Updated: Oct 24, 2021
Sex education, a topic which often leaves parents feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what to say or do. Some of you may be familiar with our friend Cath Hakanson, who runs the wonderful Facebook group That Parent Group (with Cath Hakanson) and the Sex Ed Rescue website. She specialise in sex education for children and we thought there was no better person to invite along to chat with about all things relating to love, sex and relationships.
Sex education is wide ranging and the days of having 'the conversation' with your children is long gone. If you want to equip your children with the knowledge to have healthy safe relationships then it's all about having open honest ongoing conversations. With that in mind we asked Cath all the questions we thought would help during those 3 - 6 years.
You are welcome to listen to the interview or read the transcript below. Please bear in mind that the interview transcript is verbatim, and so includes natural idiosyncrasies found in free flowing conversations.
For more answers to those tough questions, we highly recommend The Sex Education Answer Book
Jude: So, Hi Cath, what can parents anticipate happening with children in the three to six year age group. What sort of initial sex education is good to start at this age?
Cath: Okay, three to six is that age where they're starting to think, so developmentally, if you look at them, you know, not thinking of sex ed, but kids themselves, it's that age of exploring and wanting to understand the world and they’re great thinkers. So it's an age where they usually starting to get really curious about where babies come from and how they're made. And usually us as adults, you know, if the kids says, you know, where do babies come from or how babies are made, we usually freak out, and we think sex, which isn't actually what they're interested in.
What they're trying to do is trying to work out how they actually came to exist. Like they know there are babies, like there might be another baby or there might be someone they know that's pregnant. And they probably remember that, they were a baby. So you might show them they might have a baby book of what they looked like as a baby, but they're trying to work out where were they before they were a baby. So how did they actually come to exist? And this is one of those great mysteries, like, where does milk come from before it hits the milk carton or a milk bottle? It's like a big mystery, and it's something they're trying to understand. So that's like a big part of a big, important thing for them to understand how they came to exist. So that's something that they’re often curious about. And they'll go through those stages of trying to breastfeed or chest feed the baby. Or they’ll put a pillow or a doll into their tummy and they’ll wish that they were pregnant and that they could have a baby or they want you to have a baby and they're asking you to have a baby all the time as well.
So they go through that stage. It's also an age where they're curious about body parts. So they're trying, you might be having a shower or getting dressed and they come in and they go, where's your penis mum? Or why do you have hair down there and I don’t? And they're noticing differences. So they start to notice that some kids have a penis and some kids have a vulva or some kids are also intersex as well. So they're noticing that there are differences. So they want you to sort of go. And it's that thing when they go through that stage where they like to sort things into colours and they like to put things into boxes. It's a way of understanding stuff. So they also like to go through and work out whether people are a boy or a girl or a male or female or whatever language you want to use around gender and sex. So that's something else that they go through as a stage and their conversations. A lot of the books, that there's a lot of books for the early years, and they will talk about gender and different body parts as well.
Consent is another big topic for this age group, just because it's an age of boundaries and an age, I guess, of socialising children so that we can tame them enough so that we can take them out in public without feeling that we can never go. I guess, train them to be sociable in public and to be able to get along with other children and to be able to share and all that sort of stuff. You know, we have high expectations of how they should behave well before they're capable of doing it.
So consent is an important part of conversations as well. So it's little things like you can't snatch the toy off that child who is in the middle of playing with it. You need to ask, and we talk about sharing and body safety as well. That, you know, if you can't just run up to your friend and hug them, you need to ask them if that's okay. And if they want to hug you, they need to ask you. Or if you don't want to hug, you should say, stop I don't like that. So body safety is a big part of those conversations as well at that age. What else is there, oh the other big one. Masturbation. So it's okay to touch your genitals. And yes, that can feel nice, but we don't do it at the park or we don't do it at the kitchen table when we've got people over for lunch. So introducing boundaries in regards to private parts where you can touch or where you can't. And that's also with playing doctor or kids looking at each other's genitals as well. They’re common conversations that we've got to have that it's okay to be curious, but it's not okay to be, you know, pulling everyone's pants down, having a look what's down there.
