"Where do babies come from?"
This is the usual first question kids ask that opens up a discussion about bodies and sex. Another opening may be, "How are girls different from boys?", or the one I got, "Mom, why don't you have a penis?"
Kids are naturally curious about everything. It is our job as parents to teach them about everything, including matters of the body. Pre-schoolers will ask questions like these. It is important that we answer them honestly and in an age-appropriate manner. Kids this age don't need to know the details of intercourse, Daddy having sperm that meets Mommy's egg is usually a sufficient answer for them.
More importantly our kids need to know that yes there are differences between the way boys and girls are made. It is good for us to let them know what these differences are and what the proper names for body parts are as well.
I know a lot of you are totally nervous about this. It is so important for us to look at our own feelings about sex and bodies and think about how our attitude is going to transfer over to our children. Many people unwittingly pass on feelings of shame to their kids when it comes to discussing bodies. This can come from our own personal feelings due to our own personal experiences, or even by the refusal to talk about it, glossing over the subject (saying things like "down there" instead of calling a penis a penis).
When I started to talk about bodies with my kids I bought two books to help me along. One specifically talked about private parts. The other talked about bodies as a whole, how our bodies work and function. I wanted them to see their bodies as an entity.
Amazing You! by Dr. Gail Saltz is written with pre-schoolers in mind. It describes the differences between boy bodies and girl bodies. The pictures are drawn. The book is written in a very positive way to introduce kids to this topic. The back pages have a letter to parents to help them along as they talk to their kids. I really recommend picking this one up as a conversation starter for you and your kids. I bought it when my oldest was 4 and asking a lot of questions. My 3 year old is now asking some of the same questions so I've brought this book out and found that it is helping.
The Busy Body Book is the other book I bought to help me to teach my kids about how their bodies work. This book focuses on fitness and healthy living. Again, the pictures are drawn. This book shows the different systems of the body (skeletal, muscles, brain & nerves, lungs, heart & blood vessels, and the stomach & intestines). It gives an overview of how the body works together and what we do to maintain a healthy body.
I think it's great to cover the body as a whole system. The more kids know to be healthy, the better off they will be.
Things I've learned about talking to my kids about their bodies:
1) teach them the correct names for body parts. It's fine to use the word "pee-pee" for everyday talk, but let them know a penis is a penis. Teach your girl the difference between a labia, urethra and vagina.
2) let them know early on that parts of their bodies are private, and only for them. It is perfectly fine for your child to know the meaning of privacy and grant them the opportunity to change in private, pee in private and wash in private (yes, supervise their bath for safety). We started with privacy when our oldest was 2 and in daycare. We knew that the daycare workers were changing his diapers. We taught him the phrase "wipe, wipe, done". He knew that if people were handling his diaper changing longer than that that he needed to tell us. Yes, that is how early we started. We've kept this topic open often. One way to describe what a private part is is anything that your bathing suit covers is private. We've also taught our kids the importance of telling us no matter what anyone else tells them. My kids know that there are some adults who are not nice and who tell lies. It is more important that mommy and daddy know what adults (or bigger kids) are saying and doing than what those people tell them. Their bodies are their own.
3) talk to your kids about everything. My husband was raised in a family where kids were seen and not heard. He was a kid with lots of questions and didn't get many if any answers. The more questions you answer about everything with your kids (no matter how tedious), the more open they will be to come to you with questions about their bodies.
4) talk with a straight face. Practice saying the words, or, reading the book of your choice for them if you have to. I have an easier time with this than my husband does. I think it's because of the homes we grew up in. He wasn't allowed to talk about it. My mom was an RN and did talk to us from a young age. She was straightforward with us and that's how I want to be with my kids.
5) think age appropriately. Kids at this age do not need to know everything. The details are not yet important. They need to know the basics. They need to know what bodies look like. They need to know that their bodies will change as they get older. They need to know that a sperm + egg = a baby. They need to know that babies grow inside of a mommy's uterus (not tummy) before it is born. When I was pregnant with my 3rd child, my (then) 5 year old really wanted to know exactly what was going on. I found a beautiful book at the library with color pictures describing the development of a baby.
Lennart Nilsson is a well known Sweedish Photographer who captured babies in utero. This is exactly the book that my son needed at the time. I now know that there is another similar book geared to children called "How was I born?" from the same photographer and author.
5. Books are excellent tools to get questions answered and conversations going. You may find you have an easier time talking with your kids if you are all looking at a book together.
6. Be ready for any question at any time. They will come when you least expect them. It is okay to give them a quick answer and say, "You know, that's a great question. Why don't we talk about it tonight when Mommy has a good amount of time to talk with you about it?" Then make sure you follow up!
Remember, you want the best for your little ones. Knowledge is crucial for them. They trust you most in this world, we need to return the favor be honest and open back.