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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sex education: Start discussions early

It's never too early to start talking to your children about sexual matters. Openness, even with young children, will show that sex is an acceptable topic of conversation. Teach your child that you are available to discuss sexual issues, and establish a comfort level — for both of you — with the topic.

Don't feel like you have to include everything in one big discussion. Instead, talk about questions and behaviors as they occur.

Toddlers explore themselves

Between the ages of 18 months to 3 years, children begin to learn about their own bodies. Teach your child the proper names for sex organs. Otherwise, he or she might get the idea that something is wrong with these parts of the body.

It's normal for a child to explore his or her body and to do what feels good. Self-stimulation is one way a child's natural sexual curiosity is manifested. Boys typically pull at their penis, and girls rub their external genitalia.

The concept of privacy

This may be a good time to teach your child about privacy. Masturbation is a normal, but private, activity. If your child suddenly starts masturbating in the middle of a play group, try to distract him or her. If that fails, take your child aside for a reminder about the importance of privacy.

Sometimes, frequent masturbation can indicate a problem in the child's life. Perhaps he or she is under a lot of stress, or isn't receiving enough attention at home. It can even be a sign of sexual abuse. Teach your child that the parts of the body covered by a bathing suit are private, and that no one should be allowed to touch them without permission.

Curiosity about others

By the age of 3 or 4, children are ready to know that boys and girls have different genitals. To satisfy their normal curiosity about each other's sex organs, children may play "doctor" or matter-of-factly take turns examining each other. This exploration is far removed from adult sexual activity, and it's harmless when only young children are involved. As a family matter, however, you may want to set limits on such exploration, discouraging it if you see it going on.

At this age, many children ask the dreaded question: "Where do babies come from?" Try to give a simple and direct response, such as: "Babies grow in a special place inside the mother." As your child matures, you can add more details.

Segregation of the sexes

Between the ages of 5 and 7, children become more aware of their gender. Boys may tend to associate only with boys, and girls only with girls. In fact, they may even say they hate children of the opposite sex.

At this age, questions about sex will become more complex, as your child tries to understand the connection between sexuality and making babies. He or she may turn to friends for some of these answers.

Because children can pick up faulty information about sex and reproduction, it may be best to ask what your child knows about a particular topic before you start explaining it.

Preteen angst

Children between the ages of 8 and 12 worry a lot about whether they are "normal." Penis size and breast size figure heavily in these worries. Children of the same age mature at wildly different rates. Reassure your child that he or she is well within the normal range of development.

What kids should know before they reach puberty

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that before they reach puberty, children should have a basic understanding of:

* The names and functions of male and female sex organs
* What happens during puberty and what the physical changes of puberty mean — movement into young womanhood or young manhood
* The nature and purpose of the menstrual cycle
* What sexual intercourse is and how females become pregnant
* How to prevent pregnancy
* Same-sex relationships
* Masturbation
* Activities that spread sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), in particular AIDS
* Your expectations and values

Be honest, open and matter-of-fact

Talking about sexual matters with your child can make you both feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Let your child guide the talk with his or her questions. Don't giggle or laugh, even if the question is cute. Try not to appear overly embarrassed or serious.

If you have been open with your child's questions since the beginning, it is more likely that your child will come to you with his or her questions in the future. The best place for your child to learn about relationships, love, commitment and respect is from you.
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