That's probably some of the, yeah they’re off the top of my head of the most common things that we talk about.
Jude: Yeah in our house at the moment understanding body consent is always the big topic. I've noticed a marked increase in understanding since my son turned 4. He still struggles with respecting other people's body boundaries but he's getting much better at it. Do you have any advice on this? What sort of age appropriate expectations should parents have?
Cath: The downside of taking things very gently and nurturing and loving is that it takes longer. But that's a good thing because we're not shaming our kids. It just takes longer. It can take them... I’m glad you bought that up, privacy, and, you know, boundaries like, if I shut the toilet door, it's because I want to be private. So privacy also goes both ways. So we have to respect the fact that if they to go into the bathroom and shut the door, that's okay as well. So I think modelling as well, but also lots and lots of reminders. You're not alone that can take forever. I’ve got a 15 year old and she barged into our bedroom last night and I was like we could been having sex. Do you really want to see that? (laughter) So you see, at 15 they still don’t understand and respect.
Jude: So definitely a marathon, not a sprint as always. So that leads nicely into my next question which is around masturbation and touching, and what’s appropriate in terms of privacy. Which seems to be another topic which comes up a lot with my 4 year old. I am forever saying that’s something you do in your bedroom. That’s not something you do in the front room or in front of other people. And sometimes he does but a lot of the time, not so much.
Cath: Now the thing with touching genitals or masturbation is that not all kids do it. So some don't do it at all. Some might a little bit and then some all the time. Some it could be a stage that it's just like for a month or two. It's like a new toy, like discovering that you've got a bag of lollies or chips or crisps and it's like it's bottomless and you can just go and help yourself all the time, or box of chocolate biscuits, you know, you're going to be going there all the time. So what can happen with kids is that they discover that they can touch their genitals and it feels nice and they like the feeling, but for them it's not sexual. It's just a nice feeling. So they go back to it. So that's why for some kids that can happen a lot, because it's like this new discovery of something that's just wonderful and they don't think of the consequences or anything. Whereas we as adults, we see it as being sexual. So we respond differently, it pushes our buttons, so the main thing with that is just the constant gentle reminders.
And as I said before, talking about taking things gentle, it's a shame free approach. So we can introduce boundaries. So it's okay to touch genitals. And yes, it can feel nice, but there's a time and a place for it. So gently introducing those boundaries is about keeping them safe, but also you know families are shared spaces, so we've got to do what works for the whole family as well. And just getting them to understand that it's a private activity that happens in a private place.
Jude: Yes, yes, definitely. I mean, every family is unique and partners and in-laws can sometimes have very different ideas about how Sex Ed should be handled. Do you have any advice around how members can tackle differences while remaining mindful of their own boundaries as parents?
Cath: A great question. What tends to happen with sex education is it's usually nine times out of ten it's the mum leading the way and it's quite common. Like couples, we all have different parenting styles. As you know, one partner might be more strict than the other. So as you can get differences in parenting styles, you can also get differences in sex education. What I found from even myself with my own partner is that, and also talking to other parents as couples as well, is that if one person, if one parent is leading by being natural and comfortable and open and honest, the other parent will sit back and watch and they will start mimicking that behaviour as well. So it's almost like monkey see, monkey do. So just, I guess, doing what you doing, what you feel comfortable doing. But I guess also discussing it's like that thing that if you've got a baby is born with a penis and one partner, wants the baby to be circumcised and the other parent doesn't, you know, you've got to negotiate and discuss that. It's more. I guess it's about that open and honest conversations.
