What is age-appropriate sex education?
By Karuana Mwai
How do you talk to your child about sex or puberty? For many Kenyan parents, like those of Audrey Muthoni, a 27-year-old graduate living in Nairobi, the answer is simple: they don’t.
She says her parents never had “the sex talk” with her, even though they were both teachers and her mom was a Sunday school teacher. They never mentioned anything about sexuality, sexual abuse, body image, mental health or puberty.
Muthoni had to deal with the consequences of this silence. She had two abortions while in university, one with over the counter medicine and the other with a surgery at a clinic in Umoja 1. She did not have any support from her parents, because she felt too ashamed to tell them. But she wishes they had been more open and understanding about sexual issues.
Sex education is a hot topic in Kenya. Some people think it is useful and necessary, while others think it is harmful and immoral. It is also a political issue in the country. Last year, Kirinyaga woman representative Njeri Maina proposed to introduce comprehensive sex education in schools across the country, but the idea faced a lot of opposition.
Meanwhile, many young people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack basic knowledge about HIV prevention and transmission, according to UNESCO. And many girls do not know what to expect when they start puberty and menstruation. Early marriage and early and unintended pregnancy are also serious problems for girls’ health and education: in Kenya, 18 percent of teenage girls between 15 and 19 years old are either pregnant or have given birth. These are some of the reasons why comprehesnive sex education is important for your child.
Sex education should start early and be ongoing. It should be tailored to the child’s age, developmental stage, and cultural background. It should also respect the diversity of values and beliefs in the community, and complement the information that children receive from other family members, religious groups, health care professionals, and other sources.
In this article you will find essential topics on sexual education that children, teens, and young adults should learn about. It is based on reliable resources from WHO, UNFPA, and other reputable health organizations, as well as input from sexual health experts.
2 years and younger
At this stage, children are curious about their own bodies and the differences between boys and girls. They may also start to explore their genitals or touch themselves.
Parents can teach their children the correct names of the body parts, including their genitals, and help them understand that their body belongs to them. You can also tell them that it is normal to touch any part of their body-let them play with their vulva or hold their penis during bath. If your child likes to be naked all the time you can start setting limits on nudity.
You can use everyday situations, such as bath time or changing diapers, to talk to your child/children about these topics in a simple and natural way.
3 to 5 years
At this stage, children may ask questions about where babies come from, how they are born, or why people kiss or hug. They may also show interest in playing doctor or house with other children.
Answer your child’s questions honestly and simply, using age-appropriate language and examples. At this stage you can teach your child the basic differences between male and female bodies (such as girls have a vulva and boys have a penis), how babies are made and grow inside the mother’s belly, and how they come out. You should also reinforce the concepts of privacy, consent, and boundaries, and help your child develop empathy and respect for others. Additionally, explain that making babies is something that only adults do, not children.
You can use books, visuals or videos that are suitable for this stage to help you explain these topics to your child. Note that you may need to repeat the information several times until your child understands it.
6 to 8 years
As children approach 8 years old, especially girls they may start to experience some physical and emotional changes as they approach puberty. They may also see or hear sexual messages or images in the media or online that can be confusing or misleading.
As a parent, you can help your child cope with these changes and challenges by providing accurate and age-appropriate information. You can explain the changes that will happen or are happening to their bodies, but mainly lay the foundation.
You can also talk about the feelings that come with puberty, such as mood swings, peer pressure, or attraction. This way, you can prepare your child for the next stage of their development.
Moreover, you can teach your child about the different kinds of relationships that people can have, such as friendship, dating, or marriage. You can also help your child to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and how to respect themselves and others. Lastly, you can help your child to develop critical thinking skills to evaluate the sexual messages or images they encounter, and to make informed decisions.
It’s also important to teach your child about body hygiene and how to say no to things that make them uncomfortable or unsafe.
9 to 14 years
This is a stage when children go through many physical and emotional changes as puberty begins. Puberty usually starts between ages 8 and 13 in girls and ages 9 and 15 in boys, but it can also be normal to start early or later.
Children may also become more curious about dating or sexual activity with their peers, and they may face more risks or challenges related to their sexual health or safety.
Parents can support children in this stage by helping them understand the changes that happen during puberty, such as growing taller, developing hair, breasts, or voice changes, having periods, and wet dreams.
Additionally parents can build up on the information they have shared with their children in the ages from 5 to 8 years and help them understand sexuality and reproduction comprehensively. This includes topics such as contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy options, abortion, or parenting.
However, parents should also respect that children may learn at different paces, and some children may not be ready to learn this information yet. In that case, parents can wait until the next stage to share this information. Ideally, you should be patient with your child.
Parents can also support children in this stage in developing skills to make informed decisions about their sexual behavior and relationships, such as communication, negotiation, refusal, consent, protection, or seeking help. Parents can also help them explore their own identity and values related to sexuality and gender.
15-18 years old
At this age, teenagers may become sexually active or explore their sexuality in various ways. They may also face challenges such as dating violence, sexual harassment, online safety, body image issues, or mental health problems related to sex and sexuality.
Sex education for adolescents should reinforce the information and skills learned in earlier stages, as well as address more complex topics such as consent, sexual pleasure, abortion care, sexual rights and responsibilities, sexual diversity and inclusion, gender-based violence, media literacy, and access to sexual health services.
Sex education should also empower them to make informed and responsible choices about their sexuality, based on their values, goals, and expectations.
Parents can support their teenagers by maintaining a trusting and respectful relationship with them, respecting their privacy and autonomy, providing guidance and advice when needed or asked for, being aware of the signs of abuse or distress, and connecting them with appropriate resources or professionals if necessary.
Do you have any questions, talk to us in the comments section. Also, if you have practical tips on how to talk to children, share with other parents in the comments section.