MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 15-Jul-14 11:15:09

Guest post: 'Oh Derek!' - talking to my four-year old about sex

After observing her daughter's new interest in playing kissy games with her toys, Willow Oddie ponders where this new-found interest in love and sex emerged from, and how best to tackle sex education for the under-fours.

Willow Oddie

The Vacillating Mother

Posted on: Tue 15-Jul-14 11:15:09

(32 comments )

Lead photo

What's the best way to approach sex education for the under-4s?

Like lots of girls her age, my daughter has a well-developed penchant for princesses. At first, this manifested in the obvious predilection for all things pink and sparkly, but it has since morphed into something altogether more, well, romantic. She now exercises a tendency in her play to couple up all her figurines; for lack of options, the pairings are often disconcerting ones too, such as Cinderella with George Pig. And there isn't a bath time where I don't hear her exclaim, amidst all her breathy imaginative ramblings, 'Oh Derek!' only to suddenly become coy and instruct me to go away when she realises there's an audience to her secret play.

It is a shift almost entirely attributable to the introduction of films such as Thumbelina and The Swan Princess to her DVD repertoire, stories heavily themed with love and marriage. And while her behaviour merely seems to ape that of what she sees on screen, there is a burgeoning curiosity in her which, for her mother, is endearing - but somewhat unnerving.

It’s not the behaviour itself that’s concerning. As the NSPCC points out, traits such as kissing, hugging, fascination with private parts, playing with those private parts and playing ‘doctors’, are all pretty standard practice for a 0 to 4 year old. In the case of my daughter, her interest in romance has occurred in tandem with the more perfunctory curiosity of examining her own genitals and inquiring as to where babies come from. What is concerning is what this development triggers in me – in my mind these are the beginnings of a lifelong sexual trajectory, and even though I recognise that frank discussions about sex and love are still some way off, it has led me to ponder what the best approach is.

My daughter now exercises a tendency to couple up all her figurines. And there isn't a bath time where I don't hear her exclaim, amidst all her breathy imaginative ramblings, 'Oh Derek!' only to suddenly become coy and instruct me to go away when she realises there's an audience to her secret play.


How do I strike a balance between, on the one hand, supporting a healthy inquisitiveness and shame-free understanding of sex and her own body, with, on the other hand, ensuring she is not prematurely plunged into a world rife with exploitation and insecurity? Is it better to discuss these things earlier rather than later, or does that tacitly encourage sexual activity? Do I sit her down and have a ‘talk’, or do I remain responsive to her questions but allow her to glean information from a variety of sources?

It’s not just the advent of sexual discovery that has got me in a neurotic tailspin, though. It’s the preoccupation with romance. Pushing aside the fact that I had hoped she would be less interested in Prince Charming and keener on martial arts, encouraging love and all its wondrousness can be positive. But it shouldn't be so consuming that it begins to define a person. As a girl/teenager/woman, I know I spent far too much of my existence seeking validation through sex and romance - a preoccupation that can be both distracting and debilitating - and I'm not keen on my daughter doing the same.

As a child, I don't remember an explicit moment when I suddenly found out what sex was. I had a general sense of it from as early as I can recall, mainly because I grew up closely with older friends, so was always party to information that was slightly beyond my comprehension. My parents’ approach was mixed. They were themselves floundering – trying to shake off the prudishness of their own upbringings by attempting to be open with my brother and I, while at the same time being too squeamish to sit down and tell it to us straight. They left sexy books about the house and walked around naked in an attempt to be liberated and open. Therefore, while sex seemed to be all around me, instead of being informed about it, it held an alluring mystique which ultimately led me to become sexual active at far too young an age. Without a strong enough sense of myself and my own boundaries, I ended up in some extremely precarious situations which I tried to pass off as sexual free will.

