Q: I have a 5-year-old daughter who is obsessed with sex. Every day she's got a new question that I don't know how to answer, like, "How do babies get in there?" and "What's sex?" She's fascinated by other kids' private parts and spends a lot of time touching her own. How can I answer her questions, and how can I keep her from embarrassing herself (and me!) in front of other people?
A: At least some of your daughter's behavior is a normal part of discovering who she is and what the various parts of her body — including her genitals — do (we'll get back to that). It's also normal for her to ask a lot of questions. As adults, we have a pretty good grasp of the role genitals play in sex, whether it's for pleasure or reproduction. Kids your daughter's age don't.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where sex seems to be everywhere, and children are exposed to sexual images and ideas at much younger ages than we were. That means having "the talk" a lot earlier than we'd planned to. It's important that you answer your daughter's questions in a relaxed way, giving her answers that address her concerns but aren't so detailed that they overwhelm her.
To answer "How do babies get in there?" some experts suggest something like, "Daddies have tiny things called sperm in their body that get together with the tiny eggs that mommies have in their body." If that doesn't satisfy, the Mayo Clinic recommends this: "A mom and a dad make a baby by holding each other in a special way." As for what sex is, start with, "Sex is one way that grownups show that they love each other."
Whatever you do, always use the proper words for genitals. Coming up with nicknames makes them seem much more mysterious than they really are. (We don't use nicknames for eyes, noses, mouths, and so on, right?)
The way you behave when you answer can be just as important as the words you use. As parents, we want our kids to feel comfortable talking to us about anything, and we want to control the information they get in response to tough questions. Getting embarrassed or sidestepping those questions tells your child that there's something wrong with the question or with her for asking. That will just make her even more curious. After all, if you don't want to talk about it, it really must be worth finding out about.
As far as touching themselves, children often do it for the same reasons we do: because it feels good. As shocking as it may be, it's important that you don't overreact. Screaming "No!" or slapping your child's hand away can have lasting effects on her comfort level with her own body and, later, her sexuality. Instead, tell her that touching herself like that is something to do only in private.
Now is a great time to talk about good touches and bad touches. No one should touch your child's private parts except themselves and mom or dad if they're trying to find the source of some pain, or a health care provider in an exam. So she shouldn't touch other children or allow them to touch her.
Can a child touching him or herself is a sign of sexual abuse? It can be. But at this age, it's more likely to be normal curiosity. If you're genuinely concerned about sexual abuse, before you make any accusations, have your pediatrician examine your child. — TNS