Sex and relationships: how to talk to your primary-school child

Sex and relationships: how to talk to your primary-school child
How should you discuss the birds and the bees with your child and when, and what can you expect your school to provide in terms of sex and relationships education? We asked the experts for their guidance for the primary-school years.

How to talk to your child about sex and relationships

The thought of talking to your child about sex might make you cringe, but leaving it entirely up to school is not an option – especially as he’ll probably start showing an interest before he even sets foot in a classroom. ‘Children are naturally curious, so it’s important to answer their questions openly, in child-friendly language, as soon as they begin to talk,’ says Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum.

The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to have the Big Talk with your child. ‘It’s normal to feel embarrassed, but you don’t have to prepare a formal sex talk,’ says Paul Casey, training manager at FPA, the sexual health charity. ‘Let it be a natural process from an early age, building on your child’s questions or observations; the more you talk, the easier it will become.’

What should you talk about and when?

Although there’s no right or wrong age to tackle specific sex and relationships topics, it’s important to be led by your child. ‘Most parents will also want to pre-empt what children are learning at school, so they’re not hearing things for the first time in the classroom,’ adds Lucy.

Currently, sex education isn't compulsory in primary schools, although Department for Education guidance recommends that children are taught about sex and relationships in Year 6. In addition, the science curriculum requires that children learn about reproduction in animals and humans in Year 2 (but not how it happens), and puberty in Year 5. In March 2017, the Government announced that sex and relationships education (SRE) will be compulsory in all primary and secondary schools, including academies and free schools, probably from 2019. The emphasis in primary schools will be on teaching children about safe and healthy relationships. They will also be taught about sex at an age-appropriate time, although parents will have the right to withdraw their children from these lessons. 

The Sex Education Forum has a comprehensive list of typical questions and topics for discussion, broken down by age.

Children aged three to four are aware and curious about the differences between the sexes, and are happy with short, simple, truthful answers,’ says Paul. For example:
Q: Where do babies come from?
A: Mummy and Daddy have a special cuddle.
Q: How do babies get into a mummy’s tummy?
A: A seed meets an egg and grows into a baby.
Q: Can men have babies?
A: Babies can only grow in a special place inside mummies’ tummies.

Children aged five to eight are curious about their own bodies and other people’s, pregnancy and childbirth. ‘They need to know about puberty and body changes, so they’re prepared before it happens to them,’ says Paul. By this age they should know about periods and wet dreams, the proper names for genitals and how a baby is made. Common questions include:

  • Why are some parents married, and others aren’t?
  • Can men marry men, and women marry women?
  • Why is my body changing?
  • Why do some children grow faster than others?
  • What are some of the bad ways that people can behave towards each other?

Children aged nine to 11 are likely to begin showing signs of puberty. ‘They become conscious of the differences between their bodies and their friends’, and may be anxious about what is normal,’ says Paul. ‘It is best to talk to children about puberty before it happens, so they feel prepared; for most children around eight or nine will be an appropriate age.’ Typical questions include:

  • What do the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ mean?
  • What is puberty? Does everyone go through it, and when?
  • Is my body normal?
  • What is sex?
  • How do sperm reach the egg to make a baby?

Entering the teenage years, children will be interested in hormones, the menstrual cycle, wet dreams, erections, the difference between sexual attraction and love, contraception and pregnancy choices. They might want to know:

  • What if I’m attracted to someone of the same gender?
  • Do I have to have sex with someone to show I love them?
  • What is an orgasm?
  • Who should be responsible for contraception in a relationship?

Sex terminology

The names you use for body parts will depend on what you and your family feel comfortable with, but it’s important that your child also knows the biologically correct terminology. ‘This allows children to speak accurately about their bodies, which is important not just in sex education, but also in child protection, as it means they can tell an adult if someone touches them in a way that worries them,’ says Lucy.

Sex education in primary schools

Primary schools can choose whether or not to provide sex and relationships education, but since September 2014, maintained schools teach the biology of reproduction and puberty as part of National Curriculum science. This includes:

  • The processes of growth and reproduction in animals (in Year 1)
  • Different types of reproduction in plants and animals, the stages of human growth and development, and puberty (in Year 5).

All maintained schools must have a written sex education policy and make it available to parents. ‘Schools should also communicate clearly about what will be taught, for example by explaining who will deliver the sex education programme, what will be covered, and when,’ says Lucy. ‘It’s good practice for schools to invite parents to look at any material that will be used; some even have a collection of resources like DVDs and books that families can borrow to use at home.’

Good sex education resources for sharing with your child

The Sex Education Forum has resources for parents, including a guide to the dos and don’ts of talking to children about sex, and what you can expect from your child’s school.

The BBC has produced excellent sex and relationship education videos for KS2 children.

The FPA’s resources section includes advice sheets for talking to your child, broken down into age groups. Other useful material for parents and children includes:

For more books about sex and puberty for children, see our parents' guide.