. It’s a good idea to make sure they know the correct anatomical names for parts of their body and that you are ready to answer any questions they might have about growing up. Most girls start their periods around the age of 12 but it can be as early as eight so it is a good idea to make sure they know what one is before they turn 10. Depending on the child they’ll either be fascinated by how babies are made or completely uninterested at this age. Take your cue from their questions and interest level.

Age 8–10
Many children will learn about sexual reproduction at school around this age – an excellent opportunity to open up a dialogue about it if you haven’t already. As most are confident readers by now you can also give them books to look at, making sure they know you are available for any questions they might have afterwards. If you haven’t spoken to your daughter about periods already, now is the time.

Age 10–12
Boys go through puberty slightly later than girls but need to know what changes to expect before they turn 12. The older your child the more information they’ll glean from the playground about all things sex related, especially once they start secondary school. Now is a good time to make sure they understand how babies are made, what a healthy relationship is, what contraception is and that it is ok to be gay. Most important at this age is keeping the avenues of communication open as they head into their teens.