How to talk to your child about sex
Tricky stuff

How to talk to your child about sex

Have your children asked you where they came from yet? Arlene Harris looks at the best and most age appropriate ways to talk to your child about sex.

It might be the oldest story in the book, but the tale of the Birds and the Bees still gets parents in a flap as they try to work out what is the best age to enlighten children about their existence and how they should tackle such a potentially delicate subject without appearing embarrassed or flustered.

How to talk to your child about sex

Jeanette McMahon has three children. She remembers hearing the ‘facts of life’ from a friend in school and the idea seemed so preposterous that she accused her classmate of lying – much to the amusement of older and wiser children. So she vowed to ensure her own youngsters wouldn’t suffer the same fate and decided early on that she would tell them whatever they wanted to know about the circle of life and deliver it in a factual, no-nonsense manner – despite the awkwardness of the subject.

“My parents told me nothing about the Birds and the Bees,” says the 42-year-old. “They have always considered themselves very ‘with-it’ as parents, but they really left us to our own devices and that included anything to do with sex or our bodies. “Consequently, I made a complete fool of myself when I was in about 5th or 6th class as I was appalled when a friend told me how babies were made.

Looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t the ‘done thing’ for parents to talk about stuff like that to their children, but I know I could have benefited from a few words to the wise.

How to talk to your child about sex

Answer all questions

“So I have always made sure to answer any questions my kids asked and have tried to make it as casual as possible – despite the fact that I was actually quite embarrassed.”

There is a lot of talk about when is the best age to broach the subject of reproduction, but the Limerick woman felt that if her children asked the question, she would answer in a manner, which was both factual and age-appropriate.

And while her sons were fairly young when they had ‘the talk’, she feels it has benefited them because the subject is no longer taboo. “I was cooking dinner one evening last year when Matt asked me a question about where babies come from,” says Jeanette, who is married to Patrick.

“Michael was with him at the time but wasn’t really paying attention so I casually told both of them the names for all the reproductive organs and explained that the male seed needed to fertilise the female egg. “

They were quite curious and went off to look in a book they had about animals and thankfully I didn’t have to delve into exactly how the seed managed to find its way to the egg – I knew that question would come but for the moment, I had answered the question I had been asked.

“About a month later, Matt came back and asked me how exactly the egg was fertilised. My initial response was total mortification but I reminded myself who was the grown up and I explained in the simplest way possible. He seemed quite perplexed to start with but then as the penny dropped, he seemed happy with the answer – although he did let me know how awful he thought the process was.”

Be open

Having imparted the facts to her eldest son, the mother-of-three says she isn’t at all fazed about telling her other children and feels it is actually better when they are younger as they don’t have the crippling embarrassment, which often afflicts older children.

“I think it’s a case of the ‘anticipation being worse than the execution’ with giving kids the facts of life,” she says. “I had worried about it, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought and I think children are a lot more mature than we give them credit for.

“It was fine telling Matt and I’m glad I did it then rather than when he was 12 and much more embarrassed. And now that I’ve done it once, I am will have no problem talking to Michael and Caoimhe about it when the time comes. “I think I’ve done the right thing but as with everything with children, only time will tell.”


Keep it simple and age appropriate

Dr David Carey is a consultant child psychologist. He agrees with Jeanette and says that the most appropriate way to educate children on this topic is to answer questions as and when the child asks.

“There is no optimum age for telling children the facts of life,” he says. “Young children become curious about how babies are born and where they come from at an early age, usually around three or four. And children of this age can just be told that mummy is having a baby and that the baby grows from an egg and comes out of her vagina – yes, it is appropriate to properly name the body parts to young children.

“Most children of this age will accept that answer. Of course you can go further if you want; explaining that when a man and a woman love one another they get close and the man’s sperm finds the mummy’s egg and creates a new baby. All of this depends on the age and development of the child.”

The Dublin based psychologist says parents will know when their child is ready for information of this kind but should ensure not to divulge too much too soon.

”You will know if your child is ready for the facts of life simply by answering their questions when they arise – it is not helpful to force the issues on a child,” he says. “Simply answering the questions in an age-appropriate way is the best. There is no magic formula.

“However, it is important not to tell too much. Listen carefully to the questions your child has asked and answer them succinctly. Do not over explain. Young children do not need to know about the act of love making. The age of the “big talk” is a thing of the past. There is no reason to sit a child down and outline the act of love making. Children need only learn what they need to learn, based on what they ask, at a certain age.

“On that note, remember that parenting your child is your responsibility alone. Do not be worried what other parents think or say. But if your child starts talking about these things to other children tell him or her that these are private matters and things we don’t discuss to others. “Also it is good to note that in our primary schools a certain part of the curriculum will address these matters.”

Suggested reading

What’s the big Secret? Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

It’s Perfectly Normal Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley

More like this:

Talking to your child about death
Oversharing online
Expert tips on dealing with peer pressure


Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.



Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….