'Mama, where do babies come from?'

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 16, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hey Barbara,

I would like to know how I can tell my 5-year-old daughter where babies come from. She is asking me. I don't know how to say it or what to say. Thanks, hoping to hear from you soon.

From: Maria, Bronx, NY

Hi Maria,

You're right, once she asks, it's really important to be able to give her an answer. (BTW, whenever you aren't sure what to say about anything, a good answer is, "Hmmm, I have to think about that. I'll get back to you." And then you have to get back to her or risk ruining your credibility.)

Start by asking her, "What do you think?" Some kids really will say, "The stork?" almost as a way to challenge you: "I know that isn't true, but what is true?" So consider it a compliment that she's asking you. It means she trusts you to give her accurate information.

Asking what she knows is a way for you to know where to start. You don't want to give too much or too little information; that only frustrates a child. So it helps to have a starting point. You've probably heard the story of a mom who answers the "where-did-I-come-from" question with a complicated sperm/egg answer only to have the child cry, "No, Mom! Where was I born? Boston or Philadelphia?!"

Start by giving one small fact. Sometimes, that's all a child needs. If she asks another question, then give more information. For instance:

"Inside each mom and dad, there are special cells that can make a baby."

Then: "The mom's cells are called eggs. The dad cell is called sperm."

When my son and I had this conversation (he was 5, too, and I remember every bit of it), he asked, "But how do the egg and sperm get together?" That told me he was ready for the next fact: "The dad's sperm goes out his penis and into the mom's vagina. When the egg and sperm meet up, they begin to make a baby. The baby grows in a special place inside the mom called the uterus or womb."

This typically is the end of what a child of this age wants to know. But once the subject is on the table, I recommend you get a book. These are my two favorites: "How you were born," by Joanna Cole, photos by Margaret Miller, and "Where Did I Come From?" by Peter Mayle, illustrations by Arthur Robins. Cole's is a little more scientific in its approach, and includes in vitro photos. Mayle takes a more irreverent approach ("Making love is like skipping rope. You can't do it all day long.") with delightful illustrations, but both cover the same ground in remarkably simple language.

Invest in one of these, offer it to your daughter ("Remember you were asking about where babies come from? Here's a book that tells you all about it."). You'll get your money's worth.


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11 comments so far...
  1. Personally, I would just ignore the question and change the subject because I feel that if you give child an answer, they will want to know more about sexual activity, and they may engage in this activity sooner than they would if they never knew.

    Posted by Amanda November 16, 11 01:30 PM
  1. Wouldn't you rather give them the clinical/biological facts, which are rather unsavory on their face, than have them learn about the salient aspects and approach sex unaware and uninformed earlier than they might have otherwise?

    I knew when I was in 1st grade. My mom refused to answer my questions, but a classmate happily informed me. It fostered a culture of mistrust between myself and my parents and made the act and actions seem far more enticing because I knew I was doing something sneaky and exciting by learning (and later, engaging in sexual activity) whether my mother was willing to teach me or not.

    Your kid will learn, Amanda. Whether it's from you or not remains your choice.

    Posted by ayfkm November 17, 11 10:46 AM
  1. Wow, Amanda. There is absolutely no evidence that what you think is true. Hiding information and knowledge from children (age-appropriate, of course) deprives them of the tools they need to make wise decisions when it comes to sex, whether they decide to engage or not. Having knowledge about something doesn't necessarily lead to action.

    I would love to know when you think kids should learn about where babies come from. You somehow link ignorance to abstinence and that has never been the case. There are European countries that teach proper sexual education from a very young age, and teenage pregnancy is often unheard of.

    There is simply no reason a small child can't learn where she came from.

    Posted by Linney November 17, 11 11:00 AM
  1. @Amanda - I sure hope you're being facetious and that's not what you really do. If the latter, I have to ask, do you really think avoiding the issue will keep children from doing the activity? What if your child asks about drugs or alcohol? Do you avoid the issue for fear that if you discuss it, your child will do it? If you're being facetious, you highlight how ridiculous that argument really is.

    Posted by Steven November 17, 11 12:20 PM
  1. Amanda, I don't think this is the case at all. If you don't give them the information, someone else will, and you might not like the way that information is given. Do you think that kids who never have "the talk" with their parents just never have sex?

