At the same time, preschoolers can't — and don't need to — grasp the mechanics of sex, they don't understand the emotions behind adult love, and they may be frightened by discussions of erections, periods, labor, and other natural bodily states that they can't yet understand.
How to talk about it
Be calm and relaxed. It's best to be as matter-of-fact as possible when your child asks questions about sex or any other tricky topic so that he doesn't get the message that talking to you about certain things can be embarrassing or taboo. Of course, this is easier said than done. Many adults feel awkward talking about sex with a child because they don't have much practice doing it and because they're afraid of telling too much once a discussion gets going. The best strategy is to try to answer questions kindly and calmly, however unusual or embarrassing it seems.
If talking about sex with your child is difficult for you, try rehearsing your answers in advance, either in your head or with your spouse or partner. Take advantage of questions that come up when you and your child are both at ease — in the playroom while you're working on a puzzle, at snack time, or during those quiet moments when you're tucking him into bed. The car is also a great place to talk about touchy subjects, since having to keep your eyes on the road allows you to avoid eye contact, which may help you stay more relaxed.
"The important thing is for a parent to explain difficult topics without seeming anxious," says Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard University. "The child is picking up the melody line, not the words."
Keep it simple. At this age, the best answers are short and uncomplicated. "You're wondering where you came from? You were made in Mommy's tummy, and that's where you grew until you were ready to be born." While you don't want to sound like a doctor, you should use the correct names for body parts ("penis" and "vagina," not "wee-wee" or "pee-pee"). It will lessen any sense that sexual topics are off-limits and embarrassing.
A 3-year-old may very well be satisfied with a one-sentence answer to his question. A 4-year-old may want to follow up: "Did Billy grow in Daddy's tummy? How does the baby get food when he's in there? When's he going to get out?" Keep answering his questions as long as he shows interest, but don't overload him with information if he's ready to stop and go play with his blocks.
Encourage his interest. No matter what your child's question, try not to snap, "Where did you get that idea?" or dodge the conversation with, "We'll talk later; now it's time for lunch." Either way, your preschooler will get the clear message that his natural and sensible questions are taboo, and that he's bad for even thinking of them. Instead, compliment him with, "That's a good question" (which also buys you a moment to think about your answer). After your talk, encourage him to "Ask me some more any time you want to."
Of course, you never know when or where a preschooler's questions will pop up. He may ask what a vagina is — loudly — in line at the supermarket, in which case you can quietly answer his question and then explain that it's best to have discussions about private parts in private. Even if your child creates an embarrassing situation for you, try not to put him off. Your child will need to rely on your willingness to talk honestly with him as he steers his way through the confusions of childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
Use everyday opportunities. You don't have to wait for your child to start asking all the questions. In fact, you've probably already begun discussing sexuality and reproduction in daily life by pointing out the mommy goat nursing her baby at the zoo, or by talking about the broken robin's egg your child found on the sidewalk. Many children's books and videos also provide opportunities for talking about babies and how they are born. Some parents use story time to look at children's books that are specifically about reproduction. "I recommend How Babies Are Made, by Andrew Andry and Steven Schepp," says Pearl Simmons, an education specialist who teaches parenting classes at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "You can sit down with your child and say you have a great book to share with them."
Teach privacy. Your preschooler can understand about "private time," and he can learn that he needs to knock before coming in when your door is closed. Be sure to follow the same rule yourself when your child's door is shut. He may not really desire privacy at this age (in fact, he may still want bathroom company), but he'll better understand the household rule if you follow it, too. A preschooler can also learn that his private parts are private, and that no one should touch him there but Mom, Dad, his babysitter, or the doctor, and then only for help after using the toilet or for a checkup.
What kids ask ... What parents answer
"Where did I come from?" This cosmic and yet mundane question is typically the first a preschooler asks about the facts of life. A nice, straightforward answer is, "You were made in Mommy's tummy, and that's where you grew until you were ready to be born." Some children may want details like, "A seed from Daddy and an egg from Mommy mixed together and formed a new baby — you! Then you grew in a special sack called a womb, which was in Mommy's tummy." Logical follow-up questions may include, "Is that the way all babies are made?" ("Yes, all human babies and even lots of animal babies are made this same way."), and, "Can daddies have babies?" ("Nope, only female bodies can grow babies.")
"What is sex?" Most preschoolers don't ask this question unless something they've seen or heard — usually from an older child or from TV — introduces the idea. But if he asks, don't shy away from the question. Tell him, "Sex is a kind of cuddling moms and dads do to show how much they love each other." If your child wants more detail, you can say, "Sex is a way grown-ups who love each other very much can be as close as possible, to cuddle and kiss in a special way. Sometimes a man and a woman can start a baby when they have sex." Related questions that you might hear at this age include, "Can I have sex? Why do you have sex? What's making love? Is sex what you do in bed?"
"Can you show me how you make a baby?" Once he's heard about the "special way" moms and dads cuddle and kiss and make babies, it's not much of a leap for an inquisitive preschooler to want to see a real-life demonstration. Be kind, but direct. "No. Mommies and daddies only make babies when they have private time together alone."
"Can I help make a baby now?" Here you can introduce information about the different abilities of children's and adults' bodies. "No, making babies is something only grown-ups can do. Your body isn't ready yet, but it will be when you're older." Similar questions include, "Can I have a baby? Will I have a baby if I hug Susie? How come we don't make a baby when you hug and kiss me good-bye at school?" ("Because the way grownups hug and kiss when they're making a baby is very different from that, and because only two adult bodies can make a baby.")
"How is the new baby going to get out of your tummy?" Preschoolers are fascinated with pregnancy and birth, and they may envision anything from Mom vomiting up the baby to Dad unzipping Mom's tummy and letting the baby walk out. The simplest answer is, "After a long time, the baby grows too big for Mommy's tummy, so it has to be born." Many preschoolers are ready to hear, "Our baby will be ready to be born when he needs more food than he can get from Mommy's tummy, and when he's too big to fit inside anymore. Then Daddy will take Mommy to the hospital, where the doctors can help the baby be born. Grandma will look after you for two or three days, then Mommy and the new baby will come home and we'll all be together." Other questions about pregnancy include, "Is the baby lonely in there? Is he hungry? Does he sleep inside your tummy? What does he look like now? Why doesn't he fall out when you pee and poop?"
"What are you and Daddy doing?" Many parents dread that their child might walk in on them during sex. It's a common occurrence. It's also nearly impossible not to get flustered, but give it a try (and then get a lock for the bedroom door). You can say, "Honey, Daddy and I need privacy right now. If you go back to your room, I'll be in to help you in just one minute." Then put on a robe, take a few deep breaths to compose yourself, and go talk to your child. "Mommy and Daddy were making love, showing how much we love each other. We usually lock the door because that's private, but this time we just forgot." Depending on your child's reaction, you can ask, "Did that upset you? Is there anything else you need?" Make sure your child isn't scared or worried by what he saw, and be sure to emphasize that he didn't do anything wrong. (Don't chide, "You should have knocked!") Depending on what he saw, a preschooler's response to seeing you making love might range from an upset, "Was Daddy hurting Mommy?" to a curious "Why were you making that noise?" or "Were you wrestling?"
If your child seems unconcerned, it's okay not to go into an explanation of what was going on, especially for a younger preschooler. He may not have seen much if the room was dark and you were under the covers. It's enough to say simply, "Mommy and Daddy were having some special time together," or "Mommy and Daddy were just hugging because we love each other."