It's a tricky one because some people believe that touching your genitals is sinful depending on your faith and your religion. So if you've got one partner who was brought up thinking that's shameful and sinful, I've had teenagers ask me that they masturbate and they're worried that they're going to go to hell. So they know, adults grow up with these negative messages and it can affect them. So these are just things that you're going to have to, I guess, discuss and talk about. What I have found is that most people's fears about talking to kids about love, sex and relationships is that talking will give them permission and that by talking, we're giving them the wrong message and that we're sexualising children
What found is that the kids that don't have these conversations, they're the kids that grow up sexualised because they're just receiving all this information from the world and they haven't got mum and dad at home counter messaging it. So when you're talking, you know, they're getting exposed to this stuff but you're grounding them at home by talking in an open and honest and comfortable way. So often one parent fears or disinterest in wanting to do it or not wanting to do it is just because they're worried about what it will do. So addressing those fears, working out why they don't want to and then you can sort of provide them with the right information. See how you go.
Jude: Yeah definitely, good advice. As my child gets older I’ve started to think about my own experiences when I was young, and I have distinct memories of playing Doctors and Nurses with a young male friend when I don't know, maybe I would guess probably seven. Something like that, definitely sort of mid Primary School age. And I imagine it would be long before I'm sort of facing similar experiences myself as a parent with my own child. I mean, I know children don't change, but is this still the sort of thing that parents can anticipate happening now and sort of between the three to six years?
Cath: Yeah, yeah yeah. The playing doctor and looking at each other's genitals when you look at the text books of what healthy child sexual development is, that curiosity can go right up to eight or nine. The problem nowadays though is that we have kids on the internet and they now go and look at big boobs on the Internet. So, yeah, the curiosity is age appropriate, but with the internet it means the consequences can be really different to what they were when we were kids, which is scary.
Jude: So you wouldn't not necessarily say it’s anything to panic about as a parent or anything like that?
Cath: No, only if it becomes a thing. It can become more of a thing when they're going to, like, daycare and play group because other parents then get involved. But as long as it's not something, like some parents will say, what is too much masturbating or when do I know playing doctor is too much of a problem. It's like with masturbating it can be when it's they're doing it all the time or they're choosing to do it rather than do other things. And playing doctor can become a problem if every time they have a friend over, they're out there looking, you know, a couple of times, two, three, four or five times, but if it's happening all the time, that's when it can become a problem. While I've got you there's a fantastic app. So people Google Traffic Lights app, Family Planning Queensland. It's like a two or a three dollar app and it's based on Traffic lights. So you pick the age of your child and then it's got a list of behaviours and you click which one and then it will tell you whether to worry or not. And it's fantastic as a parent, because you can just turn to this resource and it lets you know straight away whether the behaviour is okay or not. And then it even tells you some of the things that you can try to do to manage the behaviour.
Jude: Oh wow, that sounds really good, I’ll have a look into it.
Cath: Yeah, its fantastic.
NB: Since recording this interview we discovered that the Traffic Lights app has been temporarily removed as it needed to be updated. We do not know when it will be available again. If you are interested in extra information on sexual development in children, then please take a look at this article. https://sexedrescue.com/child-sexual-development/
Jude: My son is now 4, he was 4 back in June and he’s now starting to take much more of an interest in diversity and he’s actively asking me now why some people look different to him. For instance, he saw a lady with a prosthetic leg recently and he commented on it, just in the way that four year olds do. There was nothing behind his question other than just innocent curiosity. But what sort of advice do you have to help us as a family promote the values, sort of acceptance and inclusion, while answering his question in an open manner?
