- This age group is where it’s at. (Approximately 2 to 6)
I can’t stress it enough. All future learning will build much more easily, your daughter will be more comfortable in her own skin, and your relationship with her will be enhanced throughout your lives together if you lay a foundation of judgment-free, fear-free dialogues during these formative years. She’ll never have to feel awkward, ashamed or guilty coming to you with sexual content because talking about it with you has always been a part of her life.
If you answer her questions honestly in these years, she’ll come to know you as a person she can admire and trust. (Women in my research reported losing respect for their mothers when they weren’t able to move past their own anxiety to provide their girls with the information on growing up that they need. They also said their mothers’ avoidance and/or dishonesty about sexual topics made them mistrust their mothers, and this created distance well into adulthood.) So if you want your daughter to feel she can come to you for support and advice when she’s a teen or an adult, you want to begin earning that trust now.
The best news is that teaching this age cluster is incredibly simple because you’re not teaching them concepts, like what sexuality is or how desire works. You’re merely defining terms. If your daughter points to a wall sconce and asks you what it is, and you say, “That’s a wall sconce. It’s a lamp that hangs on the wall,” then you can handle her pointing to her vulva, asking you what it is, and answering, “That’s your vulva, all girls and women have them.” Remember that to her, it’s just another building block in understanding who she is as a small human being. We wouldn’t dream of raising our daughters to refer to their minds as their “Up There” and their sexuality deserves the same dignity.
I’ve heard the argument that words like vagina and breast are adult terms that are inappropriate to use with children. But they aren’t adult terms; they’re anatomical terms, and they should be dispensed without a moral reference.
Remind yourself you’re the adult, and it’s your responsibility to manage your inherited shame and fear so you don’t pass it down to your daughter. Dose her with tiny bits of information during the routine opportunities that pop up all the time. For example, a simple question while potty training is something any parent can handle. If you notice at bath time your daughter has a rash, you can ask, “Is your labia sore? Do you want me to put some cream on it?” If you do this, you’ll be educating her about her body, teaching her to care for it, and conveying that her genitals are nothing to be whispered about. You’ll be normalizing that the body and sexuality are things you two can talk about together.
If your daughter asks you something like where babies come from, give a basic age appropriate response like, “A man’s body makes sperm and a woman’s body makes an egg, and together the sperm and egg make a baby.” Don’t worry that some of the information goes over her head. That’s how learning works. For example: Countless families start teaching their children about their religious beliefs without worrying if they should wait until their kids are old enough to understand the theology of it all—they just say, “Mr. Goldfish has gone to heaven” and handle the follow up questions as they see fit.
None of us, at any age, can take in complex information in one bite because complexity demands we work our way up to a fuller understanding. Supporting their developing understanding of sexuality should be no different.
- Give her information before puberty sets in. ( 7 to 11)
This is the time to cram in as much information as you like because you’ve already given her the rudiments, so she’s ready for more, and because her body hasn’t begun to change, she’s not scared by sexual information yet. At this age she’s totally excited by what’s in store for her, but when adolescence starts, talking about sex becomes more frightening and overwhelming because then it’s for real. By then changes are going on inside her body and she witnesses it in her friends. Women and girls in my study resented when they weren’t taught about their periods before they began because it left them feeling frightened and all on their own. They also said they wished for the emotional closeness to their mothers such discussions would have facilitated. So prepare your daughter and be honored to draw her forward into the process of becoming a woman. Fathers should also feel welcome nurturing a connection to their girls in this way.
These years are a fabulous time to bring in children’s sex ed books to read together (like It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris), or tampons and bras—whatever she seems curious about. For instance, your daughter may always have been around your feminine hygiene products, but now she might want to unwrap them and check them out with a deeper understanding of their function and their upcoming relation to her body.
