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Readers react to article on sex ed for young kids

An article on teaching children about their bodies and sex led to a heavy mailbag. Dr. Gail Saltz responds to some frequent questions.

After my column a couple of weeks ago on , I received many questions. As always, I appreciate your mail, and I am responding to some of the frequent issues here. One theme, though, was dominant: “I hate dealing with this topic, and want it to go away!” Well, it won’t — and I really urge you to tackle it head-on. Again, thank you for your feedback.

Q: My 4-year-old daughter often rubs her teddy bear against her crotch. How do I talk to her about masturbation?

A: Kids soon learn that various body parts feel good — some parts more than others. Even at a young age, it is normal and natural for them to want to give themselves pleasurable feelings.

Never tell her tall tales, like she will get acne or go blind. It’s this kind of thing that causes problems later in life. You do not want your children to grow up associating guilt with sexual pleasure.

Instead, when you see your daughter doing this, tell her it is fine to do so, but emphasize that it’s a private activity and should be done in private.

Masturbation is also one way children manage stress. If your child is constantly masturbating, it might be a sign of anxiety — about school, friends, siblings or anything else. You should explore what is making your child anxious, and if it persists, consider an evaluation.

Q: When my preschool daughter has her little boy friend over, he wants to play in her bedroom. Every time they are there, I catch them taking down their pants. His mother seems to brush it off and lets them play in his room when she goes to his house. Is this normal, and how do I explain to my daughter not to do this?

A: Indeed, curiosity is normal. Kids often pull down each other’s pants and check out one another’s parts. But you want to discourage this behavior, because looking leads to touching, and touching is often stimulating and overwhelming.

Children at play should be supervised. Don’t let them play alone in her bedroom. And don’t put any of the burden of dealing this on your daughter — a 4-year-old can’t handle the burden of saying no to a friend. Simply tell the other mother that if they are going to play at their house, the children must be supervised. If she won’t cooperate, avoid letting your daughter go over there to play.

Q: Out of the blue, my daughter said a school friend was on the computer and saw [a couple involved in a very intimate sexual act]. How should I respond to my daughter without having to explain oral sex to a 7-year-old?

A: You can give correct information without giving a detailed how-to.

Unfortunately, pornography is more accessible than ever, despite computer controls. Often, sexual activity between adults appears to a child to be an aggressive act, disturbing and scary. This is why you are better off explaining what is really going on than brushing it off.

If your daughter sees pornography — or hears talk from older kids on the school bus, or otherwise encounters adult material — ask what she saw and what she thought it was. Her fantasies may be very frightening. Then tell her the truth in a simple and non-threatening way, without going into great detail.

In this case, explain that she saw a grown-up activity, which is called oral sex, and it’s something grownups sometimes do — when they are in love or get married (or whatever fits in with your personal values system).

If your child hears nasty words, explain that these are slang words for grownup activities, and are often used by people who are insecure and trying to seem tough or cool. But emphasize that your child shouldn’t use these words — there are better ways of expressing yourself.

Q: My children are 6, 7 and 9. They haven’t asked about sex or seemed curious. Although I’ve been comfortable thus far, I am terrified about explaining anything beyond simple anatomy. Do I toss it out there anyway?

A: Yes, you do. Your kids might not seem interested in sex, but this may well mean that they can sense your awkwardness, and embarrassment has already set in. This means it’s more important than ever to talk to them. As their parent, it is up to you to dispel their fears.

Acknowledge that they don’t want to talk about this topic, but it is important for them to know about their bodies.

You have to be determined and you need to look for an opportunity. You can say: “The girls in your class look like they are developing — what do you think about that?” Or: “That television ad is about tampons. This is what they are.” The more often you do this, the easier it will get. (However, please don’t let the excuse of not having the right opportunity prevent you from taking action.)

Q: I have boy-girl twins. Do I talk to them about sex together?

A: No, you should talk to them individually. And my response would be the same even if you had twins of the same gender. Regardless of whether siblings are the same sex or age, each child has his individual questions and concerns. They might be reluctant to speak up with a sibling present.

That’s not to say you might not make a passing comment when both kids are there, but if you are going to talk or read a book together, give your children their own personal time on this subject.

Q: I want my husband to talk to my son about sex — and he won’t. Is it okay if I do this?

A: Absolutely. It is often the case that a father is more comfortable talking to the sons and a mother to the daughters because they share the same parts. But it matters more that this be a comfortable experience. You don’t want your husband’s reluctance conveyed to your son.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: I can’t stress enough the importance of being open and honest with your kids about their bodies and sexuality, beginning at an early age.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.