    Posted by Rhm327 November 17, 11 12:57 PM
  1. Tell her that babies come from mommies and daddies.

    Then let the kid ask questions that lead you to what they really want to know. Some kids want to know about Mommy's tummy, or the hospital, or how their friend was adopted, not sex!

    I've been working with children for years, and you have to be super careful answering these questions from kids who aren't your own. So start with the basic, duh-obvious answer, and let the kid lead the discussion from there.

    Posted by AP November 17, 11 01:04 PM
  1. I love the answer to this question. I started asking a little younger than 5 because my brother was born when I was 3 1/2, and this is one of the things my mother did wonderfully. She answered truthfully, gave us age-appropriate information, and left the sexual stuff out of it. She also only used the correct words: vagina, uterus, penis, etc.

    Kids aren't trying to figure out adult mores at that age; they are just trying to understand enough so they can wrap their minds around the pregnant bellies and newborn babies they see all around them. Unless they have been exposed to something inappropriate, they aren't interested in the sexual part. The way they see it, creating a baby from nothing is far more amazing (and far more on their radar) than intercourse.

    Posted by Merilisa November 17, 11 01:40 PM
  1. Well, I can logically think it through because I myself found out about sex at a young age, and I started masturbating and I became obsessive. Before you criticize my parenting methods, please think about actual scenarios.

    Posted by Amanda November 17, 11 10:51 PM
  1. You definitely don't want your child's friends teaching it to your kid. You want them to learn the right things about it. Not from the POV of your child's peers. It is a touchy subject, but it is a conversation that must be handled. As Barbara pointed out, there are good books out there that can guide you through that conversation. It is about teaching them at a pace that is age-appropriate ... and that same discussion will come up again as they get older ... and again you will explain it at an age-appropriate level. Check out those books.

    Posted by jd November 18, 11 07:52 AM
  1. To Amanda -- The earlier you teach the facts of life, the earlier you can teach your kids your moral stance and how to be safe. Wouldn't that be better than letting kids guess, find out from friends, and then forming a skewed opinion on the matter? I remember when my friend told me about sex in third grade. It definitely felt like a dirty secret, the way we whispered about it. And I never talked about it with my parents, ever. So of course, I engaged in risky sexual behavior in my teens. It's lucky I didn't get a disease or pregnant, though my sisters all got pregnant as teens. We were raised Catholic so there wasn't a lack of religious guidance, and my parents were quite overprotective, but just see how effective keeping mum on the subject of sex was for them!

    Posted by educatedmom November 18, 11 09:48 AM
  1. "If you give child an answer, they will want to know more about sexual activity, and they may engage in this activity sooner than they would if they never knew."

    Do you think that by ignoring the question, the child is somehow not curious anymore? No. The child will still have questions and still wonder and still be curious. And the child might be even *more* curious once he/she sees you are ignoring the issue -- then you've added the whole "forbidden fruit" aspect to your child's curiosity. Your child will absolutely be determined to get answers. He/she just won't get answers from you -- so you won't be able to frame the answers with your own values. You won't be able to foster a relationship where your child comes to you with questions. Your child will get the information -- but not from you.

    Also stunned at the idea that promoting ignorance about our bodies and sex will somehow lead to more responsible use of our bodies and sex .... odd.

    Posted by jjlen November 18, 11 01:30 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. Personally, I would just ignore the question and change the subject because I feel that if you give child an answer, they will want to know more about sexual activity, and they may engage in this activity sooner than they would if they never knew.

    Posted by Amanda November 16, 11 01:30 PM
  1. Wouldn't you rather give them the clinical/biological facts, which are rather unsavory on their face, than have them learn about the salient aspects and approach sex unaware and uninformed earlier than they might have otherwise?

    I knew when I was in 1st grade. My mom refused to answer my questions, but a classmate happily informed me. It fostered a culture of mistrust between myself and my parents and made the act and actions seem far more enticing because I knew I was doing something sneaky and exciting by learning (and later, engaging in sexual activity) whether my mother was willing to teach me or not.

    Your kid will learn, Amanda. Whether it's from you or not remains your choice.

    Posted by ayfkm November 17, 11 10:46 AM
  1. Wow, Amanda. There is absolutely no evidence that what you think is true. Hiding information and knowledge from children (age-appropriate, of course) deprives them of the tools they need to make wise decisions when it comes to sex, whether they decide to engage or not. Having knowledge about something doesn't necessarily lead to action.

