Many adults wonder whether, how, and when to talk to their children about the “facts of life.” Children at a late preschool or early elementary age are likely to be exposed to information of misinformation about reproduction, so it is best for parents and other family members to take charge of the education in a developmentally appropriate, accurate way. Caregivers can support families by informing them of their children's questions; providing educational materials about how to introduce this subject at home; and by correcting misinformation.
Very young children tend to ask about pregnancy and birth very openly (often at the most inopportune times such as in the grocery check-out line). Ideally, children's questions can guide the caregiver's response. However, some children do not ask questions about sexuality because they have sensed that adults many be unwilling or uncomfortable about answering them. Other children feel no need to ask because they have reached their own conclusions. In fact, young children often have notions that babies are purchased in stores or hospitals, or descent from heaven, or spontaneously appear when parents are ready to have them. Beginning at age four, children are aware that babies aren't just suddenly “there”, but must be “manufactured.” And children have many magical ideas about how this “manufacturing” occurs and how babies exit from the mother's body. According to experts, even children who have been given explanations about reproduction do not always fully accept or believe what they have been told. If what they are told does not fit with their own ideas and conclusions, they adapt the information to what they think makes sense.
Children are sometimes confused or worried by inaccurate stories, fantasies, and theories. Saying that “a baby grows in a woman's stomach” may seem like an appropriate simplification for a young child, but it may actually cause confusion. The child may be bewildered and wonder, “What did she eat to get the baby in her stomach.” The child may be relieved to learn that a woman has a specific place called a uterus where the fetus grows.
Adults must remember that children are very literal. Telling children that a baby gets started when “a seed is planted” may conjure misleading images. They base their ideas on what they have already seen or experienced. They know that when seeds are planted, flowers or vegetables may grow. Therefore, babies must grow in the same way. Keep responses simple and remember the child's perspective. The amount of detail to give depends on the child's readiness and further curiosity as well as the parents' beliefs and childcare center's or preschool's policy about what to divulge and when to do so. It is important to clarify what kind of information a child is seeking. A child who asks, “Where did I come from.” may be asking about geography, not biology.
Key Messages for Children:
- Living things (plants, animals, and people) reproduce by making other living things that are just like them. Dogs have puppies. Cat have kittens. People have babies.
- Both a man and a woman are needed to start a baby.
- Mothers may choose to feed their babies milk from their breasts or from a bottle.
- Once babies are born, both men and women can provide love, protection, and care.
Additional Messages for Older Preschoolers:
- When a woman is pregnant, the baby grows inside a part of her body called the uterus.
- Usually a woman has only one baby at a time, but sometimes she has two babies (twins), three babies (triplets), four babies (quadruplets), or even more!
“Where did I come from?” How Adults Can Help:
- Share with parents and guardians their children's questions about this issue.
- Acknowledge and support children's natural curiosity about where they came from. Check out what they think and what want to know. “Where do you think babies come from? What ideas do you have?”
- Explain that the day a person is born is his or her birthday. Make a chart of all the children's birthdays and have a celebration on each of those days.
For Older Preschoolers:
- Include a picture of a pregnant woman in collections of photographs and pictures depicting families.
- Acknowledge that some children are adopted and live with their adoptive parents.
- If the mother of a child in the class is pregnant, ask her is he will come and talk with the class. Perhaps she will allow children to touch her abdomen and feel the fetus move inside.
- Have mothers and fathers tell how they felt when their children were born. Show photos of the baby and family.
- Have pets in the classroom. Children enjoy seeing how animals behave and are delighted when the animals have babies.
- Help parents answer questions simply but honestly. For example, parents might want to adapt the following from When Sex is the Subject, by Pamela M. Wilson, M.S.W.:
“How does the baby get in the uterus?”
“The baby starts from a tiny little egg that is already in the woman's body. (Draw a dot with a pencil to show how small and make sure the child understands it is not an egg with a shell like that of a chicken, but a human egg.) The woman needs help from a man to make a baby. The man has sperm in his body that has to join with the egg inside the woman's body. When the sperm joins the egg, the baby starts to grow.”
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