- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2001

'Where did I come from?"

It is a question that catches many parents by surprise. It is a question that can turn faces 20 shades of blush and transform an otherwise confident adult into a stammering improvisational actor. The parent caught off guard may be the parent who spins a tale of a stork to buy more time.

Eventually, the real story will have to be told, so it is best to be prepared, says Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator at the Park School in Baltimore and author of the book "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex."

"Parents have a lot of anxieties about this because most of us have anxieties and communication barriers," Ms. Roffman says. "It is part of our culture. What children are asking is about their origins. It is not even about sex. They are asking about how they came into being."

It is best to offer age-appropriate information little by little, says Debra W. Haffner, author of "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children." Ms. Haffner is against having "the big talk." She says reproduction is too big a topic to cover in one sitting.

"The big talk doesn't work," she says. "You wouldn't use it to talk about God or safety, either. These are topics that take time and reinforcement. If you want to be askable parents, you should encourage an ongoing discussion."

In the beginning

Before a child is even verbal enough to have questions, he might have curiosities, such as about the differences between boys and girls, Ms. Roffman says. She encourages parents to use proper, rather than childish, names for body parts.

"I think, as a general rule, you don't want to teach them something they are going to have to unlearn later," she says. "If you are using proper names for every other body part but code words for sex parts, you can give the message that this is different in a way, and that is unhealthy."

Around age 4, children begin to understand that things have a beginning, a middle and an end. They may see a family picture taken before they were born and wonder where they were when the picture was taken, Ms. Roffman says.

At this stage, children are "geographers," says Anne C. Bernstein, a psychologist in Berkeley, Calif., and author of the book "Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) About Sex and Family Building."

"Children this age assume they always existed," she says. "What they are asking is literally where they came from."

Keeping answers short and simple probably will be enough for most preschoolers, Ms. Roffman says.

"The most direct and accurate answer would be something like, 'Mommies have a special place called a uterus where a baby grows,' " Ms. Roffman says. "A child will more than likely respond with, 'Oh. OK. So what's for lunch?' and probably won't ask for much more information."

When explaining this part of the question, it is important not to say that babies grow "in the stomach," Dr. Bernstein says.

"You can say belly or womb," she says, "but don't say stomach. It gets confusing. A child might think you ate them."

Ms. Haffner says to look for "teachable moments" with a preschooler, such as pointing out a pregnant friend.

Laurie, a Reston mother who asked that her last name not be used, is expecting her third baby. She has used her own pregnancy as a teaching tool for her 6- and 3-year-old sons.

"We never had 'the big talk,' " she says of her 6-year-old. "He will just sort of ask questions when I least expect it. He knows how the baby will get out. He knows about sperm and eggs. He knows they have to get together to make a baby, but that is it. I think he is too young to know the sex part of it, but I won't freak out when I have to tell him."

Geographer to manufacturer

By about 5 or 6, children grow out of their focus on geography and become much more sophisticated learners, Ms. Roffman says. They have a greater understanding of time, distance and movement. They are more interested in cause and effect as well as transportation, she says. This is the stage Dr. Bernstein calls "manufacturers."

"A 6-year-old can understand he or she is accountable for their actions," Ms. Roffman says. "They also understand how things are made. So you shouldn't be surprised if one day it just dawns on them: 'Hey, how did I get here?' "

Part of that question is indeed about transportation, Ms. Roffman says. This is a good time to introduce the concept of the vagina as the birth canal, she says. Refresh the child's memory about growing in the womb, then add a sentence such as: "There is another place that connects to that place, and that is how babies come out," Ms. Roffman says.

Accompanying this question might be one about how babies get in the womb, however.

"Don't brush him off," Ms. Roffman says. "A child this age is asking, 'What caused me?' You can offer this part of the story little by little. You can start with, 'Daddy and I made you.' If he asks more questions, you can offer, 'Daddies have sperm cells inside of them and mommies have egg cells, and God made males and females to fit together like puzzle pieces.' Answering this question isn't even about sex. It is about the mechanics of reproduction and how they came into being."

Says Ms. Haffner: "Around this time, in early elementary school, you need to bring up the concept of intercourse. Even if that seems early, it is necessary because if you don't tell your children, I guarantee you, a fourth-grader will. Now, do you want to give your child the caring version of adult reproduction or the fourth-grade version?"

Claudia, another Northern Virginia mom who asked that her last name not be used, had been giving her 7-year-old daughter bits of information for years. Concerned her daughter would hear about intercourse from another child, Claudia recently told her the rest of the story.

"I realized she was mature enough to ask detailed questions about body parts," Claudia says. "When she asked me if you had to be married to have a baby, I used that to talk about commitment. I wanted her to realize that it takes two people to make a baby, not just a mommy and eggs."

In any sex-education conversation, it is important to see what the child already knows, Ms. Haffner says. A child may know that sperm and egg get together, for instance, but may have formulated ideas of how (such as the sperm swims across the bed), or they may not have thought about it at all.

After explaining the real story, wait and see how your child reacts and if the child has any more questions, she says.

"When I explained to my own [then 5-year-old] son about intercourse, he said, 'Mom, that's disgusting,' " Ms. Haffner says. "I said to him, 'This is a grown-up behavior, and when you are a grown-up, you can decide whether or not you want to do this.' In a 10-second answer, I affirmed his feelings, gave him our family value, and let him know that he is in charge of his sexuality when he grows up.

"There is concern that this is going to give children too much information or violate their innocence in some way," she says. "Unfortunately, at a time when kids are listening to Britney Spears and watching TV, if you don't tell them, someone else will. If you leave it to the schoolyard, not only will the child get the ugly version, you won't even know that the conversation took place."

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