It’s not too early to talk about sex

“He said don’t tell.”
The mother’s heart dropped. The night before, at bath time, they had talked about private parts being private and who to tell if someone tells you not to tell. Now they were on their way to school.
“Don’t tell what?”
The 4-year-old was quiet. The mother waited. The girl started humming. The mother waited. The girl began chatting about something else; the mother quickly interrupted.
“Don’t tell what, honey?”
“I can’t tell you.”
The mother intended to project calm, but she hit the brakes, screeched to a halt, and fully turned to face her daughter. Being late for preschool was suddenly not an issue. “You can tell me. Did you get hurt? What happened?”
“He asked me to touch his penis.”

A dozen things ran through the mother’s mind at once. Oh my god. Oh, sweetie. Only 4. I’ve talked about how others shouldn’t touch her private parts, but I didn’t think about someone else asking her to touch theirs. Don’t freak out. Don’t make the boy into a monster. He’s 7, he’s curious. But he also knew this was wrong. What do I say? Keep this conversation going. Ask questions.
“Did you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“How did this make you feel?”
“I felt concerned. I felt confused.”
Use her words. “Oh, sweetie, that must have felt really confusing. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” The girl began to cry. “He never should have asked you to do that. You didn’t do anything wrong. He was wrong.”
“Because private parts are private. Because this did not feel right, and that’s why he didn’t want you to tell.”

The mother stumbled around with too many concepts: you’re in charge of your own body, it’s OK to be curious about bodies, you never have to do something. …
“I shouldn’t have told you.”
The mother’s heart broke again. Talk less, ask more. Acknowledge her intuition.
“You can always, always talk to me. You could tell that this secret didn’t feel good. You made a good decision to tell me. Now I can help.”
They continued on toward school. The mother asked more questions, and the little girl did continue to answer.
“Your daddy and I will talk to his parents. They will tell him not to do this. But if this ever happens again, I want you to know some things to do. You can say NO! You can run away. You can scream HELP! You know how to scream so loud. You can tell me or daddy. OK?”
“OK. If this happens again, what will you do?”
“I’ll say, Nah.”
The mother had to laugh at the tone of total diss.
“I love you so much, sweetie.”

This particular conversation is not one any of us wants to have with our kids. But we absolutely need to bring up sex, with both our boys and our girls. And we need to do it sooner than we’d like.

Age 3 wouldn’t be too early. Little kids are curious about bodies. They are likely noticing differences and talking about differences. They may have already been in a situation where they unintentionally gave or got unwanted touch. In the case above, the mother’s casual conversation at bath time triggered the girl’s memory of something that had happened six months earlier, at age 3. Don’t wait for your child to ask. The key:

Think of it as many, many small conversations over the years, not a couple big conversations.

The message is that everyone’s body is their own.

“You are the boss of your body.”
“We ask before we hug or touch someone to make sure it’s OK with them.”
“Private parts are private. Private means only for us. We don’t ask to touch our friends’ private parts, and we don’t ask them to touch ours.”
“Lots of touches feel good. But if someone touches you and it’s a bad feeling, you tell them to stop.”
“It’s OK to be curious about our bodies. We can touch ourselves in private.”

Reading books together like “It’s MY Body,” “I Said No!” and “I Can Play It Safe” can help you start conversations with preschoolers and kindergartners. For talking with kids of all ages, Amy Lang of Birds and Bees and Kids offers classes, consultations, and an ebook. My daughter is fascinated by “It’s Not the Stork,” a how-babies-are-made primer, which includes a page on friends and touching.

Of course, we send the strongest messages by our own actions.

Use the proper names of private parts so that your child has the words to communicate about his or her body and a sense that it’s OK to talk about. Some of us are uncomfortable talking about sex or have some shame around sex, but we don’t have to pass that on to our kids.

Ask for permission before you wash your child’s private parts. (“May I wash your penis?” “Would you like me to wash your vulva or would you like to?”) Say that sometimes you or a doctor will need to touch your child’s private parts, to wash them or make sure they’re healthy. But you will ask first, because your child is the boss of his body.

Don’t force or even expect your child to hug someone. Don’t act disappointed if your child doesn’t feel like hugging you or a friend. (“How would you like to say goodbye?” “Would you like a hug?” “Looks like my child doesn’t want a hug right now; maybe another time.”)

If your child comes to you with a concern, listen. Don’t dismiss it or explain it away. Listen by repeating what your child says and asking questions without judgment. Show your child that it’s safe to talk with you — that you can handle both the conversation and the emotions. Above all, you want to make sure they feel they can talk to you. That will seriously pay off when they’re older.

