HomeHealth & Behavior

Talking to your elementary school child: The top-three mistakes parents make

Avoid these conversational pitfalls to improve communication with your child.

By Valle Dwight

When you’re ready to sit down and have a chat with your elementary school child — whether it's to find out how her day went or to have "the talk" — there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. And if you happen to try the latter, you may well run smack-dab into a dead end.

“Talking to our children in a way that lets them express what is on their mind is extremely important,” explains Dr. Atilla Ceranoglu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “Talking to children from early on keeps both child and parent attuned to one another. It is solid preparation for the more stormy, tumultuous days of adolescence.”

An expert in parent-child communication, Ceranoglu offers tips on how to avoid the most common mistakes parents make when trying to get the conversational ball rolling with their children.

Getting real with your child

Child: “Where do babies come from?”
Parent: “What?”
Child: “Babies — Julia says it’s super-gross.”
Parent: “Um, can we talk about this later? I’m, uh, sort of busy. Oh, why don’t you ask your dad when he gets home ... or maybe your teacher will be talking about this.”
Child: “But Mom!
Parent (madly searching Wikipedia): “Well, uh, er, let’s see. Uh, OK, yeah, here we go: ‘Sexual reproduction is a biological process by which organisms create descendants that have a combination of genetic material contributed from two (usually) different members of the species. Each of two parent organisms contributes half of the offspring's genetic makeup by creating haploid gametes.’ Are you with me so far?”
Child: “Huh? What are you talking about? I thought they came from your tummy!”

The dreaded “where do babies come from” question can come at you at any time. If you don’t want to be left stammering (or leave your child more confused than when she started), you have to be prepared. And if your child never asks, at some point you’re going to have to take the bull by the horns and have “the talk” — about sex, drugs, and all the potential pitfalls of the teenage years. Few parents are eager to tackle these thorny subjects, and even fewer are confident of the right way to approach them since every child is different. No matter the topic, there are a few things to avoid:

  1. Waiting too long. There is no such thing as “too early” when bringing up these issues. Start introducing the topic of her body as early as 7 or 8 years old. Some children will hit puberty by age 10, so it’s important that you’ve addressed the topic beforehand so they understand what’s happening to them. And don’t wait for your child to ask questions — you should bring it up if she hasn’t.
  2. Offering TMI (too much information). When your 6-year-old asks how babies are made, there’s no need to launch into a full description of sexual intercourse. Keep it simple, and answer any questions your child has. Now is not the time to talk about sexually transmitted diseases, rape, oral sex, etc.
  3. Being unprepared and uncomfortable. Kids pick up on their parents’ feelings, so if you’re awkward and hesitant, they will know it. Before you have the talk, think about what you want to say — and how you want to say it.

What works

Ceranoglu says that as a general rule when talking to elementary school-aged kids, think small. “Younger children require quick, bite-size information instead of lengthy descriptions,” he says. “My rule of thumb is, if you are taking more than 30 seconds to make a point, you probably already lost the child’s attention.”

He suggests making short, easy-to-remember mantras of the points you want your child to remember. It’s great to give a full explanation of why drugs are bad, but follow that up with a quick summary, such as “If it does not belong in your body, it is poison.” For a discussion on safety and preventing abuse, you may conclude it with “Only Mom, Dad, and the doctor can ask to look at your private parts,” which you can repeat frequently.

