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(Chris Lamphear)
(Chris Lamphear)

Sex education

Explaining sex to children of all ages Add to ...

Kindergarten

What's happening to them: Starting at about age 3, children become curious about sex and body differences. They enjoy examining and touching their genitals. They may play "doctor" with their friends and are curious about where babies come from.

What parents can do: First of all, sex educators say, make sure your kids know all the proper names for their body parts. Jennifer Gibson, who teaches sex education at schools in Victoria, suggests using the term "personal parts" rather than "private parts" because it makes the genitals sound less secretive. By kindergarten, she says, children should know how babies are made. Parent can also talk about different types of families using real-life examples, such as their child's friend in daycare who has two dads. This is also the time to reinforce public and private behaviour, Ms. Gibson says: They should learn that while touching themselves is natural and feels good, maybe it's not the best idea to do it in front of grandma.

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Grade 3 to 5

What's happening to them: At this stage, kids often get modest about their bodies - wanting mom to knock at the bedroom door when they are getting dressed. They are curious about what people look like naked. Exposed to more media images, they become interested in (often stereotypical) male and female roles, and start using sexual language to tease and shock friends. Expect a quiet crush or two.

What parents can do: This is puberty prep time, experts say. Start talking about what kind of changes they can expect to happen to their bodies over the next few years, particularly if they have older siblings already in the throes of mood swings and body changes. Stress the idea, Ms. Gibson says, "that there are going to be easy days and not-so-easy days but everybody gets through it." This is also a good time to explore topics such as sexual orientation and media stereotypes. And, as Ms. Gibson points out, while schools and parents tend to do a good job talking about menstruation, erections don't get as much attention. "Boys get really awkward and embarrassed and don't know what it means," she says. Cover this subject early.

Tweens

What's happening to them: Puberty is in full swing, both physically and emotionally. Friendships become more complicated, as peers mature at different speeds, and they begin negotiating boyfriend-girlfriend relationships.

What parents can do: Make sure they know that they are normal, Ms. Gibson says, "that they can trust their body to take them through puberty." This is also the time to start discussing what activities count as sex, including oral and anal sex, as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Tell them it's okay to be curious about sex - which is still, Ms. Gibson points out, a good distance from actually engaging in it. Make sure your son knows what's happening to girls and vice versa. One topic not be missed, experts say: what defines a healthy relationship.

Teens

What's happening to them: Many teenagers will be sexually active - a 2008 Statistics Canada study put the average age when teens starting having intercourse at about 16 for both girls and boys. They will be exposed to increasing peer pressure, as well as drugs and alcohol. Their romantic relationships will be much more intense.

What parents can do: Set limits - and then teach them to set their own limits. Parent should make it clear to their teens what their own values are about sex, says Lyba Spring, a sexual health educator with the Toronto Public Health Agency. That means if you don't want them to have sex until they're married, tell them. "Then the adolescent knows, 'Okay, this is what my family expects of me.' " Educate them about the risks of drugs and alcohol in relation to sex. Talk explicitly about STDs. Make sure both sons and daughters know how to use a condom. Teach them how to say no - and how to recognize when they want to say no. Ms. Gibson calls it the "head-heart-gut-groin" process. "All parts of their body need to be comfortable with the decision they are making," she says. "Not just the groin, because the groin is very powerful."

Extra reading

Young Children:

Where did I come From? by Peter Mayle

It's not the Stork: A book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley

Older Children and Tweens:

Changes in You and Me: A Book about Puberty Mostly for Boys/Girls by Paulette Bourgeois, Martin Wolfish and Kim Martyn (note there is one title for boys and one for girls)

Teenagers:

All the Way: Sex for the First Time by Kim Martyn

Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen's Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body by Toni Weschler

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna

Online resources

For parents, professionals, adults and youth:

sexualityandu.ca (administered by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada)

For youth:

spiderbytes.ca

To find sexual health services in your province and learn about sexual health issues in Canada:

cfsh.ca

Source: Sexual Health Access Alberta

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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