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Answering Young Children's Questions About Sexuality



Children learn about sexuality in many ways and in many situations. 
One way is by asking questions. Although some questions about sexuality can be tough to answer, it helps if, as adults, we are open to children’s questions. We can help children become more comfortable talking about sexuality. What follows are ideas about what to do when tough questions arise.

As a professional, it is helpful to find out what parents have already taught their children. Ask what terms they use in describing sexuality. This information can be part of an enrollment form, or you might discuss it in a sexuality education policy statement you share with parents. Tell parents about discussions you have with children about sexuality so they will know what you have done and can follow up with children.

Answering children’s questions about sexuality can be difficult.  It is helpful to first ask the child, “What do you think?” This will help you get an idea of what the child already knows, and why he or she is asking. For example, a 3-year-old child might ask, “Where do babies come from?” If you then ask, “What do you think?” the child might answer, “from Mommy’s tummy.” That answer is basically appropriate for her age. Other 3-year-olds may believe that children are left on the doorstep or dropped from a stork in the sky. In those cases, you could say, “There is a special place inside a woman where a baby grows.” 

It is important to answer questions honestly and at the level of the child. A 12-year-old will need a more complete answer than a 4-year-old. An older child who asks about babies may need help understanding the process of birth. As a child grows older, it is appropriate to answer questions in more detail.

Here is a process to follow when children ask difficult questions:

What do they know? Ask the child how she would answer her own question to find out what she already knows about sexuality. Then give the child some additional information appropriate for her level.

  • Clarify the question. Find out what led the child to ask the question so that you understand it before beginning to answer. Children might ask, “Where did I come from?” Some children might want to know how babies are born, whereas others may just want to know at which hospital they were born, or in what city they used to live.
  • Answer the question in a simple way. Try to keep answers short and simple. Children usually ask exactly what they want to know. Often, they want a simple answer and not a long explanation. They might ask more questions if they are not satisfied. Expect more questions, and keep answering with short explanations.
  • Be honest. Tell children what you know about the questions they ask. Avoid talking about storks or cabbage patches. It is not helpful to say that babies are "gifts" either; this can be confusing. If you do not know the answer to a question a child has asked, you can look it up on a computer or at a library.
  • Use the technical terms so the child does not become confused. Children should know the correct names for all sexual body parts by age 5. 
  • Let sexuality be a normal part of life. Keep your voice and facial expression calm when you are talking about sexuality. Let children know that these words are normal and appropriate.
  • Be prepared. Think about what questions might come up and how you would answer them. Some common questions are, "Where do babies come from?", "Why does my brother/sister look different from me?", and "What is sex?" Many times, the initial question will be followed by "Why" questions.
  • As a professional, share information with parents. Encourage parents to answer their children's questions. Tell parents when you have had discussions about sexuality (questions about reproduction, differences between boys and girls, names of bodyparts, etc.) in your childcare program. Offer parents information about normal sexual development, and help them prepare for questions that might come up. 

As a Professional, Which Questions About Sexuality Should I Answer?
Unfortunately, there is no set rule as to which questions you should or should not answer. A general guideline is, if you are unsure how a parent would feel about you answering their child’s question regarding sexuality or reproduction, it is recommended that you discuss it with them first. However, remember to let the child know that it is not because you don’t want to answer his or her question, but because it is such an important question that their parents may want to answer it. It may be appropriate to educate parents about the importance of giving children simple and accurate information on this subject. The most important components to answering children’s questions regarding sexuality and reproduction are keeping the lines of communication open and remaining the “askable” adult.

Other Tips for Answering Children's Questions

  • Watch for signs that children are interested in sexuality.
  • Let children know that it is ok for them to ask you questions.
  • It is OK to admit that you don't know everything.
  • It is OK if you make mistakes when answering a child's question. When you find out that you were wrong, simply go back and correct yourself. 
  • If a child asks you questions about sexuality at the wrong time, tell him or her that you will answer his/her questions as soon as possible. Then answer the questions as soon as you can. Talk with the child about good times and places to discuss sexualilty.
  • Let children know that people have different beliefs about sexuality, and that these differences are OK.
  • Consider using anatomically correct dolls and books to guide you through discussions.
  • Relax - it is OK if you feel embarrassed talking with children about sexuality.
  • Tell children that it is OK for them to feel a little embarrassed.
  • Be patient with children, and yourself.

From Authors Jessica Dunn with Judith A. Myers-Walls. Copyright © 2003-2004, Purdue University.

The LAST Method
An Easy Way to Answer Children's Questions

L - LISTEN
Listen deeply. What is going on here? Is there a question behind the question?

A - ASK
Ask the child what s/he thinks the answer is. This will give you the information on what the child already knows or thinks, as well as help to clarify the question.

S - SORT
Sort out your emotions and the message you want to give. Decide when and where you want to communicate this message to the child. It is OK to take the time to decide on exactly what messages you want to convey. 

T - TALK
With respect, and at the child's level of curiosity and understanding, talk to the child, keeping your answers simple and accurate.

REMEMBER!

You want the child to come back to you with future questions and thoughts. You want to be an ‘askable’ adult. That does not mean that you will always know the answers, but it does mean that you are open to being asked and willing to search for an answer.

If you are ‘askable,’ you don’t need to have your perfect, well thought-out answer ready because you will probably get another chance to talk about the subject again, adding information and clarity.

Adapted from Care for Kids Curriculum, The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, 2000.