All children are different and it is difficult to say whether some follow particular courses as the result of character, condition, environment or parental intervention. Just because I was preoccupied with sex as a path to self-discovery, doesn't mean my daughter will be. My hope is that a combination of facts, self-confidence and perhaps some positive insights gained from my negative experiences will allow her to navigate this terrain with some adeptness. For the moment however, her greatest danger is absorbing my neurosis. Perhaps it's best to try and ameliorate that and let her get on with prodding her own lady bits and playing kissy games with her toys.

By Willow Oddie

Twitter: @billoddyssey

allhailqueenmab Tue 15-Jul-14 12:32:06

watching!
this bothers me too. my dd1 is 5 and I am gutted at her wishing her life away already with all this focus on romance

roselover Tue 15-Jul-14 14:51:35

at the moment my four year old twin (boy/girl) are arguing about who can marry their 12 year old male cousin (the beautiful /kind wonderful Noah) - now thats modern….

FanSpamTastic Tue 15-Jul-14 16:58:56

I have tried to go with the approach of listening to the question that is asked and then trying to answer that question honestly but in age appropriate language. So my answer to "where do babies come from" has evolved over the years from when dd asked age 4 to now age 12! I didn't do a full biological explanation at age 4 but now try and use anatomical terms when talking to her at age 12.

CinnamonPlums Tue 15-Jul-14 18:45:30

I always just answer their questions. With dd1 who is now 6 this meant the full details and mechanics at age 4 (on the way to school no less) and with dd2 who is 5 it's still just at the swimming seed and egg stage.
Dd3 who is 3 is asking about marrying her best girl friend (as all of them have) and I just say of course you can do that, but it's harder to get a baby in your tummy if you marry a girl.

CinnamonPlums Tue 15-Jul-14 18:48:36

I always just answer their questions. With dd1 who is now 6 this meant the full details and mechanics at age 4 (on the way to school no less) and with dd2 who is 5 it's still just at the swimming seed and egg stage.
Dd3 who is 3 is asking about marrying her best girl friend (as all of them have) and I just say of course you can do that, but it's harder to get a baby in your tummy if you marry a girl.

CasanovaFrankenstein Tue 15-Jul-14 19:36:51

So who's Derek?

HeyBungalowBill Tue 15-Jul-14 21:27:03

I'm watching with interest.
A part of me feels children should just be told honestly and openly about everything as I think it's the lack of talking that makes sex so interesting.
My parents never spoke to me about sex but I don't think I ever asked either.

I remember being as young as 12 and being convinced everyone my age was having sex. I was embarrassed that I hadn't which now sounds ridiculous.
If sex was more openly talked about I think I'd have lost my virginity at an older age than 13.
I don't blame my parents for not talking to me about it but I think things would have been different if sex wasn't such a taboo subject amongst all my school friends!

Slothlorian Tue 15-Jul-14 22:47:55

I am also curious about the identity of 'Derek' !

bughunt Tue 15-Jul-14 22:57:19

there isn't a bath time where I don't hear her exclaim, amidst all her breathy imaginative ramblings, 'Oh Derek!' only to suddenly become coy and instruct me to go away when she realises there's an audience to her secret play

What on earth has she seen to make her act this out? I would be worried. cbeebies must have really changed in the last few years.

ToffeeMoon Tue 15-Jul-14 23:53:01

I'm not sure it is quite as normal as you think it is. 4 year olds acting out "intimate" situations? I'd start by binning the romance dvds and ditching the Disney/Barbie stuff. Don't ever leave her alone with an ipad or access to youtube.

She does not need a frank discussion about sex at 4.

KristinaM Wed 16-Jul-14 04:50:21

I agree with toffee. My youngest is only 7 so it's not that long since I had to watch Cbeebies and there was no " romance " then, let alone acting out of sexual situations . I'm wondering where this four year old is picking all this up. I don't think it's " normal ".

IME most 4 yo are joining up toys to make " families ", not to simulate sexual acts .

I'm also bemused as to what the writer means by " sexy books" that her parents left around the house when she was growing up. Does she mean romantic novels , " adult " fiction or pornography? Personally I don't think any of these are suitable for children. And allowing children to access porn is a form of sexual abuse .

