originally published on November 15, 1999; updated April 30, 2021
Dear Sex Ed Mom,
I have a 3-year-old and I want to know if I should talk to him about sex, babies and where they come from. Or, do I wait until he asks me?
Dear Hurry Mom,
Sexuality education does start at the very beginning. There is no such thing as starting too early. Even three-year-olds can begin to learn about healthy sexuality. It’s just a matter of what is appropriate, in terms of age and development, for your child.
Here is a list of some basic sexuality information you should be teaching your three-year-old:
Accurate basic terminology for external genitalia (penis, testicles, vulva, clitoris, urethra) — explaining that urine/pee comes out of the penis for males and it comes out of the urethra for female bodies. The urethra is a very small hole between the clitoris and vagina.
The concept that “his body belongs to him” and he has the right to say NO to unwanted touching on any part of his body — even by authority figures like parents, teachers or doctors.
How babies are made/where babies come from. Here is a sample script:
“It takes two people to make a baby — just like it takes 2 animals. When people are older their bodies start to make sperm (for those with testicles/males) and eggs (for those with ovaries/females). Sperm has to meet up with an egg. If an egg and sperm get together, they make a fertilized egg. This egg can grow inside the female’s body in a special place near the tummy called a uterus. The fertilized egg grows to become a baby that is born in about 9 months. We call this time that a baby grows inside the uterus of a female, pregnancy.”
This is simple enough for most three-year-olds. You may want to also add that only females with a uterus can get pregnant and give birth. A children’s book that explains how babies are made in very simple and gender-neutral language is, What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg (Seven Stories Press, 2012). Perhaps you could read this with your son and tell him the role he could someday play in making a baby.
That he should be able to ask you any questions he has — tell him this often so he knows that you are truly an askable parent. If you don’t know the answers or what to say, do some research or read more of my columns for some pointers. And, don’t forget to include your values with the accurate information.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, simply a good place to start. You should also provide this information in a gradual, ongoing manner rather than having just one quick (or long) talk. You may also get the same questions over and over again so you will need to be ready to repeat the “sex ed moments” many times. Also, don’t ever just wait until your child asks questions. Some children never ask.
Finally, here are some wonderful books you can read with your pre-school-aged child that were also some of my son’s favorites. (Note: most are from the 1990s so may be difficult to find in print. I will update with newer books soon):
- “Mommy Laid An Egg” by Babette Cole (Chronicle Books, 1996)
- “What’s The Big Secret?” by Laurene Krasny Brown (Little, Brown & Company, 1997)
- “Belly Buttons Are Navels” by Mark Schoen (Prometheus Books, 1992)
- “It’s So Amazing” by Robie Harris (Candlewick Press, 1999; 2014) — this is recommended for ages 7 and up, but there are many sections you may want to read with your 3-year-old. It’s a bit like a comic book with amazing body inclusive illustrations.
The sooner you start the easier and more comfortable it will get. Good luck.