Birds, Bees, and Books

You know how they say that when your children want to know about the facts of human reproduction, they will ask you? I have found that this is not always the case. My daughter, for example, likes to observe and put things together on her own, and hates to reveal her ignorance or to talk about anything that she might find embarrassing; I think she senses that adults also find it awkward to talk about sex, and so she just keeps her questions to herself.

We’d had the Where Babies Come From conversation a couple of years ago, but I thought now that she’s eight she might have some further questions; she’s made some self-consciously goofy remarks lately about sex and about when girls start to develop, so I took that as a sign that these subjects were on her mind. Right about that time, a post on Saltypepper’s Livejournal reminded me about two of my favorite books on the topic, It’s So Amazing! and It’s Not the Stork!, both by Robie Harris. So I brought them home from work and left them casually lying around the living room.

And lo and behold, my kid found them, and glommed onto them, and looks at them whenever she has a spare moment, and does not want me to return them to the library. Sometimes when she’s paging through them, we’ll ask her if she has any questions about what she’s reading, or point out something we notice, or aspects of the book that reflect (or, sometimes, don’t reflect) our own values, so the books have been a good avenue for opening up discussion as well.

Encouraged, I brought home some more similar titles to see what she thought. She and I both liked My Mom’s Having a Baby! by Dorie Hillstead Butler, with illustrations by Carol Thompson, which would be an especially good choice for an older preschooler who’s expecting a sibling. My Mom’s Having a Baby!, like It’s Not the Stork, is geared for kids aged around four and older, and is clear and factual about both how the baby gets started and how it grows.

I thought Nicholas Allen’s Where Willy Went…The Big Story of a Little Sperm was kind of silly, but my daughter appreciated the goofy humor and the personification of Willy, the little sperm who was not very good at math, but was “VERY good at swimming” and who triumphs over 300 million other sperm in the Great Swimming Race to the Egg. Where Willy Went…probably works best as a supplementary title once kids already have the basic facts down.

My own favorite of these books is It’s So Amazing! This title is meant for slightly older kids than the others—the cover lists the suggested reading age as 7 and up—and goes into more detail about things like the changes in the human body from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and some alternative methods of insemination and ways to make a family, as well as about different sexual and nonsexual kinds of love, as well as the basics of how the sperm and the egg meet and how the baby grows (with some truly amazing pictures of the fetus at various stages of preganancy). There’s also a short but valuable section on “okay touches” and “not okay touches.” The information presented throughout is both thorough and nonjudgmental. It’s a good book to page through more than once, as the amount of information can be kind of overwhelming to take in at one sitting.

One aspect of both the Robie Harris books that I especially like is Michael Emberley’s illustrations. It’s got to be a daunting assignment, to illustrate a book for kids about sex and the human body: you have be very, very accurate, but at the same time take care to be, as Saltypepper puts it “not, um, prurient.” He really pulls it off, in a way that’s funny and nonthreatening. Two cartoon characters, a bird and a bee, act as guides and provide clarifying and sometimes jokey comments in both books, personifying two reactions that kids are likely to have: the bird is curious about every detail, and the bee is often embarrassed and wants to change the subject.

Whatever your feelings or beliefs are about when and how your child should learn about sex, I’d highly encourage taking a look at some of these books, and thinking ahead of time about which—and, sometimes, what parts—of them you want to share with your children. Whether they ask or not, most kids want to know, at some point, how they got here, and it’s so useful to have tools for helping them learn this information in an age-appropriate and factual way.

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One thing to add is that kids are more openly curious and less embarrassed the younger they are. I started a little late with my 10 year old but my 7 year old is always full of questions so start young!

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