Help your children stay in touch with their intuition. When my daughter tells me she has a secret, for example, I ask, “A secret that feels bad or a secret that feels good?” I want her to trust herself. Here are other ways we can help our kids trust their gut feeling on a daily basis.

Acknowledge it big-time when your children stand up for themselves. It’s one thing to know that something about a situation feels wrong. The next step is to feel confident doing something about it.

Late to the bus stop one day, the bus rolled by when I was still a half-block away. I ran down the street like a maniac and, thankfully, the bus stopped at the next intersection. My kindergartner and I were both so relieved when she hopped off the bus and into my arms. “Oh my goodness, that was scary for me!” I said. She said, “I know! The bus went right past my stop!” I said, “What did you do??”

“I stood up and said, ‘You passed my stop!'” Dang, girl! I was a little surprised she even knew where her bus stop was, let alone would speak up like that. I was bursting with pride. I acknowledged her strength: “You needed something and you stood up and said so. You made sure you got what you needed!” Now she was bursting with pride. (For more on how, see my video course on raising a confident kid with a growth mindset.)

Helping our children practice now, when the stakes are low, is what allows them to handle more difficult situations when they’re older.

Respecting our children’s bodies, in small and big ways, is what teaches them that bodies should be respected.

And many small, evenhanded conversations over the years signal to our children that they can come to us with big conversations.

Start now.

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Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

5 thoughts on “It’s not too early to talk about sex

  1. One thing that is never stressed in articles/stories like these. (And, yes, I know what sexual assault is like.)
    It is making absolutely sure, as you speak with children, not this young, but as they get older, explaining if something DOES happen, if they are touched/raped/fondled/attacked, that it is JUST their body being touched/attacked. NOT WHO they are inside, JUST their body. It doesn’t dismiss anything that may or may not happen to them, but it tells them that it is NOT “them.”

    We are so focused on the act, and making sure our kids talk to us, that we aren’t really confronting the “after.”
    The “after” is incredibly important. Yes, names of our genitals are important I guess, but guess what? Even if you call it a soup can, our kids can still tell us what is going on or what has happened. Get over that part of things.

    Our kids need to know first, what is okay and not okay with their bodies. Then, that they can tell us. You know what is next? That their parents will FIGHT for them and what has happened to them. That their parents will STOP what has happened, not by yelling or chatting with another parent, but actually defend the child. That means, police, pressing charges, therapy…WHATEVER it takes to help the child get better.
    I know a woman who was hurt/molested by an older boy in her neighborhood growing up. She didn’t tell her parents. What happened festered for over 20 years. That boy took who this woman was as a child. She was ashamed and so incredibly angry. Angry with her parents for not protecting her. She finally told them, after being married with her own kids what had happened, and of course there was nothing they could do, but her TELLING them finally helped her to move on.
    If her parents had raised her to tell them, but also, that if her body was raped/hurt/touched/damaged, it would NOT take away who SHE was in her heart and mind, she might possibly have been able to deal a tiny bit better.
    So, talk to your kids, and whether you use the clinical terms or not, tell them you will always FIGHT for them, who they are, no matter what happens, and if they are raped/touched/attacked, mean what you say.

    Sadly, I know too many women who were touched or raped by older boys/uncles/grandfathers/cousins etc. I felt like at one time I knew maybe 3 women who had not been messed with when they were children. That is horrible to realize.

    The above goes for boys as well. Boys are molested as children more than girls and they need to be taught to talk, that their body is not “who” they are as well, and that their parents will fight for what happens to them too.

    Hope this helps some parents with their talks or someone out there who may have been molested/hurt.

    1. Yes, sexual assault is so shockingly common. I pray that all of us have someone to fight for us and with us if needed. That ability starts, at the most basic level, with both children and parents feeling free to talk about body parts and touching. Stopping assault starts with boys and girls knowing, from a young age, that everyone is the boss of their own body. Maybe then we can change those shocking statistics. Thank you for sharing your story, QH.

      1. Hi Tracy,
        Have you experienced Darkness to Light’s “Stewards of Children” program? It’s a powerful 2 hr sexual abuse prevention program, including vignettes from survivors and 5 steps to take… Our rural Mount Baker school district employees are mandated to take the training (yay!) as well as parents in our cooperative preschool program. I think your readers might be interested. For more information, see, or contact Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham. Thanks! Kaye Marshall, Bellingham, WA.

  2. True! My point was more about not using cutesy names, but you’re absolutely right. Fixed. 🙂

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