What is sex education for children

Family sex education

Human sexuality, sexual behavior and experience is a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social processes. In each of these areas there are continuous biographical development processes, but also qualitative leaps. The most important of these transition points is undoubtedly sexual maturity. Because of such emerging qualities, adult sexuality is not to be equated with that of children. But certain components of sexuality exist from day one. In this respect, it is also advisable for family sex education that it is consciously practiced in the necessary and possible forms and that it is not left to chance.

Sex education - from birth and always - is not an inflated, nonsensical requirement. Because, like education in other areas, it is by no means limited to the imparting of information and norms. Sex education is first and foremost about practical interaction. The emotional parent-child relationship is a foundation for the effectiveness of other components of parenting. "Caresses" that convey the feeling of a secure bond and security are just as vital as eating and drinking. Every child seeks the tenderness of adults. It must be sufficiently preserved to be able to enter into deep emotional and erotic partner relationships later on. In particular, the development of feelings and the ability to trust relationships with other people are decisively shaped in early childhood. They cannot generally be changed later.

Toddlers are very sensual beings. They enjoy skin contact, breastfeeding, personal hygiene and they also explore themselves whenever the opportunity arises. The attitude towards one's own body develops through such pleasurable “auto-eroticism”. That is why bare play phases are important, without annoying pampers and also the impartial interaction between parents and children, e.g. the shared bathroom.

Gender-typical upbringing

Even if parents are often not aware of this, developmental psychological studies show that boys are brought up differently from girls from day one. For example, girls are singing and talking more, boys are encouraged to be more physically active. Modern parents will not want that and by choosing toys, for example, you can ensure that both genders have the same amount of “leeway” and stereotypical one-sidedness is prevented (boys only handle monster trucks and girls comb the Barbie doll). However, it is crucial that parents are able to respond sensitively to the needs of the child and that they reflect on their own male and female behaviors. Because these self-lived gender roles act as models for children and are adopted at an early age and they also result in many expectations of the child.

The triangle conflict

It is good when parents are able to exemplify a loving partnership. It is not just about the model of a partnership with which older children and young people can identify with regard to their own perspective on life. First of all, it is more generally about interpersonal balance, the equilibrium in the mother-father-child relationship. The fact that children become jealous when parents exchange tenderness in front of them often discourages adults from doing so. But it is definitely conducive to development when children experience such a triangular conflict and have to accept that the parents have their own intimate sovereignty. They can process this knowledge particularly well when they feel that they are still loved by both.

Children should be encouraged to actively develop relationships with third parties (e.g. grandparents) and their autonomy should be strengthened. Particularly in "difficult" relationships between adults (e.g. when parents have separated), it is important to enable children to independently regulate closeness and distance vis-à-vis their close caregivers, so as not to manipulate their feelings and force them into false loyalties.

Talk about sexuality

Uninhibitedness and tenderness in daily dealings between parents and small children form the basis of sexual development. In later years one's own sexuality is increasingly consciously experienced. The intellectual part in upbringing is increasing. The child asks more and more curious questions. Sexual education requires words and linguistic formulations, and these must be age-appropriate, understandable and concrete. The use of official terms such as limb, vagina, sexual intercourse, etc. is absolutely necessary, but often appears very artificial compared to everyday language, so that it is beneficial to take into account the normality of sexuality and also to use a more casual vocabulary (puller, pussy ... etc.). However, it would be unfavorable to limit yourself to this vocabulary only. An important task of family communication about intimate matters is also to explain jargon formulations picked up by other children or adults and to offer corresponding synonyms.

When it comes to imparting sexual knowledge, it is of central importance to provide comprehensive information about the development of the children and, moreover, about the practice of parental intercourse and the mutual happiness experienced in the process. For adults this means to acknowledge their sexuality. If parents are shamefully silent about this, children will find only one logical explanation (if they inform themselves from other sources): the indecency of this act. There is no alternative to comprehensive sexual education. It is not the information that gives rise to “stupid thoughts”, but a false, half-true, mystical and vague knowledge. In addition, parents do not have to qualify as education experts and act as such. There are a variety of good educational media for imparting knowledge for all age groups from kindergarten age, there are picture books, brochures, books, magazines; for the somewhat older platforms on the Internet (e.g. in combination with the children's TV channel or the BRAVO) - and last but not least, nowadays schools also make their contribution to sexual education in primary school. In family upbringing, it is important that parents give their children access to the media and are available to talk to their children. Even if it is possible for many parents to talk about sexual matters these days, there are still differences in family communication. The girls are generally adequately informed by their mothers, at the latest in connection with the hygienic measures required at the onset of menstruation. On the other hand, many boys find that they are left alone with their sexual development. Mother-daughter relationships are generally more informal than those between fathers and sons.

