When I was in my early 20s, I used to babysit for my neighbor's two daughters. One evening as my boyfriend and I stood talking to their parents, 4-year-old Emily joined in with a conversation stopper.
"Do you have a penis?" she demanded of my boyfriend, who looked suddenly like a deer caught in the headlights. "Because," Emily continued, "my daddy has one. He says all boys have penises and all girls have vaginas."
"Uh, that's right," said my boyfriend weakly. And then all the grown-ups laughed with what could only be called relief. Later that evening, my boyfriend wondered whether it was right to teach little children such words. I shrugged. I had no idea.
Fifteen years later, with two little kids of my own, I'm still not sure I have the right answers. If you feel the way I do, take this quiz and find out what the experts suggest we say when our kids ask those embarrassing, conversation-stopping questions.
1. Your 3-year-old wants to know where that baby in your stomach came from. You tell her:
A. The stork brought it.
B. Daddy and Mommy made it.
C. Here, have a nice, big cookie!
Answer: B. Although there's never one answer to this question, your response should be a simple version of the truth.
"Little kids are concrete thinkers," says Linda Ladd, Ph.D., chair of family sciences at Texas Woman's University, in Denton. So telling them about the stork, even in jest, will just confuse them.
Providing basic — and factual — answers to a young child's first questions about sex sets the stage for the ongoing dialogue to come. "It should be a conversation, instead of a lecture, so there's plenty of give-and-take," says Anne Bernstein, Ph.D., a Berkeley, California-based family psychologist and author of Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) About Sex and Family Building. When you answer your child forthrightly, she learns that she can go to you with any question she has in the future. Squirm or dodge the issue and even a preschooler gets the message: Don't ask, don't tell.
2. Your 5-year-old now wants to know how you make a baby. You tell him:
A. To ask Daddy.
B. Daddy puts his seed, called sperm, in Mommy.
C. Daddy puts his penis in Mommy's vagina. That's called having sex.
Answer: B. Your child just wants some general information to start with — not a technical description. (You can add details later, if he wants to know more.)
"Parents tend to take an all-or-nothing approach," says Patricia Moylan, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan, in Detroit. "When your child asks why your stomach's getting bigger, you don't need to go into the cells dividing. Just say that the baby is growing inside your uterus, so your stomach looks bigger. Don't overexplain."
What if your child demands the answer when you're at the grocery store? "Say you'll explain it when you get home," says Moylan. "Part of learning about sex is learning when and where it's an appropriate topic."
Don't let yourself off the hook at home, though, says Moylan. Bring it up yourself: "Remember you had a good question about how a baby gets into a mommy's belly?" and go from there.
3. Your 2-year-old likes to watch you change your newborn's diapers. "What's that?" she asks, pointing at his penis. You say:
A: That's what's going to pee all over you if we don't get a diaper on it!
B: It's his penis. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas.
C: That's his pee-pee.
Answer: B. Even though most of us are still struggling with our inner Puritan, the wisest policy is to use the proper names for sexual organs right from the very beginning.
Toddlers want to be sure they have the same parts as everyone else, so it helps if everyone is using the same word. "From the time they're babies, we tell them, "This is your hand and these are your toes,'" says Karen Martin, a certified sex therapist and program coordinator of the Sexuality Center, Long Island Jewish Hospital, in Lake Success, New York. "Then we get to the genitals and start using these cop-out names like "pee-pee.' It's subtle, but the first message they get is that there's something peculiar about these parts of the body. We should be using correct terms."
4. You have an open-door bathroom policy while you potty train your almost 3-year-old. One day she asks if she can touch Daddy's penis. Dad should:
A. Scream, "Absolutely not!!"
B. Revoke the open-door policy immediately.
C. Say no, and calmly explain why she can't.
Answer: C. For a toddler, there's no difference between a foot, a neck, and a penis — they're all just body parts. Nor do they understand why such a request might embarrass anyone —especially their parents.
"When a child asks about bodies, it can be quite awkward for parents. That can make it difficult for you to deal with the question matter-of-factly," says Martin. This is a good opportunity to start teaching your child about what's private. The standard definition is that everything a bathing suit covers is private — and you can add that people don't usually show those private parts of their body outside the bathroom or let others touch them. (You can also add, except moms and dads when they need to clean you and doctors when they need to examine you.)