Talking to kids in elementary school about sexual health may feel scary and confusing for parents and caregivers but what concepts are young children ready to learn and able to understand?
While it may be tempting to “wait until they’re ready,” the truth is, we should be teaching our kids at every age about their bodies, their relationships with people around them and about our family values regarding sexual health. Early childhood is a great time to build the foundation of healthy relationships, body awareness and autonomy and respect for self and others.
Specifically, when kids enter elementary school (around age 6), they begin to think more about how the world around them affects not only them but others. They are becoming much more aware of their bodies and they may begin to experience feelings of attraction to others. They may not yet be skilled at abstract thinking, problem solving and thinking from alternative perspectives. Older kids in this group (ages 11 to 12) may still struggle with abstract thinking, but they are beginning to develop the ability to understand that issues are not always clear cut and may be understood and interpreted in different ways.
When it comes to sexual health, this means the elementary years are a good time to:
- Educate yourself and position yourself as a trusted adult that the children in your life can ask questions of and talk to.
- Help kids learn about and understand how their bodies work. This may include discussions about current and impending changes, puberty and self-care.
- Teach the importance of giving and receiving consent for affection from family and friends (i.e. hugging, giving kisses, holding hands or touching someone else’s body).
- Teach what it means to be a good friend and how to tell the difference between healthy, respectful relationships and ones that may not be healthy.
Let’s Talk About…
- Children at this age may become interested in developing more complex friendships and may also begin to experience feelings of attraction to others. Discuss with them that good communication is the foundation for all types of healthy relationships; that it’s not OK to physically hurt or be hurt by others; that abuse can be emotional, mental and/or physical and that all people deserve respect and dignity.
- Start having conversations about intimate relationships. What is a relationship? What’s great about being in a healthy relationship? Our kids are bombarded with images of people in all kinds of relationships in the media and in their own lives. Talk to the kids in your life about how you met your partner, what makes a good relationship partner and your personal family values about love, sex and relationships.
- Teach kids that people get to decide what happens to their bodies and that different people like different kinds of touch (i.e. hugs, kisses and holding hands). They have the right to say yes or no to different kinds of touch based on their level of comfort. This is called bodily autonomy. Show children that you respect their bodily autonomy by not forcing them to hug or kiss relatives or friends, asking them if they would like hugs or kisses from you (and respecting their answers!) and explaining when certain kinds of touch may be needed for their health and safety (i.e. holding hands to cross the street or being examined by a medical professional).
- Teach them that kids cannot consent to sexual activity and that anyone who tries to seek consent from them to engage in such activities is wrong and they should tell a trusted adult immediately. If someone does something sexual to them, make sure they know it is never their fault and, even if the person asked for permission, they did not have the right to do so.
- Help kids understand that they should always ask for consent to touch, hug, hold hands with or kiss others. They should respect people’s answers and preferences when they indicate that they prefer not to be touched.
Anatomy and Puberty
- Elementary school is a good time to begin talking to kids about the bodily changes they will experience. For example, teach about physical changes such as hair growth, sweating, breast growth, menstrual cycles and changes to reproductive organs. In addition, talk about emotional changes they may experience.
- Instill healthy hygiene habits and discuss the necessity of keeping their bodies clean. This may also be a good time to teach children how to use the washing machine, as they may sweat more frequently and the smell of their perspiration may change. In addition, children with penises may experience nocturnal emissions and children with vulvas may start their menstrual cycle. They may feel more comfortable washing their own clothing and sheets during this time — and it’s less work for you!
Sexting and Social Media
- Kids have access to cell phones and laptops at younger ages than ever before. Talk to your children about what sexually explicit messages are and how predators may target children on the internet.
- As kids get older and begin experiencing feelings of attraction to others, they need to understand that even receivers of unsolicited nude or explicit pictures of children can get into trouble. As such, it is important to never send such images and to inform a trusted adult if they ever receive them.
- Talk about your rules for using the internet, cell phones and social media and closely monitor your child’s use of these tools.
Resources for parents of elementary-aged kids
- 30 Days of Sex Talks for Ages 8–11: Empowering Your Child with the Knowledge of Sexual Intimacy by Educate & Empower Kids
- I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Your Private Parts Private by Kimberly King and Sue Rama
- It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris
- Girlology: There’s Something New About You: A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up (ages 8+) by Dr. Melisa Holmes and Dr. Trish Hutchison
- Guyology: Just the Facts: A Guy’s Guide to Growing Up (ages 8+) by Dr. Melisa Holmes and Dr. Trish Hutchison
- Youology: A Puberty Guide for Every Body (April 2022) by Dr. Melisa Holmes and Dr. Trish Hutchison
Website and video resources:
- Sex Positive Families: sexpositivefamilies.com
- Amaze: amaze.org
- Thrive, Inc. Resources for Trusted Adults: thriveokc.org/resources/
- Girlology: Girl Health & Puberty Education: girlology.com
Editor’s note: This column is the third in a series of four by the experts at local nonprofit Thrive OKC to empower families and caregivers to talk to their kids, in developmentally-appropriate ways, about sexual health. Each column focuses on a different age range of child and provides ideas of topics to cover, conversation starters and resources. Find the full series of Talking to Kids About Sex articles, plus a podcast with expert advice on how to handle topics like consent, puberty and pornography, at metrofamilymagazine.com/