Human Sexuality: What Children Need to Know
and When They Need to Know It
(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)
- It’s best to start talking with children about sexuality in early childhood – but it’s never too late to start.
- You can't tell children "too much" – what they don't understand will just go over their heads.
- Giving information is not giving permission – children who get the facts wait longer before having sex than children who are told nothing.
We want our children to grow up to have healthy and happy lives. For most of us, this includes wanting them to have rewarding relationships and sex lives.
To help children reach these goals, we need to
- give them the information and skills they need to make responsible choices
- encourage them to take good care of their bodies
- help them build the confidence they need to respect themselves and other people
- earn their respect – if we can do that, they are more likely to look to us and other trusted adults for information when they need it
Children don’t all learn at the same rate, but we want to give you some general guidelines that apply to most children. These guidelines cover what information children need to know and what skills they need to have when it comes to sex and sexuality. We have grouped them according to what is appropriate for different age groups. But first, let’s define sexuality.
What Is Sexuality?
We are all sexual. Our sexuality affects who we are and how we express ourselves as sexual beings.
Our sexuality includes
- our bodies, including our sexual and reproductive anatomy
- our biological sex (female or male)
- gender identity (the core sense that we are female or male)
- gender roles (how we think we should behave because we are female or male)
- sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual)
- how we feel about our bodies (we call that “body image,” and poor body image can have a profound effect on our ability to have healthy relationships)
- sexual experiences, thoughts, ideas, and fantasies
- the way in which morals, family, friends, religion, age, life goals, and our self-esteem shape our sexual selves
- how we experience intimacy, touch, love, compassion, joy, and sorrow
In short, sexuality is an integral part of who we are, what we believe, what we feel, and how we respond to others. Which means that whether we like it or not and whether we say anything or not, we will have a strong influence on the sexuality of our children. Silence may even speak louder than words.
Understanding our sexuality is a lifelong process. We can help our children gain this understanding by giving them age-appropriate information.
What Do Children Need to Know by Age 5?
By age five, children need to know
- that love should make people feel good, safe, and wanted
- that people's bodies come in different shapes, sizes, and colors
- how the bodies of girls and women are different from the bodies of boys and men
- the correct names for body parts, including sexual and reproductive body parts
- how to talk about their sexual parts without feeling naughty
- that it is normal to touch one’s genitals for pleasure and that one should do so only in private
- how a baby “gets in” and “gets out” of a woman’s body
- that both genders are equal
- that people’s bodies belong to themselves
- how to say “no” to unwanted touch
- how to talk with trusted adults about sexual issues, questions, and concerns
What Do Children Need to Know by Age 9?
In addition to earlier information and skills, children need to know
- that all living things reproduce
- the basic facts about sex, conception, pregnancy, and the birth process
- that there are many different types of family situations and that no single type is better than the rest
- they can live outside of stereotyped gender roles – for example, that women can be good leaders and men can be good at taking care of children
- that sexual identity includes sexual orientation
- that we must all take an active role in protecting our health
- the basic facts about disease prevention
- that a friend is someone we enjoy being with, someone who shares, listens, encourages, and helps us think through our problems
- how to develop, maintain, and end friendships
- how to recognize and protect themselves from potential sexual abuse – for example, children need to know that sexual predators may seem kind, giving, and loving. They may be friends or family members.
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What Do Children Need to Know
Before They Reach Puberty?