Thee sees to be a worrying connection in the writers mind between nakedness and sex, which isn't normally there for most children. Exploring your body is normal for young children, a fascination with sex isn't .

At four , most children want to know about babies growing and developing before birth . That's not the same as wanting to know about sex.

BuilderMammy Wed 16-Jul-14 08:28:30

Derek is a friend of Barbie's - I think he was a member of her band when I was a kid.

sezamcgregor Wed 16-Jul-14 09:08:04

It's Prince Derek out of the Swan Princess

TheHoneyBadger Wed 16-Jul-14 11:08:02

i've tended to be pretty open with my son when he has asked questions. he's now 7 but it started years ago.

at the first round of where do babies come from questions i did a brief bit on the man and woman's contribution but then realised he was more interested in how they grow in the tummy so we watched in vetero (spelling sorry) footage and i talked a lot about when i was pregnant and a bit about giving birth.

he knows that men and women both contribute to making a baby and that women have eggs that they release every month and that men have a seed as i've called it for simplicity in the past and that if the seed and egg meet they might make the beginnings of a baby. he knows women get periods because their wombs get ready to be pregnant but if the egg isn't fertilised they let that go. he knows where his 'seeds' are and at the point where he became curious as to how the seed and egg come to meet (is it through the belly button) i tried to go a bit with euphemisms but that didn't satisfy him and he actually pieced it together with a ew do men put their you know into the woman's you know? grin

i guess it varies from child to child but with a child who asks questions and seems to need a proper explanation i think it's wrong to withhold it. we've not really talked in detail about sex but he gets the basic idea and then we've talked about things more from a relationship perspective of a man and a woman being really close and loving and etc.

i'm always deeply amused though that i tried to start with anatomical terms but he translated them into his own anyway so for example he has peanuts (from penis) and i had a for china to my endless amusement.

i feel like because it's always been open and questions have been answered there's a good foundation there for talking about things as time goes on and no sudden awkward conversation to be had at the worst possible time in adolescence.

TheHoneyBadger Wed 16-Jul-14 11:10:26

incidentally i have also talked about women and women and men and men - i said a man and a woman because i was focussing on reproductive stuff up there^^.

he's always been reminded that people can also fall in love with, marry and spend their lives with people of the same sex and accepts it although seemed quite surprised and amused by the idea initially.

Willpill Wed 16-Jul-14 20:30:35

@ToffeeMoon @KristinaM at no point do I say my daughter has a fascination with sex - I think you may be somewhat misguided there. I think the point I'm trying to make is that my daughter growing up is a fact I will have to address. She will eventually become a sexual being and I want to make sure I navigate that as best I can. And, as I say categorically in the piece, I recognise that is still some way off.

Also, not sure I appreciate the inference my parents are guilty of sexual abuse. No one's advocating porn here.

I'm all for open discussion but let's at least get the reading accurate. This is supposed to be a supportive community after all.

MiscellaneousAssortment Thu 17-Jul-14 10:26:30

Don't worry OP, you'll always get a few tangents and pronouncements.

I find it difficult to pitch the talks at the right level, and there's a real sense of finding my way through it on my own, not having a template passed down from previous generations. My parents did the repressed, never talk about it and get cross if I asked questions. Yet weirdly parading naked around the house to give an aura of 'we're so cool and modern about it'. I remrmber my mother screaming at me when i asked why she had a string coming out of her. No answer except 'dont you dare ask personal wuestions , youre a very rude little girl'... From an adult perspective now i think, what the hell were they doing, if they wanted to be prudes then close the bathroom door and hide your body, rather than self create a massive weirdness about all things bodily.

Utterly rubbish! But Im not quite sure how to be not utterly rubbish in a different way for Ds either.

It's a big responsibility, being in charge of forming / helping form your children's sense of identity, relationships and their relationship with sex and sensuality. One of those times when we're reminded what a big responsibility parent hood is.

