Parents often ask us when they should start telling their children about sex. One answer is, when the child begins to ask questions. It seems typical for children to inquire about sex along with myriad other questions they ask about the world around them. Research has indicated that by about age 4, most children begin asking ques­tions about how babies are made (Martinson, 1994). What is more natural than to ask where you came from? Yet this curiosity is often stopped short by parental response. A flushed face and a few stammering words, a cursory "Wait till your mother (or father) comes home to ask that question," or "You’re not old enough to learn about such things" are a few of the common ways that communication in this vital area is blocked before it has a chance to begin. Putting off questions at this early age means that you may be confronted with the potentially awkward task of starting a dialogue on sexual matters at a later point in your children’s development.

It can be helpful for parents to include information about sex (when appropriate) in everyday conversations that their children either observe or participate in. Accomplish­ing this with a sense of ease and naturalness can increase the comfort with which the children introduce their own questions or observations about sex.

If a child’s questions either do not arise spontaneously or get sidetracked at an early age, there might be a point when you as a parent will feel it is important to begin to talk about sex. Perhaps a good starting point is to share your true feelings with your child— that possibly you are a bit uneasy about discussing sex or that maybe you are confused about some of your own feelings or beliefs. By expressing your own indecision or vul­nerability, you may actually make yourself more accessible. During this initial effort, simply indicating your feelings and leaving the door open to future discussions may be all that is needed. An incubation period is often valuable, allowing a child to interpret your willingness to talk about sexuality. If no questions follow this first effort, it might be wise to select a specific area for discussion. Some suggested open-ended questions for a low-key beginning include the following:

■ What do you think sex is?

■ What do you know about how babies are made?

■ What are some of the things that your friends tell you about sex?

■ How do you feel about the changes in your body? (for older children or early adolescents)

Understandably, parents sometimes tend to overload a child who expects a relatively brief, straightforward answer to his or her question. For example, 5-year-olds who inquire, "Where did I come from?" probably are not asking for a detailed treatise on

the physiology of sexual intercourse and conception. It is probably more helpful to just briefly discuss the basics of sexual intercourse, perhaps including the idea of potential pleasure in such sharing. It is also a good idea to check to see whether your child has understood your answer to his or her question. In addition, you might wish to ask if you have provided the information that was desired and also to let the child know that you are open to more questions. When young children want more information, they will probably ask for it, provided that an adult has been responsive to their initial questions.

Some parents believe that it is inappropriate to tell their children that sexual interac­tion is pleasurable. Others conclude that there is value in discussing the joy of sex with their children, as revealed in the following account:

One evening, while I was sitting on my daughter’s bed talking about the day’s events, she expressed some concern over her next-door playmate’s announce­ment that her father was going to purchase a stud horse. Apparently, she had been told to have me build a higher fence to protect her mare. Even though she knew all about horses mating, she asked why this was necessary. I explained the facts to her, and then she asked the real question on her mind: "Do you and Mom do that?" to which I replied, "Yes." "Do my uncle and aunt do that?" Again, "Yes," which produced the final pronouncement, "I don’t think I’ll get married." Clearly, she felt some strong ambivalence about what this sexual behavior meant to her. It seemed very important that I make one more state – ment—namely that not only did we do this but that it is a beautiful and pleasur­able kind of sharing and lots of fun! (Authors’ files)

Reluctance to express the message that sex can be enjoyable can stem from parents’ concern that their children will rush right out to find out what kind of good times they have been missing. There is little evidence to support such apprehension. There are, however, many unhappy lovers striving to overcome early messages about the dirtiness and immorality of sex.