“There is a reason slogans work: They are memorable and repeatable,” says Ceranoglu.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"A good book to read to small children on the topic of their bodies, sex, how babies are made is: "It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends" by Robie H. Harris. My kindergartner asked me about boys and girls having different body parts. I immediately called our local library and asked to speak with the children's librarian. This is one of the books she recommended and my daughter appreciated the knowledge gained from this age-appropriate book about sex. "
"Your article is helpful in a general sense, but perhaps it would be complete w/ a list of books that we parents could maybe check out from our local libraries or download to educate ourselves before these questions come flying at us? Most of us have all the answers, but as you said, not all of us are prepared to handle the random questions that come up as our children are exposed to so many other kids who speak uneducated about these topics in school, causing our children to come home and ask for confirmation. "
"The link that made me click to this article is what I wanted to read about...the actual article was a waste of my time also!!!!!! "
"I too, was very disappointed in this article. I also have a pre-schooler, so I looked at that article to see if they suggested having the 'SEX' talk as well. The pre-schooler article is the article I think we all were hoping for after reading the headline. So, if you want some communication tips, click on the pre-schooler article even if you have older children."
"This article did not help. I was hoping for more help with the kids opening up about their day."
"Reading this wasted my time. Where are the communication tips? I guess my communications skills have already surpassed the writer's. "
"That's it? We have had 'the talk' and other pertinent conversations regarding drugs, morals, etc. but there is so much more than those talks. This was not a very helpful article."
"This article was poorly written. The title is very broad but your subject is very specific. It should read 'Talking to your child about sex.'"
"Reading this article was not productive."
"I was also expecting some help on how to get my child to tell me about her day. "
"agree... the title was catchy and drew my attention. I was hoping for insights into how to get a quiet child to share in news from her day. The 'how to talk about sex' was not what the title suggested. Change title or provide a fuller article."
"this article initially said it was about communicating then it starts talking about sex. THis was NOT helpful "
"I thought this was about TALKING. It is about sex. We often talk about other things. Change title."
"I am a parent of 6 yeard girl and one day she asked me if sexy and sex are the same. I answered no. She was the one who told me, okay mommy when I am little bit older you will explain it to me right?"
"This article said almost nothing. Nothing new and no ideas on how to get the conversation started. Delete."
"I have to agree with the 'fluff piece' comment of this article. I have to say that I liked when the article mentioned about asking your child about how their day was, because I have a six yr old and everytime I ask him how was his day, what did you learn and I get comments like 'stuff,' and 'it was okay,' and that's it. I wish the article went more into detail in that aspect."
"Thanks, our daughter is 9 and already knows everything, at one moment, then has a question the next. I like the slogan suggestion, keep it simple and repeat . . . My dad left me with 'The world is so full of a number of things I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings' (RLS). Sincerely, Joel"
"I couldn't agree more..."
"I got almost nothing out of this article. I think it's fluff piece."
"Saying to keep sex out of the topic is bad advice if a child asks at any age...You just may have to keep it clinical. My daughter was 6 and not satisfied w/ 'what is special mommy daddy love' How far you go is totally dependent on the child, not just the age...I know our society is more comfortable w/ violence than sex..Hmmmm, could this have to do w/ so many teen pregancies?"
"I went to the school nurse for direction. She said to talk while you are doing an activity that you are both comfortable with. Like baking cookies or something. It takes the pressure off and gives you and the child something else to focus on if you need to for a few seconds. It also gives you a comfortable time limit. "
"Many people want to hear/read specific answers in detail. This article no help for someone who can't think. Otherwise, good one! - grandma, having two sons, two grandsons and two great grandsons. Aren't kids wonderful!"
"Great topic. I'm apprehensive about the 'talk' with my kids, but I'm preparing by getting the Passport 2 Purity--Weekend Retreat Kit by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. My brother-in-law used it with tremendous success with his two older boys, and prepared for the third. When they's time. "
"Great advice! It's always hard to talk about these topics, but when my son wanted to know how babies came out, I told him honestly and focused on how God gives moms bodies special ways of 'making room.' He was old enough to understand the difference between girls and boys, and I thought it was better than his idea of babies coming out of the butt, plus he handled it very well. "
"Great ideas on how to talk to your child, but I dislike the slogan example. Unfortunately, sometimes parents and doctors or other adults abuse their authority over children. I recommend a more general message, such as 'Your body is private. If anyone tries to see or touch your private parts, tell me or a grown-up you feel safe with.'"
"Just a quick comment regarding ...“Only Mom, Dad, and the doctor can ask to look at your private parts,� ... I tell my children that only mum and dad can look and the doctor can only look if I or my husband are there and give our permission. Afterall, anyone can claim to be a doctor. I explain to the doc, in front on my child that I'm giving my permission."
"This article is very helpful. I still think parents could use more specific direction on what to say when asked where babies come from. "
"What a tremendously informative article on talking to kids - at all three levels!! Thank you from one who has been there."