Especially in the early years of adolescence, when the adolescents no longer tell their parents everything, they must continue to be shown trust and tolerance. The dialogue between parents and young people is thus maintained. In principle, prophylactic prohibitions, warnings or even threats should therefore be avoided. Moralistic norms of behavior are easy to proclaim, but mostly difficult to justify. Only a knowledgeable argument can convince. Warnings about the consequences of sexual acts are more likely to lead to secrecy, the development of fears and feelings of guilt, than they are effective in influencing behavior. “Boomerang effects” - defiant reactions to nonsensical prohibitions and norms - are also not uncommon. And what's more, what is forbidden always has a special charm.

Undoubtedly certain risks arise with entering into erotic partner relationships and establishing sexual contacts. But these dangers are best mitigated by creating conditions conducive to the development of youthful partnerships, by showing friendly interest in the relationship without too much curiosity, and by tolerance. Nevertheless, the following applies: Even the best upbringing cannot and does not have to prevent harassment, sexual assault or other negative experiences. Borderline experiences in particular are sought after with advancing age and have a high potential for experience. However, through a trusting relationship with the children, it can be prevented that border crossings that have been experienced have a negative and development-inhibiting effect. If the adolescents have adult contacts whom they can confide in without fear of reproach, risks can be minimized. Many children and adolescents experience sexual harassment on the Internet, when chatting or in social networks, but this is usually not a lasting burden.

The public discourse on the sexuality of children and adolescents emphasizes the risks and dangers of sexual behavior and activates protective reflexes in many adults. With all the need to be sensitive in this regard, one should not lose sight of the fact that gaining experience with sexual pleasure, with flirting, going with each other and trying out in partnership represent great resources for personal development.

Which sexual behavior of children and adolescents is “normal”?

Every adult asks himself this question when evaluating child and adolescent behavior. If normal sexual behaviors are shown below for certain ages, they represent typical, frequently encountered, characteristic phenomena. Such a presentation makes sense because, on the one hand, one's own childhood memories, especially in the field of sexuality, often appear strangely incomplete and flawed, and, on the other hand, some personal experiences are no longer up-to-date. The “normal”, however, does not represent what is absolutely necessary, what is to be strived for and what is sensible, neither as a whole nor in individual cases in one's own child. Age is only one classification criterion for describing sexual behavior and experience. The essential conditions are the underlying physical and psychosocial development processes. Every evaluation of sexual and partnership behavior must establish the connections to these conditions and take into account the respective individual characteristics. These individual characteristics exist from the first day of life and increase with age.

Early childhood and preschool age

Sexual behaviors show up in the first few years of life. The own body is explored in a playful way, irritation and arousal of the excretory and sexual organs and acts similar to masturbation occur. Although one can assume that lustful, orgasm-like feelings are generated in this way in early childhood, in children not every stiffening of the penis or clitoris is sexual in nature. Erections are also the spontaneous expression of all possible psychological states of excitement, of joy, but also of Anxiety. The frequent morning stiffening of the limbs in boys, for example, which induces them to play on the genitals, is mainly caused by the pressure of the filled urinary bladder on the prostate (prostate gland).

Around the age of three, children begin to differentiate between the two sexes and thus also become aware of their own gender. This leads to an increasing interest in one's own gender characteristics and those of other children and adults. The sexual organs are not necessarily in the foreground. A full beard or a pronounced “Adam's apple” impress just as much as the female breast or pubic hair. Together with other preschool children, in mother / father / child, marriage or doctor games, there is mutual looking at the body, hugging, touching and kissing. Depending on the respective experience, the partner behavior of the parents or other adults is imitated. Sexual curiosity and corresponding actions should not be prematurely suspected of being “sexualized behavior”. Curiosity is never inappropriate. But not every curiosity can be satisfied. Preschool children learn to recognize and respect their own and others' boundaries. For this it is necessary to set limits for them if necessary. From around the age of three to four, declarations of love and marriage are made to preferred people of the opposite sex, often to the parent of the opposite sex. The latter is to be understood as a great honor and a sign of affection and should not be dismissed as nonsense. It is advisable to “discuss” the very serious considerations of the child as to whom one could later marry as well as the first ideas about a future profession.

