As you ponder the process of communicating to your school-age child about sex, remember that the primary message you need to give him — more important in the long run than the specific facts and figures — is the importance of respect:
Think in terms of a gradual and relaxed release of information to your child: During the preschool years, begin with the basic naming of body parts and a general understanding of where babies come from, and before puberty begins, progress to full disclosure of the reproductive process.
Young children should know the correct names of their body parts (usually learned during bath time) and gain a basic sense of privacy and modesty for the "bathing suit" areas of the body. While understanding that their genitals are not "bad" or "dirty," they should also know that they are not intended for public display. Now that diaper days are over, your child should learn that the genital area should be touched only by the child himself, a doctor or nurse during an exam, or a parent for a specific reason. Tell your child that if someone else tries to touch those areas, he should protest noisily, get away and tell you as soon as possible. He must know that you will not be angry or upset with him if this should happen.
It is extremely likely that before age five, and possibly later as well, your child will engage in some form of genital show-and-tell with a sibling or another small child. If and when you discover this in progress, your response should not be overblown. Don't tell him that you are shocked and terribly ashamed of him, but instead clearly reinforce the privacy rule and remind him about respect for himself and the other child. The same should happen if your child streaks through the house or yard when others are present or exposes himself to someone else to get a reaction. More significant consequences should follow, of course, if you have talked to him about this behavior but he repeats it anyway. Here, however, the issue is obedience more than the specific act itself.
At some point he may barge into the bathroom when you're in the shower or even wander into the bedroom at a highly inopportune time. Again, don't overreact, but calmly ask him to leave. Later let him know that there is nothing bad about what he saw, but that it is meant to be private and that he should knock on the door first before coming into your room. Incidentally, once the toddler years have passed, grown-ups should abide by a dress code when the kids are at home: If you're not wearing enough to be seen by adult houseguests, you're not wearing enough to be seen by your children.
Along with learning the names and addresses of body parts, younger children will also be interested in the big picture of reproduction. Questions will undoubtedly come up if you are expecting a new baby in your family, and this event can provide a nice long window of opportunity to talk about the entire process of pregnancy and birth. With or without a nine-month object lesson at home, a straightforward explanation that a baby grows inside the mother and that at the right time he or she comes into the world through the mother's vagina will satisfy the need-to-know concerns for many children through the first or second grade.
Some will want to know more: How could the baby get through that small hole? Does it hurt to have a baby? Does Daddy help the baby come out? Matter-of-fact answers can alleviate a lot of concern: Yes, it is uncomfortable when the baby is born, but a doctor helps the baby come out and can give medicine to help the mother feel better. Moms who are going to have babies go to special classes, usually with the dads, so they'll be ready when the time comes.
Eventually, one way or another, the Big Question will come up: Why and how does a baby start to grow inside a mother? (Another common scenario: Once your child is old enough to appreciate a reading of the Christmas story, you may need to explain what a virgin is.) You should avoid mythology (storks) or pseudotheology ("God sends the baby to the mother") or misleading euphemisms ("The mother and father sleep together, and then the baby begins to grow inside the mother"). Some parents talk about mothers and fathers having a very special kind of hug, just for the two of them, which starts the baby growing, but even that explanation may be unclear. Indeed, all of these explanations suggest that pregnancy is a random or unpredictable event.
Only you can judge the readiness of your child, but in most cases when the question needs to be answered, offer a very simple but straightforward explanation. You can talk about how a mother makes a tiny egg inside her body every month, and if there is some sperm from the father to join with the egg at the right time, a baby will begin to grow. When you get more specific about the process that brings the man's sperm and the woman's egg together, remember to stress context: A man and woman who are married and love each other very much have a special time, just for the two of them, when they get very close to each other — in fact, so close that the man inserts his penis into the woman's vagina. After a while he releases his sperm inside her. Younger children will usually find this idea rather strange, and you can stress that when the man and woman love each other very much, they feel very good while this is going on.
You will need to supply a name for this activity: Having sex is probably the most direct without being vulgar; making love is a little vague; and sexual intercourse is rather clinical, although children should know that this is the term they'll be hearing later in life. Throughout, stress how good sex is — provided it occurs at the right time, with the right person and in the context of marriage.
Sooner or later, you will also need to talk about situations in which single adults are pregnant or raising children without a partner. You may be having these conversations with your children as a single parent. Children will need to know that some people have sex even though they are not married and that a baby may begin to grow inside a mother as a result. Or they may be married when the baby starts to grow but not married later on.
Whether you will want or need to delve more deeply into the complexities of adult life will depend upon your situation and the age of your child. A young child is going to be more concerned about basic information and his own security with you, whether married or single. A child approaching puberty will probably need more details: What happens when a single woman becomes pregnant? Do they all have their babies? Why do some mothers and fathers split up?
These may be emotional questions to tackle, especially if you have been involved in a divorce or are rearing one or more children on your own for whatever reason. But without condemning others or justifying irresponsibility, this can be an appropriate time to talk about the fact that sexual activity should not be taken lightly. You may want to mention that the Designer of human beings laid down some rules about sex for good reason — not to be a killjoy but to maximize our enjoyment of it and to prevent painful consequences. Sex experienced within those boundaries — between one man and one woman, maintained within a marriage relationship to which both are committed for the rest of their lives — is not only right but the safest and most pleasurable.