I am the dad of a seven-year-old who’s starting to ask a lot of questions about sex beyond where babies come from. I’m pretty open about sex, but I still find it awkward to talk about, because I don’t know how much information is too much. What’s appropriate for kids to know at that age?
It’s no fun to talk to your kid about sex. If it makes you feel awkward, it doesn’t mean you’re a prude. In fact, I have a hunch that the discomfort many parents feel is not so much about shame as it is fear of saying something that will get them in trouble. They know that children repeat everything they hear, and no one wants their kid’s sexual knowledge to raise eyebrows.
Parents are encouraged to talk openly and honestly with kids about sex, starting early. At the same time, they’re told that it’s a warning sign of sexual abuse when a child knows more about sex than is age appropriate. Usually, no one bothers to tell parents what’s appropriate at what age, though.
There actually are guidelines, written by a national group of experts from FutureOfSexEd.org. They say that children between the ages of five and eight should have a basic and fairly broad understanding of what sex is—more than just how babies are made, but not all the gory details.
By age eight, children should know the correct names of sexual body parts. Boys and men have a penis, scrotum, and testes (or testicles, if you prefer). A penis is a penis—not a pee-pee, or a wee-wee, or dingle. Girls and women have a vagina, and what’s more, a vulva and a clitoris. Everyone has nipples. When a girl reaches puberty, she grows breasts.
Although kids shouldn’t be ashamed to use the correct names, genitals are called “privates” for a reason. No one else should touch theirs, and they shouldn’t touch anyone else’s. If they like to touch their own genitals because it feels good, they can know it’s called masturbation, and that it’s okay to do in private.
Kids this age also should have an elementary grasp on how human reproduction works. It is appropriate for them to know that it involves sexual intercourse—specifically, that a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina, and that’s how sperm from his testes are given the chance to meet an egg from her ovaries.
It’s also okay to acknowledge that grown-ups have sex to feel good. Typically, the idea that people have sex for reasons besides making babies is framed for kids in terms of adults in a romantic relationship expressing love for each other. It probably isn’t terribly amiss if your seven-year-old is able to get the sexual innuendo between Homer and Marge on The Simpsons. But a seven-year-old should not be wise to the kinds of things people do on Jersey Shore. That’s not in the guidelines. I’m just saying.
The concept that some people are heterosexual and others are homosexual is also within the scope of appropriate knowledge starting in kindergarten. Some conservatives
are appalled that these days homosexuality is openly discussed in public elementary schools. But, openly or not, it has always been discussed in elementary schools. I knew what a “queer” was when I was in second grade. A queer was someone we singled out to chase down and tackle in the playground game of “smear the queer.” I also learned from other kids that being called a “fag” was a grievous insult, because fags were butt-fuckers with AIDS. I wasn’t sure what a “gaywad” was, however. I thought perhaps it was a little furry creature, like an Ewok.
Children should know that homosexual (aka gay and lesbian) men and women are attracted to, and fall in love with, people of the same gender. They should know it isn’t okay to tease or beat up someone for being gay, even if their parents’ beliefs are at odds with homosexuality. But they shouldn’t know anything about butt fucking. If you wanted an example of TMI, there you have it.
This is an overview of the main themes the guidelines cover. I haven’t mentioned everything. If you want to have a look for yourself, check out FutureOfSexEd.org. But remember, they’re guidelines, not rules. It’s not criminal to let a seven-year-old in on something that’s deemed appropriate for older kids. But hopefully this gives you the gist of where you should go, and where you shouldn’t.