Cath: Diversity is a good one, and that's one of the things that when you ask me that first question about things to talk about diversity and families is that is one of the core topics as well, for sex education for this age group. And that's more because diversity. Diversity goes both ways. So it's about making sure that kids understand that other people are different and that that's okay. But when they can understand that it's okay for other people to be different, it means that they're more understanding, accepting of their own differences, and that is important as well. So it goes both ways. And what I find is that if you can grow up kids with the general acceptance that everyone is different and that's okay, you then don't have to get so caught up. So caught up on the finer details. So some parents worry about you know like, for example, your son pointed out the person that had a prosthetic leg. So, you know, that pushes our buttons as a parent, it's like, you know, why does that person have dark skin? We automatically think racism or phobia or, you know, what they've said is offensive. But as you said, they're not being offensive. They're just genuinely curious. But we as parents respond because we've got all our baggage and all our fears about that and our beliefs. So being mindful of our own reaction is really good, but I guess just being open and honest and responding. But there's so many wonderful books out there about diversity, and it's just really important because as kids also start socialising, this is where talking about families and about how all families are different as well, because once they start going to school, mixing regularly with other children, they might have a friend with two mums or a friend who is living with a grandparent, not a parent or a friend who's in foster care. Or they might have two dads. And they're reading all these books all the time, and all the children have white skin. None of them are in a wheelchair and they all have a mum and a dad. And kids read this stuff and they look at it and go, well where is me, and then they start to feel that there's something wrong with them and their family. So talking about the diversity and families is really important as well, because yes, it means they're okay with their family, and they're also not judging other families that are out there as well.
Jude: Yeah definitely, I know what you mean. It works both ways doesn’t it in terms of, if you're reading books and they're seeing a wide variety of different sorts of families as they're made up differently, then to them than that is perfectly normal. So when they are at the wide world, that's what they see and they think nothing of it. If they're only ever seeing one very narrow sort of viewpoint, then they're going to find it harder as they get older to be accepting.
Cath: Yes, very true.
Jude: I mean as a parent and a child care provider I've always tried to promote a gender neutral setting in our home, and this is very much a line with sort of Montessori settings as a whole, and as conversations with my son and other children have become more nuanced, I find myself becoming much more conscious of the language I use, and I want to improve my understanding of this area as a whole. Do you have my advice or resources to help me and other parents interested in developing our understanding?
Cath: Gender is very challenging because the language keeps changing. So one person might tell you to use that certain languages are ok. And then a week later or another person might turn around and say, that's offensive. I find myself and also, we've all grown up thinking that all boys have penises and all girls have vulvas. And now we're actually realising that's not true, that some kids can be born with a vulva, but they see themselves as being a boy, not as a girl. So we're talking needing to talk very differently about gender. And also some kids are non-binary so they don't identify as being a boy or a girl. And then some kids are intersex, like there's very few children's books out there that have got genitals that represent an intersex child. They've always all the kids have got a vulva or a penis. As parents, it's really challenging for us to talk about this stuff because it's stuff that we weren't taught as children ourselves. And we're also very careful, I think, of not offending people as well, and we want to be able to present the information in a way that's correct but non-judgmental. A lot of parents worry that kids struggle with this. Now, kids can grow up and understand that Tommy might have two mums or Mary has a mum and a dad, but, you know, Sam lives with his grandparents. So kids can understand that, of course, they can understand that most girls have a vulva, but some don't; and most boys have a penis, but some don't. So kids can understand these concepts. And yeah, it's not too complex for them. The best way that I have found to talk with gender is to grab a book. There are some fantastic books, there are some really nice children's books that are written in a really simple, natural, comfortable way. And reading books like that can then help you with talking to your own kids about gender, but also understanding the language and the jargon yourself as well. So I just find children's books about gender are just the easiest way to start the conversation.
Jude: Yes I agree, they are very useful to open up conversations and things and also giving you language yourself as a parent to use.
Cath: And also something we've got to remember is my kids are their twelve and fifteen. When I first started reading these books to them, all the books said girls have vulva, boys have a penis, and that's what I taught my kids. But now as I've realised and I learnt more, I've changed that information and my kids are adapted beautifully from one message to the other. So I guess something that's important as well is to remember that our language can change. So you might not be comfortable saying vulva. Or people might not know the word vulva and they're calling it a vagina. That's fine. You can just teach them later on that the vagina is the inside part and the vulva’s the outside part. Kids are used to us constantly adding in more information. So I just wanted to add that in because some parents think oh god I screwed that up. I've taught him that all girls have a vulva. It is too hard. I'm just not going to continue the conversation. It's never too late. We can constantly keep adding in new information and even if we say, hey, I got it wrong, this is what people say now. That teaches kids so much That it’s okay to make mistakes. And it's okay to own up to the fact that you don't know everything. Kids learn more by what we do than what we say.
