By the age of three, your child will probably begin to ask you for
information about sex. It will help if you take as much care in preparing
yourself for your child's sexuality education as you do when preparing to
teach him or her about health and physical safety.
Knowing what to expect at different ages can help you respond to typical
questions young children ask. It also helps to know what behaviors you can
Three to four years
Characteristics of sexual development
Three- and 4-year-olds are curious about where babies come from.
They explore other children's and adults' bodies because of their
curiosity. "Playing doctor" and pretending to be mommy or daddy become more
They have increased interest in the differences between adults' and
By age four, girls may become intensely attached to their fathers
and boys to their mothers.
Children begin to have a sense of modesty and can begin to understand
the difference between private and public behavior.
For many children, genital touching increases, especially when they
are tired or upset.
Three- and 4-year-olds still have a concern about elimination and
frequently use words that refer to bowel movements and urination.
Five to seven years
Characteristics of sexual development
Children in this age group begin to have more contacts outside the
family. Other children may bring up new ideas about sex.
They have increased need for privacy while bathing and dressing.
Five- to 7-year-olds often increase their use of sexual or "obscene"
language (frequently to test parental reaction).
They are more interested in what it means to be male or female.
They give up wanting to "marry" mom or dad. Girls become closer to
their mothers and boys to their fathers.
Children in this age group become more reticent about asking
Masturbation continues to be common. Tell your child that this is
not wrong, but it is something one does in private.
Parental concerns and questions
What if my child
Masturbation is normal, and most children fondle their genitals. Don't
make your child feel guilty about being interested in his or her own body.
However, by age four, a parent can help a child understand that this is a
private behavior — "It's OK in your room, but not in the grocery
I found my child
doctor with her friends. What should I do?
Because all children are curious, most children play "hospital" and
"doctor." This can be a good opportunity to say to your child, "I know you
are wondering about each others' bodies. Let's talk about what you want to
know." It is also a good opportunity to say, "Your body belongs to you. You
can tell someone, 'No,' if you don't want to be touched."
You also need to be aware of safety issues. Children may insert pencils,
sticks or other objects in body openings and cause injury. Although it is
normal for children of the same ages to engage in this exploratory play,
there is cause for concern if one or more of the children is older.
My 4 year-old son likes to dress up in girls' clothes and play
house. Will this lead to homosexuality?
No. This type of play is a way that children learn about the adult
world. Preschool children actively try out many roles.
My child frequently uses obscene words. How should I handle
You may want to check the child's knowledge about what the word means.
Children often use a word without knowing what it means. When you explain
what the word means, they often don't want to use it. Teach your child words
that are OK to use when he or she feels angry or frustrated. Many parents
wish to discourage the use of obscenities. Talk about what the words mean
with your child, and explain that these words may bother others.
What about sex on television?
Many parents are concerned about how television portrays sexual issues
and sexual behavior. Almost all programs and commercials convey sexual messages
— on sex roles, body image, how emotion is expressed, the meaning of
marriage and family and how people communicate about sexuality.
You can use television to strengthen your communication with your
child. Watch TV with your child and use the programs as a springboard for
discussion. Use these opportunities to discuss sexuality and family values
with your child. In addition, limit television viewing to programs you feel
are appropriate for your child.
Where do babies come from?
For younger children, use a simple answer such as, "Babies come from
inside the mother. They grow in a special place called the uterus."
By age 5, children become intensely interested in where babies come
from, and you may need to give a more detailed explanation. If your child
is interested, you could describe intercourse and conception in simple
parent — Let your children know they can come to you with
Starting early with sexuality education can help you communicate with
your child now and during the teen years. Some guidelines to help you become
an "askable" parent are:
Let your child know he or she can come to you for information.
Be willing to repeat information until your child understands.
Check out what your child already knows by asking what he or she
Keep your answers simple. Think about what your child can and can't
Realize it's OK to say, "I don't know." There are many good books
for you and your child to read together.
Relax. You want to help your child understand that sexuality is a
valuable part of human experience. Review the facts of reproduction if you
Have a sense of humor and make this learning experience fun for you
and your child.
To become more comfortable talking about sex with your child, practice
first. "Discuss" a topic with yourself in the bathroom mirror, talk with
a friend or role-play with your partner, switching roles of child and
to start a conversation
Written by Lynn Blinn Pike and used with the kind permission
of Human Development and Family Studies, University of
2000 University of Missouri. Published by
University Extension, University