n What sort of “sexual” behavior do young children exhibit?

Toddlers will often touch themselves when they are naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. At this stage of development, they have no modesty. Their parent’s reaction will tell them whether their actions are acceptable. Toddlers should not be scolded or made to feel ashamed of being interested in their bodies. It is natural for children to be interested in their own bodies.

n Is it OK to use nicknames for private parts?

By the time a child is 3 years of age, parents may choose to use the correct anatomical words. They may sound clinical, but there is no reason why the proper label should not be used when the child is capable of saying it. These words – penis, vagina, etc. – should be stated matter-of-factly, with no implied silliness. That way, the child learns to use them in a direct manner, without embarrassment.

In fact, this is what most parents do. A Gallup Poll showed that 67 percent of parents use actual names to refer to male and female body parts.

<$f"Zingbats">n What do you tell a very young child who asks where babies come from?

Depending on the child’s age, you can say that the baby grows from an egg in the mommy’s womb, pointing to your stomach, and comes out of a special place, called the vagina. There is no need to explain the act of lovemaking because very young children will not understand the concept.

However, you can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to be close to one another. Tell them that the man’s sperm joins the woman’s egg and then the baby begins to grow. Most children under the age of 6 will accept this answer. Age-appropriate books on the subject are also helpful. Answer your child’s question in a straightforward manner, and you will probably find that she is satisfied with a little information at a time.

n What should you do if you catch your child playing “doctor,” i.e., showing private parts to another child?

Children 3 to 6 years of age are most likely to play “doctor.” Many parents overreact when they witness or hear of such behavior. Heavy-handed scolding is NOT the way to deal with the situation.

Nor should parents feel this is promiscuous behavior or will lead to promiscuity. Often, the presence of a parent is enough to interrupt the play.

You may wish to direct your child’s attention to another activity without making a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your child for a talk. Explain that although you understand her interest in her friend’s body, she is getting to be a big girl and people are generally expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having made the child feel guilty.

This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good and bad touch. Tell your child that her body is her own and that she has the right to privacy.

No one should touch her if she doesn’t like it or want it. Tell her that if anyone ever touches her in a way that feels strange or bad, she should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that you want to know about anything that makes her feel bad or uncomfortable.

n When should parents sit children down for that all-important “birds and bees” discussion?

Actually, never! Learning about sex should not occur in one all-or-nothing session. It should be more of an unfolding process, one in which the child learns, over time, what she needs to know.

Questions should be answered as they arise so that the child’s natural curiosity is satisfied as she matures.

If your child doesn’t ask questions about sex, don’t just ignore the subject. At about age 5, you can begin to introduce books that approach sexuality on a developmentally appropriate level. Parents often have trouble finding the right words, but there are a number of excellent books to help.

At what age should nudity in the home be curtailed?

Families set their own standards for nudity, modesty and privacy. Although every family’s values are different, privacy is an important concept for all children to learn. Parents should explain limits regarding privacy the same way that other house rules are explained – matter-of-factly – so that children don’t come to associate privacy with guilt or secrecy. Generally, children will learn from the limits you establish for them.

To what extent can parents depend on the schools to teach sex education?

Parents should begin the sex-education process long before it begins in school. The introduction of formal sex education in the classroom varies; many schools start it in the fifth or sixth grade. Some of the topics addressed in a sex-education class may include anatomy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Parents should be open to continuing the dialogue and answering questions at home. Schools tend to teach mechanics and science more than values. This is an area where parents can and should have something to teach.

At what age should girls be told about menstruation?

Girls (and boys!) should have information by about age 8, some of which may be provided in school. Instructional books are helpful, but mothers should also share their own personal experiences with their daughters, including when their periods first started and what it felt like, and how, like many things, it wasn’t such a big deal after a while.

Still worried that your kid will stump you? Here are some questions about puberty and sex from real teens, along with answers from the experts at TeensHealth.org:

Q:Can a girl get pregnant if she has sex during her period?

A: A lot of people think that if a girl has sex during her period, she can’t get pregnant. But it is possible for a girl to get pregnant while she is bleeding. There are a couple of reasons why this can happen:

Not all vaginal bleeding is the result of a menstrual period. Sometimes a girl will have a small amount of vaginal bleeding at the time of ovulation – the time when she is most fertile. During ovulation, an egg is released from one of the ovaries and travels down a fallopian tube to the uterus. It’s common for girls who are ovulating to have some vaginal bleeding that can be mistaken for a period.

Sometimes ovulation can occur before the bleeding from a girl’s period has stopped, or it may occur within a few days after her period is over.

Sperm can fertilize an egg for up to three days after ejaculation. So in both cases, having sex before the period is finished can result in pregnancy.

Having unprotected sex at any time, including when you’re bleeding, is very risky. Along with the risk of becoming pregnant, there is also a risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), such as chlamydia, genital warts or HIV.

Q: I’m 14, and I don’t have my period yet. Is this normal?

A: A girl’s period, also known as menstruation, begins after she has reached puberty. Puberty usually starts between ages 8 and 13 in girls, but it’s also normal for some girls to start earlier or later than that. On average, a girl’s first period usually comes two to two and a half years after the first sign of puberty (breast development is usually the first sign of puberty, but sometimes pubic hair comes first). However, some normal girls will get their first periods less than a year or more than three years after the first sign of puberty.

Another clue you can use to figure out when you might get your period is to check your underwear for vaginal discharge. This clear or whitish, mucus-like discharge usually appears about six months before the first period does.

If you’re concerned about not having your period, ask your mom how old she was when she got her first period. Girls who get their first period later than average often find that their moms or other female relatives may have gone through puberty later than average also.

What sets menstruation apart from other characteristics of puberty like breast development is that no one can tell when it happens to you. So no one will know you haven’t started your period unless you choose to share that information. Some girls may not get their periods until they’re in high school, and that’s perfectly fine.

Just because you’re 14 and you haven’t gotten your period yet doesn’t necessarily mean that anything’s wrong with you. Some girls, though, may not be getting their first periods because of other reasons: Girls who are underweight or who have eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa may notice a delay in the beginning of their periods. Girls who are very athletic may not get their periods until they stop exercising or competing so vigorously. Severe stress or certain illnesses can also delay menstruation.

If you have concerns about when you’ll start your period or think that a medical problem may be keeping you from menstruating, you should talk to your doctor.

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