1368747_ladybugs_mating_2Last weekend, I picked up the fourth edition of A Child Is Born by Lennart Nilsson and Lars Hamberger, an absolutely brilliant, breath-taking photographic journey of a baby’s development from conception to birth. I am using it as a way of introducing sex to my children, the oldest of whom is six years old.

Some parents, especially of the generations before me, might gasp at the idea of teaching pre-pubic children about sex, but children are learning about sex younger and younger with every generation. I’m not just talking about images of sex on TV or what kids gossip about on the playground, but even more so, what their parents are modeling to them about their view of sex.

With this, I’m not referring to whether parents keep their bedroom door locked while they’re having sex or speak in hushed codes when they’re planning a “get-together” later that night, but rather the attitude they bear toward sex, particularly its purpose.

Certainly, in time, I’ll be introducing the idea of sex as a relationship tool. But “the talk” isn’t and shouldn’t be a single event in a child’s life. As advocated by Kelly Bartlett in “Kids and Sex: Getting Comfortable with The Talk” on The Attached Family, teaching our children about sex needs to begin when they’re toddlers and is done in phases, building up in details as the child grows and is able to better comprehend the complexities of the act. At my children’s ages, the main idea I want to bring to my children about sex is its purpose in conceiving new life.

Children start asking where babies come from well before most parents are comfortable with talking about sex with them, and most of our answers fall along the lines of “a seed grows in Mommy’s tummy” or “the stork brings them” or, as in my case, “when Mommy and Daddy pray for a baby and God thinks they’re ready.” And those reasons are good enough for a while, but at some point, children start to ask about the logistics of creating a baby. Maybe they heard something funny from one of their classmates or they walked in while their parents were “hugging” or, as in my case, they learned that animals “mated” to have babies and that people are animals, too. Whatever the reason, there comes a time when we need to start talking about sex in more concrete terms than “angels delivering bundles of joy to our doorstep.”

I began by describing how mommies have a teeny, tiny egg in their bellies and daddies have a tadpole called sperm, and when they get together, a baby is created instantly. A Child is Born became a handy way of illustrating what that baby looks like—what each of my children looked like as a new baby, and that I loved them as soon as they were born, oohing and ahhing about how cute they were even as a two-celled embryo! They giggled at the pictures that showed fetuses with tails, flipper arms, and webbed hands. They asked me how big they were along the way—from smaller than we can see to the size of a pea, a strawberry, a pop can. And then we got to the pictures of childbirth, and I recounted their individual birth stories and how unique they were and what my first words to them were and how different they were as they grew into the children they are today, and how much I love them now.

And then, the question: But how does the sperm get from Daddy into Mommy’s belly?

Well, parents can explain this in any way they want. I used A Child Is Born for this, whose infrared photographs give just enough detail for educational purposes without being remotely R rated. This might be too much for some children, but as my husband and I live on a small farm, “mating” is not a new concept for my children. For other families, though, graphics may be too much. Generally, the advice from experts is for parents to give the facts at the child’s level of understanding, such as “Daddy’s pee-pee touches Mommy’s belly” or “Daddy and Mommy hug each other really tight,” and then let the child’s questions guide the conversation.

What I wanted to convey is that sex is a part of the circle of life, that it isn’t shameful or gross. I don’t want them to grow up thinking of sex as a way to self-medicate or as a single-factor barometer of relationship well-being, either. I don’t want to portray sex as taboo or as a free-for-all. And these are attitudes that will shape over time, through many sex talks through the years. Ultimately, I hope that my children will see sex as what it’s biologically intended to be: how a woman and a man were designed to experience the beauty and miracle of creation of life.

I think that it’s the parents’ job to teach children about sex, as it’s the parents’ job to teach children about anything else, and I think it’s the parents’ decision of how to go about teaching their children about sex, but I do think we should give some thought as to our goals of what we want our children to learn.