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What children should know about sex through the developmental stages

By Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman

Talking about sexuality is a crucial part of a child’s development.  Sex and sexuality is a topic that children want and need to know about. But many parents are not sure what to say, when to say it, or how to say it.  Some parents attempt to avoid talking with their children about sexuality as long as possible. Others freeze-up when it comes to answering sex-related questions. Parents worry about saying the wrong thing, giving too much information or creating more curiosity.

The bottom line is this--- Children will learn about sex and sexuality whether you talk openly about it with them or not.  They are going to obtain sexual information somewhere. It’s better that the information comes from you than from television, music or their peers.

Communication and education between parent and child is a key component to healthy sexual development in children. Below is a complete list of what children should know by the end of each developmental stage. Use the information to guide you through your sexuality discussions with your children.


Birth to Age 1
During the infant years, hold, cuddle, love, and respect your child anyway you can.  Work to create a bond of intimacy and trust between you and your child.  Skin to skin contact is crucial to the creating of a bond.  Take your shirt off and snuggle your naked baby. This applies to both parents equally.  How you respond to your child, when she is a baby, will influence how your child responds to you later. 

By the end of this stage children should:

feel loved

feel respected

be held and cuddled by both parents

have a bond of trust and intimacy with parents

Age 1 to 2
The toddler stage is when children first notice a difference between the bodies of boys and girls.  It is normal for a child at this stage to play with their genitals or express interest in the genitals of other children.  This is a good time to talk to our children about what they can do in public vs. what they do in the privacy of their own home.  Avoid responding in anger and scolding.  Redirect them with statements like: “It is okay to touch yourself when we are at home, like when you are taking a bath.”

By the end of this stage children should:

begin to notice the difference between the bodies of boys and girls

know that it is okay to play with their genitals

know that it is okay to express interest in the genitals of other children

know when is an appropriate time to explore their genitals

feel safe in the exploration of their bodies

know that they are good enough the way they are

Age 2 to 3
Between the ages of 2 and 3 (the toilet training years) is a good time to talk about bodily function and to foster positive attitudes about body parts.  How you react and respond may have the greatest impact on what your child learns during this time.  For example, young children think that bowel movements are part of their bodies.  If they are told that bowel movements are bad, they may feel that they are bad too (ACOG Patient Education Pamphlet).  This age is also a time to teach children about who can touch them and where and how to tell a parent or adult if they have been touched in a way that has made them uncomfortable.

By the end of this stage children should:

have a positive attitude about bodily functions

have an understanding of bodily functions

know about “good touch/bad touch”

know who can touch them and where

know how to tell a parent or adult if they have been touched in a way that has made them uncomfortable

know that they are lovable and why

Age 3 to 6
Between the ages of 3 and 6 is when gender differences (boy vs. girl) come to the forefront.  Children during this time are attempting to understand what it means to them to be boy or girl.  They are usually very open and honest about sex.  They are curious, interested, and frank.  So, this is a good time to encourage them to ask questions.  If by the age of 5 or 6 your child does not seem curious or ask questions, look for an opportunity to bring up the subject of gender differences and sexuality. 

By the end of this stage children should:

know the correct terms for body parts

know that they are in control of their own bodies

be introduced to the many ways to express love

know about choices and decisions of what to do with their bodies

know where babies come from

understand the concept of gender

be able to freely talk to their parents about sexuality

Age 6 to 10
Between the ages of 6 and 10 is when children begin using sexual slang.  It may start out around age 6 as “bathroom humor”.  This then can progress to other terms they pick up from older children at school or from television.  Be aware of how you as a parent use similar terms, so as to not send a mixed message.  During this stage children usually want brief and direct answers to their questions. 

By the end of this stage (age 10) children should:

know about sexually transmitted infections (especially AIDS)

know that different sexual orientations exist

develop a sense of self in relation to other people

develop their own sexual identity

know about reproduction

understand how the male and female bodies differ

Ages 11 to 13
Between the ages of 11 to 13 the adolescent may become apprehensive about bringing up the subject of sex.  Their bodies are changing and developing rapidly during this time.  Early in this stage parents need to talk to the young males about erections and “wet dreams” and to the young females about menstruation.  Make sure that they also have accurate information about STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) and the “right and wrong” reasons to engage in sex.  An important statistic to remember is that by age 12 only about 5% of the adolescent population has engaged in sex, but by the age of 17 that figure is around 50%. 

By the end of this stage (age 12) a young adolescent should:

now that sexual feelings are normal

now about methods of birth control

nderstand that sex is pleasurable and natural

now that sexual intercourse can also result in a baby

now how sexual diseases are transmitted, treated, and prevented

now that different sexual orientations exists and are a part of who people are

e aware of what changes to expect in their bodies, including menstruation and “wet dreams”

Ages 14 to 18
During the teenage years, young people become sexually mature and may have strong sexual urges.  This is also the age when many young individuals are having their first sexual experience.  Teenagers should be given the opportunity to talk openly about issues of sex and sexuality.  Important topics of discussion would be STD’s, masturbation, sexual identity, same-sex relationships, and myths and assumptions about sexual orientation.  Teenagers should understand the appropriate use of sex and sexuality terms and be taught a respect for a broad range of sexual expressions, so they can be sensitive to them. 

Sometimes teenagers claim to know everything about sex and are not interested in what you have to say.  If this occurs, engage them in a discussion about what they know.  Ask them to shed light on the topic for you from a teenage perspective.  You may then be able to correct any misinformation without seeming to lecture or be forcing your opinion on them.  If nothing else by asking for information from them you at least keep the lines of communication open for future discussion (ACOG Patient Ed.).

By the end of this stage (age 18) a teenager should:

be given the opportunity to talk openly about issues of sex and sexuality

understand the appropriate use of sex and sexuality terms

respect a broad range of sexual expressions

understand myths and assumptions about sexual orientation

understand the role of masturbation in their sexual development

understand how sex is used by many to manipulate

understand appropriate expressions of their sexual desires

be aware of ways to manage their own sexual desires

understand the relationship of choices, decisions, and consequences

feel free to explore the world around them and their involvement in it


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