One night at dinner, my husband asked our then 6-year-old son what he wanted to do for work when he grew up. He replied, "I don't want to work, I just want to be a dad." My husband and I exchanged smiles. Then, without missing a beat, our son continued. "But I'm not sure I want to do that either, because then you have to pee in your wife."
His comment came so unexpectedly that I nearly choked on my mashed potatoes. On the spot, I vowed to step up my efforts to provide sexual information for my son -- without waiting for the questions to be asked. I explained that while daddies sometimes do put a fluid in mommies' bodies in the space between their legs, it is not pee. It is a very special fluid called semen that sometimes can cause the mommy to grow a baby inside of her. He said, "OK, Mom."
Even parents who are rarely at a loss for words stumble when it's time to talk with their kids about sex. Some children you can turn loose with a book (see sidebar) and then field their inevitable questions. Others will be more hesitant.
Here's an important tip: Never avoid a "teachable moment." Dive in and offer accurate information whenever your child sashays anywhere near the topic of sex. Don't wait for the point-blank question to be asked.
Keep your answer confined to what is asked. For example, "Mom, how does the baby get out of your body?" Your answer: "Through a special opening between my legs. That's why it's there." If your child did not ask at that moment how a baby got in there in the first place, don't start there. Just answer the question asked.
Name all the body parts at an early stage in your child's language development ("penis" and "scrotum" for boys and "clitoris" and "vulva" for girls).
Parents often ask, "How old should a child be before we start talking about sex?" My answer always is: "Younger than you think." Here's why. If you talk about sexual matters from the beginning of a child's use of language, there never needs to be the big "birds and bees talk." It's just a series of small conversations spread out over many years. You, as the parent, become the obvious go-to person whenever there's a question.
If you become an "askable" parent, you will have offered your child an incredibly valuable gift.
A good sex education book can help you cover all the topics -- and it offers a place to point your child when you run out of words or feel your cheeks reddening. I recommend these first two for kids and the last one for parents:
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, by Robie Harris.
It's So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, by Robie Harris.
Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex, by Deborah Roffman.