Young kids are curious, and have lots of questions. Being open to these questions without judgment at this age shows them that you’re a source of support.
What should I keep in mind?
The way you talk about sexuality sends messages that last a lifetime. These conversations aren’t just about sharing information — you’re teaching values and attitudes. HOW you talk is one of the first lessons your kid gets about sexuality. Your words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and willingness (or unwillingness) to answer questions and encourage your child’s natural curiosity can impact how they feel about themselves and whether they see you as a safe source of information when they’re older.
It’s common to feel weird talking about sexuality with your kids, but try to manage your reactions in the moment so you don’t transfer shame or anxiety onto them. Remember, young kids are pretty much a blank slate — they don’t know that adults see certain body parts and activities as sexual, so they won’t understand why some people are uncomfortable talking about it. So do your best to address sex and masturbation in a way that’s positive (or neutral), matter-of-fact, and encourages them to come to you with questions in the future.
Think ahead of time about your values. Conversations about sex and masturbation not only give you an opportunity to share accurate information with your kid, they’re also an opportunity to talk about your values. Your values influence how you talk about it, so think ahead of time about what messages you want to send. It’s also a good idea to talk about these values with any co-parents or caretakers, so you’re all on the same page.
For example, you might want to think about what you’re going to say about why people have sex — is it something people do when they’re in love? That grownups sometimes choose to do with each other? To feel good? To feel close to each other? To have a baby? All of these? Some but not others? At this age, you don’t have to go into detail about all of the complicated reasons people have sex. For now, it’s more about communicating what’s most important to you.
How do I talk about sex?
The most important thing is being open, honest, and available when your kid wants to talk, and to encourage questions and learning. It’s normal to feel a little awkward during some of these talks, but remember that preschoolers don’t realize these topics are difficult for adults.
Having a negative reaction or refusing to answer sends the message that your child’s natural curiosity is bad, and that it’s not okay to come to you with questions. So even if you feel flustered, try to keep calm and positive.
When talking to younger kids, it’s common for parents to frame sex only as “something married grownups do when they want to have a baby.” Of course that is one big reason people have sex, but it’s okay and even good for kids to understand that grownups have sex for other reasons too, like for pleasure and to express love and feel closer to a partner.
Check out these tips for starting age-appropriate conversations and answering questions about sex and sexuality.
What do I do if I see my preschooler touch their genitals?
It’s okay to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if you see your child touching their genitals, but try remember that it’s perfectly normal and healthy.
It’s very common for babies, toddlers, and young kids to touch their genitals during diaper changes, in the bath, or at any random time. At this age, nudity and masturbation is about reflexes or curiosity, not sex. Little kids don’t see genitals as sexual or inappropriate in any way — they just know that touching them feels good.
Reacting to this behavior with shock, anger, or scolding can make your kid feel ashamed of their genitals or touching themselves. It probably won’t stop them from doing it, but it can cause feelings of guilt and an unhealthy relationship with their body that can impact their future sex life or relationships.
You can teach them that touching their genitals is something that’s not appropriate to do in public. Preschoolers are old enough to understand privacy. So instead of trying to convince them to stop touching themselves, have a conversation about boundaries. You can say something like, “I know that feels good, and it’s OK to do that in your room or the bathroom. It’s not ok to touch your penis in front of other people. It’s something that’s private.”
What do I do if my preschooler walks in on me having sex?
It’s natural to feel embarrassed, but kids this age will probably have no idea what you were doing or what it means. In the moment, try to be matter-of-fact and say something like, “We’re having private time. Can you please close the door and go play in your room?”
If you did happen to yell or react in a way that could be upsetting to your kid, you can apologize later and explain that you were just surprised and that they didn’t do anything wrong. You can also ask them what they saw and if they have any questions, and mention that they need to knock before coming into other people’s rooms.
You can be honest with your kid but still give an explanation that leaves out the details of sex — “That was something that grownups sometimes do in private to feel good and show that they love each other.”
It’s not harmful for kids to know that sex exists. Depending on your comfort level and whether you’ve had conversations about sex before, it’s OK to just say you were having sex and see if they have follow up questions.