In addition to earlier information and skills …
About Adolescent Development, Children Need to Know
- how female and male bodies grow and differ
- that puberty starts at different times for different individuals and that the length of time it takes to get through puberty varies from one individual to the next
- that it is “normal” for everyone to be different, that everyone eventually gets through puberty, and that the anxiety and confusion caused by puberty are not permanent conditions
- that each of us has a basic shape that can't be changed – no matter how much or how little we eat or exercise – and that we don't have to accept society's current notion of the “perfect” body
- what menstruation and wet dreams are and how to handle these events
- that personal hygiene becomes more important once we reach puberty
- that emotional changes are common during this time
- that lots of changes in friendships take place during puberty and that rejection by old friends can be very painful
- that relationships with parents can be difficult during the teen years, but that parents want to be supportive of their children
About Sexual Behavior, Children Need to Know
- how to accept human sexuality and their own sexual feelings as a natural part of life
- that people have sex for reasons other than having a baby
- that masturbation is very common, that it’s okay if you masturbate and okay if you don’t, that masturbation should be done only in private, and that there shouldn’t be feelings of guilt associated with masturbation
- that sexual relationships have potential risks and that you are not ready for sex until you understand your rights and accept the responsibilities that come with having sex
- what sexually transmitted infections are
- the basic facts about HIV/AIDS
- abstinence from genital sex is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and the spread of most sexually transmitted infections
- that there are many different ways to express closeness without having genital sex – and that these ways are an alternative to genital sex, not a poor substitution for it
- what rape is
About Human Reproduction and Birth Control, Children Need to Know
- the biology of the fertility cycle, how pregnancy happens, and how a pregnancy develops
- that teen pregnancy brings many challenges
- that birth control methods can prevent pregnancy
- that 85 out of 100 women who have vaginal sex will become pregnant within a year if they do not use birth control
- what birth control methods are easily obtainable
- how to communicate assertively with a partner about using birth control
- how to get birth control
- what emergency contraception is
- what abortion is
About Relationships, Children Need to Know
- the purposes and considerations of dating, and about the potential for exploitive relationships
- how to ask assertively for what you want in a relationship, how to take “no” for an answer, and how to refuse the sexual requests of others
- how their communities and families feel about dating
- that there do not have to be prescribed gender roles for dating partners
- how to end relationships without getting hurt and without hurting others
- how sex role stereotypes affect their lives
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What Do Teenagers Need to Know Before Their
First Relationship or Sexual Encounter?
In addition to earlier information and skills …
About Sexuality, Teenagers Need to Know
- the positive role that sexuality and sexual pleasure should play in one's life
- how to take responsibility for sexual choices and behavior
- that sexual orientation is not a choice and that the only difference between heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals is the gender of the persons to whom they are attracted
- that there are trusted adults to whom they can turn if they have questions or concerns
About Sexual Behavior, Teenagers Need to Know
- that sexually transmitted infections can be spread through vaginal, oral, and anal sex
- how to reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted infections
- that one way to reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted infections is to choose sexual activities that are safer than genital sex. These activities include holding hands, hugging, kissing, rubbing up against a partner while both of you are fully clothed, giving a partner pleasure by using the fingers or hand, and phone or cybersex with a partner.
About Personal Values and Social Pressures, Teenagers Need to Know
- how to resist peer pressure
- that they are responsible for the choices they make
- how the media portray women, men, and sexuality
- how the media shape what they think and feel about sex and sexuality and how to minimize these effects
- that everyone has the right not to be in a relationship
- that everyone has the right not to have sex
- how to talk about their own experiences, attitudes, and feelings about relationships and having sex
- how to make good decisions and solve problems
- how to build self-esteem
About Personal Relationships and Reproductive Responsibility, Teenagers Need to Know
- the qualities of a healthy relationship
- the differences between love and infatuation
- that relationships often change over time and how to have realistic expectations about long-term relationships
- the details about birth control methods and how to tell myth from fact when it comes to birth control
- how to communicate assertively with a partner about sex, sexual activities that are safer than genital sex, and sexual limits
- how to recognize sexual violence and its effects
- the meaning of consent as it applies to sexual touch
- how to recognize an unhealthy relationship
- how to avoid unwanted or inappropriate sexual experiences
About Parenthood, Teenagers Need to Know
- that it is possible to plan parenthood
- that having a child is a long-term responsibility and that every child deserves mature, responsible, and loving parents
- what a parent’s responsibilities are
- the basics about how to take care of an infant
Adapted from “Human Sexuality – What Children Need to Know and When – At a Glance,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America, www.plannedparenthood.org, 2008.
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