Mom – where did I (or babies) come from? That is the dreaded question that usually sends fear rushing through the bravest parent. What you actually discuss with your child will depend on your own values, the age of the child, and perhaps your religious and family orientation. There are many excellent books available that present this content in an age-appropriate manner that is suitable for children.
So - I will discuss not necessarily what to tell your child, but rather how to approach and manage the subject in a safe, productive, and non-threatening way. Questions such as “Should I use correct anatomical terms?” are secondary. It is the process here that is of primary importance. Building trust and the knowledge that they can come to you to talk about anything is a critical achievement that will last a lifetime.
As you may expect by now, the skills of having a meaningful discussion with your child should be well in place before you begin this topic. If this is unfamiliar territory for you, please refer to my earlier articles on how to develop and utilize these important skills. I put those articles first for a reason.
First of all, try and be comfortable and relaxed with this subject yourself. Remember that the child will be watching all of your non-verbal clues trying to figure out how they should be feeling about all of this. If you are relaxed, it will help the child to be relaxed. Ideally, it is helpful if the same sex parent has these discussions. Unfortunately, most men have notoriously weak egos in this respect and they will usually dodge this responsibility. Mom usually ends up with the task.
The first step is to ascertain exactly what level of information your child wants at this point. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Some children will want very little detail – others will want extensive detail. Let me share with you an amusing story that I have used in parenting groups that illustrates this point;
Little Johnny comes home and says to his Mom – “Mom I was talking with Billy. Where did I come from?”
Mom gets down all of the books and DVDs and nervously spends two hours in great detail explaining sex and reproduction.
When she is finished, she asks, “Now…. did that answer your question?”
Looking confused, Johnny says, “Not really Mom. Billy is from Philadelphia!”
That little scenario is not as unusual as you may think. Many parents offer much more detail than is really wanted or needed by the child.
Here are some tips on finding the appropriate starting point. Ask in a friendly way what the child saw or heard that caused the question to come up at this time - or - ask what other kids have already told him/her. If you have taken the time earlier to develop good discussion skills with your child, the child will be comfortable sharing this information with you and this part of the process will not be difficult.
Chances are there have already been many whispered discussions with friends and all manner of misinformation has been given to your child which may have prompted the question. Sometimes the child is just curious. Throughout childhood and adolescence your child will be getting an overload of sexual information from their peers. The question is whether they will feel comfortable enough to also be coming to you for the correct information!
As you proceed, check frequently to determine if you need to go any deeper. Questions like, “Did that help answer your question?” will usually tell you if you need to go into more detail. Let your child guide you with respect to what they are comfortable with. If the child feels comfortable sharing their feelings with you, they will tell you if they want more detailed information. Watch the non-verbal clues. If suddenly the child’s expression is a nervous one and he/she begins to squirm around - your child is obviously getting uncomfortable, and it is time to stop. If you need to stop, give the child a graceful way out so they do not perceive that it somehow their fault – or they said something wrong - that you suddenly discontinued the conversation. Statements like, “I think that may be enough for today – we can always talk again later - what do you think?” will be helpful in this regard.
One very creative mother that I worked with actually handed her child a favorite teddy bear and asked the child to tell it where it came from. After the child told the bear the story, Mom gently and appropriately corrected a few minor misconceptions to the bear!
Obviously this Mom had built an excellent relationship with her child where the child felt comfortable, safe, and free to discuss things.
Approached properly, you will find that this subject can be successfully discussed with minimal strain for the both of you. It doesn’t have to be a dreaded question.
**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children’s books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.