I've always taken the approach that I'll answer the questions my DCs ask me as honestly as I can bearing in mind their age.
I was pregnant with DC2 when DD was 4yo. She asked a lot of questions and I answered them. Then she lost interest until more recently when we've started talking about puberty and body changes because her body is changing. DS is now 6yo and has begin asking question about what willies are all about. It is hard to be sure that I am getting the balance right between answering the question, not oversharing and not leaving more worries to stew in little heads.
They've never acted out sex or romance in their imaginative play but they've not really watched much Disney or "romantic" films or TV. If I caught either of them enacting breathy sex scenes I'd be a bit shock.

princesspoet Thu 17-Jul-14 19:07:48

Thanks for this! I think it's funny! I was obsessed with Disney princesses until university. I preferred romance over sex. I was never really given the talk, just don't do it.
I have been blessed with 2 boys, the oldest being three.. He is very into his willy and our sex ed so far is : your willy is private - just for you. I think sex ed has to continue throughout childhood not just at puberty. As mum to boys, I think it's important that it includes lessons on consent.

fieldsomewhere Thu 17-Jul-14 20:00:56

I don't see what the fuss is about really. We had picture books in our house from when my eldest was a toddler about how babies were born and also made. It's just the same as explaining any subject. If you still feel a little prudish about it then take your kids to a farm and explain sex and babies through animals. They will soon realise human are just the same.

MiscellaneousAssortment Thu 17-Jul-14 21:15:10

My ds is fascinated by babies growing in tummies... He's also fascinated by fanjo's as he hasn't seen one (no sisters and they're hidden compared to the dangly willies!).

So when he asked 'how did I come out of your tummy mummy' I found myself not wanting to explain as wasn't sure what to say, so I dodged the bullet by answering literally, as I had a csection with him... And then he got upset saying 'did I hurt you mummy? You got cut!'

shock so now I feel a bad mummy!

TheHoneyBadger Fri 18-Jul-14 07:35:55

why dodge that question? if he already knows women have vaginas then you'd just say surely that ladies have an opening and when it is time for the baby to come they have to push the baby out (cue 'what like having a poo?'). i'm honestly curious as to why you'd find that something to dodge?

there's nothing 'sexual' or inappropriate about knowing the mechanics of human bodies and tbh i'd think thinking all babies have to be cut out of mummies would be more distressing than knowing that women have a birth canal that dilates and stretches when giving birth.

second whoever said about animals - if it is too 'sexual' for you somehow to talk about it in human terms then talk about animals.

i just think its important to bear in mind that if your children can't trust you for honest answers then you're not going to be their source of information. kids pick up pretty quickly that mummy doesn't tell me the truth or mummy is not comfortable talking about this.

TheHoneyBadger Fri 18-Jul-14 07:36:39

don't feel a bad mummy btw! just give some thought as to why you didn't feel comfy answering and whether you want to be the one he comes to as he grows up.

TheHoneyBadger Fri 18-Jul-14 07:43:04

sorry multiple posting but also - bear in mind you are his role model of womanhood and his first 'relationship' in a way. it would be nice if you could model comfort, acceptance and lack of shame about your own body and it's functions to him. if you are open and unashamed about discussing the female body, what it does and why etc you are gifting him with comfort with that and perhaps with choosing women later in life who are also comfortable and confident about their own bodies and femaleness.

i feel clear that i'd rather raise a boy who knows women's bodies are real functioning complex things with nothing to be ashamed of, nothing dirty or scary or mysterious. those are lovely men to be with as opposed to men who are kind of on some level freaked out by women and their bodily functions.

it's also the pathway for developing respect for women's bodies and an understanding that they belong to that woman and exist for a variety of reasons other than just looking pretty or having sex with itms? i find this hard to put into words but it's something to do with bodily autonomy and understanding the full humanness of a woman (and not some weird mysterious non-man creature) that i think is important.

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