    I would love to know when you think kids should learn about where babies come from. You somehow link ignorance to abstinence and that has never been the case. There are European countries that teach proper sexual education from a very young age, and teenage pregnancy is often unheard of.

    There is simply no reason a small child can't learn where she came from.

    Posted by Linney November 17, 11 11:00 AM
  1. @Amanda - I sure hope you're being facetious and that's not what you really do. If the latter, I have to ask, do you really think avoiding the issue will keep children from doing the activity? What if your child asks about drugs or alcohol? Do you avoid the issue for fear that if you discuss it, your child will do it? If you're being facetious, you highlight how ridiculous that argument really is.

    Posted by Steven November 17, 11 12:20 PM
  1. Amanda, I don't think this is the case at all. If you don't give them the information, someone else will, and you might not like the way that information is given. Do you think that kids who never have "the talk" with their parents just never have sex?

    Posted by Rhm327 November 17, 11 12:57 PM
  1. Tell her that babies come from mommies and daddies.

    Then let the kid ask questions that lead you to what they really want to know. Some kids want to know about Mommy's tummy, or the hospital, or how their friend was adopted, not sex!

    I've been working with children for years, and you have to be super careful answering these questions from kids who aren't your own. So start with the basic, duh-obvious answer, and let the kid lead the discussion from there.

    Posted by AP November 17, 11 01:04 PM
  1. I love the answer to this question. I started asking a little younger than 5 because my brother was born when I was 3 1/2, and this is one of the things my mother did wonderfully. She answered truthfully, gave us age-appropriate information, and left the sexual stuff out of it. She also only used the correct words: vagina, uterus, penis, etc.

    Kids aren't trying to figure out adult mores at that age; they are just trying to understand enough so they can wrap their minds around the pregnant bellies and newborn babies they see all around them. Unless they have been exposed to something inappropriate, they aren't interested in the sexual part. The way they see it, creating a baby from nothing is far more amazing (and far more on their radar) than intercourse.

    Posted by Merilisa November 17, 11 01:40 PM
  1. Well, I can logically think it through because I myself found out about sex at a young age, and I started masturbating and I became obsessive. Before you criticize my parenting methods, please think about actual scenarios.

    Posted by Amanda November 17, 11 10:51 PM
  1. You definitely don't want your child's friends teaching it to your kid. You want them to learn the right things about it. Not from the POV of your child's peers. It is a touchy subject, but it is a conversation that must be handled. As Barbara pointed out, there are good books out there that can guide you through that conversation. It is about teaching them at a pace that is age-appropriate ... and that same discussion will come up again as they get older ... and again you will explain it at an age-appropriate level. Check out those books.

    Posted by jd November 18, 11 07:52 AM
  1. To Amanda -- The earlier you teach the facts of life, the earlier you can teach your kids your moral stance and how to be safe. Wouldn't that be better than letting kids guess, find out from friends, and then forming a skewed opinion on the matter? I remember when my friend told me about sex in third grade. It definitely felt like a dirty secret, the way we whispered about it. And I never talked about it with my parents, ever. So of course, I engaged in risky sexual behavior in my teens. It's lucky I didn't get a disease or pregnant, though my sisters all got pregnant as teens. We were raised Catholic so there wasn't a lack of religious guidance, and my parents were quite overprotective, but just see how effective keeping mum on the subject of sex was for them!

    Posted by educatedmom November 18, 11 09:48 AM
  1. "If you give child an answer, they will want to know more about sexual activity, and they may engage in this activity sooner than they would if they never knew."

    Do you think that by ignoring the question, the child is somehow not curious anymore? No. The child will still have questions and still wonder and still be curious. And the child might be even *more* curious once he/she sees you are ignoring the issue -- then you've added the whole "forbidden fruit" aspect to your child's curiosity. Your child will absolutely be determined to get answers. He/she just won't get answers from you -- so you won't be able to frame the answers with your own values. You won't be able to foster a relationship where your child comes to you with questions. Your child will get the information -- but not from you.

    Also stunned at the idea that promoting ignorance about our bodies and sex will somehow lead to more responsible use of our bodies and sex .... odd.

    Posted by jjlen November 18, 11 01:30 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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