Jude: Yes that’s very true and a very good point. Is there anything else you’d like to add to today’s interview, to sort of finish up?
Cath: Let me think. I think I guess the main thing is I’m a big and thigs fits in because my kids, I did a lot of Montessori with my kids as well. And back to that gender neutral as well. I try to be gender neutral as well with a lot of stuff with my kids, but sometimes you don't have any choice with gendered stuff. I guess the other thing as well is, so, for example, my daughter, she didn't, she just didn't want to play with building blocks. She didn't want to build or construct anything, and my mother said to me, why don't you just buy some pink box? And I thought, oh, so went off and bought a this pink Lego box. And all of a sudden this kid started building and that for me was a real eye opener because we had nothing that was gendered in the house. Everything was gender neutral, and I really struggled with having to introduce gendered toys in. But I also then realised that it wasn't about the pink, it was about the fact that she was able to build and because we have balanced it out with a lot of other stuff, it's about keeping things in perspective as well. It's like in those first plastic toys, it was like for me, I was into organic and recyclable and natural materials. And then having this cheap and nasty plastic was really hard, but then I had to look at the bigger picture and keep things in perspective. So with sex education can be very much about that, as well as realising that it's an open and honest and an ongoing conversation. No one gets it perfect all the time. I definitely don't as a parent and it's my area of expertise. It's like we're human first and foremost. But yeah, I guess my main message is that and this is where sex education, having open and honest conversation fits in beautifully with the whole approach with Montessori, because it's about, you know, connecting with children.
Jude: And yes, and being child led. Like you say, with the pink, that is being child led.
Jude: And well, you observed and you saw the need and you listened and you took in more information and then you found a solution which worked for the child. And that is very Montessori in my view.
Cath: Very true, with children that you're giving them. If they're old enough to ask the question, they're old enough to hear the answer. But then also keeping in mind that we also with sex education, there's some topics that we do need to introduce ourselves and things like concept, talking about body differences, body safety, that sort of stuff. Some stuff we do have to sort of introduce ourselves. But I know with myself, you know, we've got behind me are all my books, but most of the conversations in our house are led by what's happening and what's topical. So for the example, we're talking about foreskins a lot in my at the moment. And that's mainly because I'm paying my daughters to do some work for me. She's actually having to go through all my videos and find all the books that have got foreskins in them. So we've been talking about foreskins in the house in the last couple of weeks. So just that example of how taking advantage of what's topical and talking about things that we've got a new cat and it was cleaning himself and so we all saw his pink penis. Then we had a great conversation about penises. So many opportunities out there that we can turn into sex education and talking.
Jude: Yes. And when it's done in a natural, open and honest way, it's not shameful. It's not embarrassing. It is just part and parcel of life. And it's equipping children with skills for the rest of their life, which will then have an impact on their children when if they choose to have them in the future.
Cath: You’ve summed it up beautifully. You’re breaking the cycle of shame. And this is what gives me goose bumps, because I know that my kids won't be shaming their kids about bodies and sex, that they'll be having open and honest and comfortable conversations. And then their kids will. It’s that stone in the pond. It’s that ripple effect. Before you know it, having a making a big difference to the world and shame around this.
Jude: And at your children’s age as well, probably having a big positive effect on conversations with their own friends.
Cath: Yeah definitely. And as kids get older, they start to realise that other kids aren't having the conversations that are happening in your home. They do pick up on it.
Jude: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Definitely. A good ripple effect to be passing on to people. Yes. It's been fantastic chatting with you today. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your wisdom with us. It's been wonderful talking to you. And hopefully, we talk some more again soon.
Cath: Definitely. Thanks.
Co-authored and edited by Mie Mari Sløk Rusdal and Jude Saffron
Affiliate links within this blog are provided as an assistance to the reader and you will not incur any charges by utilising them.