You can share stories of your first period, or what it felt like to, seemingly overnight, have underarm hair. Extend to her your memories to let her know she’s not alone, and that the changes she’s going through in her body and in her relationships can be talked about. It’s the emotional piece of the sharing we need to celebrate because that’s where the sense of belonging will come from, and when we know we belong, we’re far less susceptible to shame and guilt. The more solid her relationship to herself and to you is, the less at risk she’ll be for hardships that can emerge not too far down the road: anxiety, depression, negative body image, eating disorders, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior and self-mutilation.
3. Respect the reality that who she is in the world now begins to develop. Expand to include more adult sexual feeling and meaning. (12 to 15)
Even if your daughter doesn’t become sexually active until she’s much older, setting the stage is still important. During these years you can make use of sexual content you’ll stumble upon together through lyrics, television, movies, conversations with others, because discussing it informally may be less embarrassing for her than it would be through something more akin to a lecture.
For example, if you read about masturbation in It’s Perfectly Normal with your daughter when she was 10, and now you’re watching a movie and there’s a reference to it, you can pick up the lesson by discussing it within the context of the movie. Don’t worry. You don’t have to go into complicated specifics. What girls need is very straightforward. In my research, girls wished their mothers had told them masturbation is normal, a good way to learn about her own body, and nothing to feel guilty about.
Don’t just teach her to be afraid of pregnancy and STDs. Let her know female desire and pleasure are important. Search your own memories and try to recall all you didn’t know. Even if your daughter has been educated or mis-educated by the Internet, you can still make sure she’s informed by what you want her to understand about the realities of being sexual. In doing so, you’ll be offering her what the Internet can’t: your hopes for her. This is an opportunity for you to share concepts that are probably important to you, like weighing in against oral sex as a means to win someone’s affections, or more generally, making sure she always feels comfortable and respected as she determines what she feels ready to try as she wades into her sexuality.
- Build a bridge between the basics and more complex concepts. (15 to 21)
You’ve taught her the essentials, and now she needs help stringing them together into concepts and practicing how she’ll handle herself in new situations. How does a daughter go from having this new body to figuring out how to live in it, for example? It’s your job to be there when she needs you for support and limit setting so she feels safe.
But this is also the time she’ll want to go out on her own to learn more about herself. Let her know you understand how bumpy it can be getting accustomed to sexual relationships, dealing with peer pressure, and trying to figure out how to be true to herself. Help her build the confidence necessary to listen to her own body so she can follow her instincts rather than feel the need to “perform” for her partner. Remember, many kids, especially boys, are learning about sex through porn, which rarely depicts female experiences of pleasure in any realistic way.
Also, no slut shaming. When I speak to ninth and tenth grade girls about sexuality, I tell them that whenever they call another girl a slut, they erase a little bit of themselves and other girls. We have to stop setting the example of pitting girls against each other. I also tell them that if a girl truly is having a lot of sex, she’s probably trying her best to feel special, loved or in control. Often, girls who get labeled as promiscuous are girls who may have experienced emotional neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or who may be showing early signs of mental health concerns, such as bipolar disorder. These are the girls who deserve our compassion, not our scorn.
You don’t want to intrude on your daughter’s privacy. The most important thing is to have conversations that help her learn how to evaluate her feelings, options, and the quality of her relationships at important junctures. Don’t lecture. Listen, and talk together. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi or trans and whether she’s straight, gay, bi or trans, it’s about being there for your daughter. It doesn’t matter if you were a virgin until 30, or if you were the most promiscuous girl in your hometown; your task is to uphold a sense of mutual respect.
- If you haven’t talked with her about it, but you want to start:
I abide by that great Nike campaign: Just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect time. You can tell her you feel awkward bringing it up, but you’re doing it because how she feels is important to you. You could tell her that you’ve never talked about it before because you weren’t raised to feel comfortable doing so, but you want her to know that you only wish for her happiness, and you would never want her to feel guilty about any part of her sexuality. As a therapist who works with women of all ages, I can assure you your daughter could be in her fifties and still benefit from hearing you say that.
Joyce McFadden is a psychoanalyst, author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women and The Women’s Realities Study. You can find her at www.joycemcfadden.com or on Twitter @Joyce_McFadden.