Children are naturally curious about their bodies and other people. By answering any questions they ask, you can help them understand their bodies, their feelings and other people's feelings. This is a good basis for open and honest communication about sex and relationships, growing up and going through puberty.
Talking to children about sex won't make them go out and do it. Evidence shows that children whose parents talk about sex openly start having sex at a later stage and are more likely to use contraception.
How much should I tell my child about sex?
It depends on your child. If they seem happy with your answer and don't ask a follow-up question, you've probably given them enough information. If they ask another question, you can tell them more.
You don't have to go into detail. A short, simple answer might be enough. For example, if your three-year-old asks why she hasn't got a penis like her brother, you could tell her that boys have penises on the outside and girls have vaginas on the inside. This could be enough to satisfy her curiosity.
Work out exactly what your child wants to know. For example, if they ask a question, such as "Where do babies come from?", identify what they're asking. Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.
You could answer by saying: "Babies grow in a woman's tummy, and when they're ready they come out into the world". This might be enough.
If not, your child's follow-up question could be, "How does the baby get in there?" You could answer, "A man puts a seed in there". Or your child may ask, "How does the baby get out?" You could answer, "It comes out through a special passage in the woman's body called a vagina".
What do children need to know about sex?
They need to know that it's OK to talk about sex and relationships, and that you're happy to talk about it. They'll learn this through your tone and manner when you talk about sex, so try to treat sex as a normal, everyday subject.
Beyond sex, your child needs to know the following main topics:
Your child needs to know about puberty before they go through it, otherwise they could be scared or shocked by the changes. Find out more about girls and puberty and boys and puberty.
Girls need to know about starting periods before they're around 10 years old, and boys need to know about the changes they can expect before they're around 12. There's no reason for girls and boys not to learn the same things. For example, boys can learn about periods, and girls can learn about erections.
If your child is approaching the age where they need to know about puberty or sex and relationships, but they're not asking questions about it, use everyday situations to lead to the conversation. For example, you could talk about a story in a TV programme, or bring up periods when you see tampons or sanitary pads in a shop.
Tell your child that they're growing up, there will be some changes that happen to everyone and you want to let them know what to expect.
Why your child should know about sex
Children need to know about sex, pregnancy, contraception and safer sex before they start any sexual activity. This is so they will know what to think about, such as safer sex and not doing anything they don't want to do. This way, they can make decisions that are right for them when the time comes.
Most young people in the UK don't have sex until they're at least 16.
Everyone needs to know about safer sex, whether they're straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Women can pass STIs on to women and men can pass STIs on to men. For more information, see sexual health for women who have sex with women and for men who have sex with men.
Have an answer ready for awkward situations
No matter how open you are about sex, there will be times when you need a quick answer to deal with awkward questions, for example, in the supermarket queue or on a bus.
Say something like, "That's a good question. I'd like to talk about that when we get home", or "That's a good question, but we need to talk about it in private". Make sure you remember to talk about it later.
The fpa has helpful information for parents. Its book 'Speakeasy: talking with your children about growing up' spells out how to sit down and talk to your children about puberty, sex and relationships in an age-appropriate way. It is suitable for parents with children of any age.
You can buy the book direct from the fpa or check if your local library stocks it or can order it for you.