Important basic experiences result from the child's play with adults, which anticipates many later moments of relationship and sexual life in symbolic form. The marriage proposal also means: Am I attractive and desirable? And when the father lifts the daughter in the air at her request or flings it through the air, then it is pure fear-pleasure, the “thrill”, a risky surrender.

Nowadays, all essential questions about pregnancy, childbirth and conception are generally asked in preschool age. Especially in urban living conditions, where many children of different age groups come together in their free time, sexual knowledge, including a variety of strong expressions, is acquired at an early stage. Parents who are shocked by their children's reproduction of these findings are ill-advised. Especially in preschool age it is very important that parents deal adequately and openly with such problems. (See article: Sexuality in day care centers)

Middle and late childhood

Playful masturbation behavior is already widespread in school age, especially among boys. This also applies to sexual activities with partners. However, sex studies studies show that the temporary homosexual behavior of boys, which was often described in the past, has become very rare. One explanation for this could be that boys these days address homosexuality at an early stage (and include relevant vocabulary in their catalog of swear words) and therefore avoid anything in their behavior that could be considered unmanly and gay.

In the first years of school, boys and girls usually stay to one another, form same-sex groups and set themselves apart from one another. Friendships between boys and girls are mocked. Sexual jokes, nudes and the like circulate among same-sex friends. There are also sexual attacks between the sexes, people tease each other, use strong expressions and occasionally there are also physical assaults (girls are, for example, "groped"). Such transgressions of boundaries are almost always an expression of sexual curiosity, but they also have the potential for violence and can hurt. That is why respectful interaction between the sexes is an important educational issue at this age.

In later years the relationship between girls and boys becomes more peaceful again. There is an exchange of letters, contact by cell phone and the Internet, first appointments at the cinema, “going together”, the first kiss.

In middle school age there is also a strong increase in interest in magazines and other media that deal with sexuality and relationships. Magazines and books dominate girls, boys prefer the Internet as a source of information. The majority of adolescents - girls as well as boys - come across pornographic content at an early age when surfing the Internet. Girls usually react distantly, boys are more aroused by visual and cinematic representations and many then also use pornographic material for sexual stimulation during masturbation. They do this in secret, of course (as do grown men). This “intimate zone” should not be injured by curious or worried inquiries on the part of the parents - unless there are serious indications of danger. From the point of view of serious research, there is little cause for general concern about the effects of pornography consumption - contrary to public debates about conservation education. Porn users do not become dull, unable to relate, become violent or addicted. The boys, who are sometimes a little uncritical at the beginning, develop a more differentiated judgment with increasing experience, the girls lose fear of contact, but remain distant.

Puberty and adolescence

Puberty is primarily a phase of physical maturation, but it is extremely momentous from a psychological and social point of view. In this respect, the entire personality development is strongly influenced. Puberty (from the Latin word pubesco = to become hairy) is the phase in which primary and secondary sexual characteristics develop, including the maturation of the first germ cells.For girls it covers the period from 10 to 16 years, for boys it is on average one year later. The first menstrual period occurs on average between 12 and 13 years of age, the first ejaculation a little later, although there are strong individual differences.

Puberty symbolizes psychological instability, an “identity crisis” - no longer a child, but also not being an adult. Modern neurobiological research has found causes for the often described thin skin of adolescents, for their often inappropriate interpersonal behavior: In fact, to put it casually, the nerves in the heads of adolescents are bare. The hormone production accelerates body growth and leads to disproportions (first arms and legs grow, then the trunk), which makes you lanky, clumsy, clumsy at times, causes coordination problems, boys experience voice breaks. In addition, there is the increased sebum and sweat production, which causes pimples and unpleasant body odor. If nudity was previously not a problem, now the first pubic hair is shamefully covered.

In addition to the development of the genital organs, growth in length is an essential characteristic of puberty. Extreme body dimensions can influence interpersonal behavior in a gender-specific manner because they contradict certain models and particularly stress the boy who is not “tall and strong” or the girl who is not “small and petite”. Due to the general development lead of girls over boys, this is quite often the case among their peers in the school class. Between the ages of 10 and 11, around every tenth girl belongs to the potential problem groups due to their above-average height and the early development of female curves. However, it is mostly just a matter of bringing the growth forward without an above-average final size. The situation with the boys is somewhat more problematic. Between the ages of 15 and 16, around every seventh person is physically retarded, i.e. too small.

If parents are unsure whether their children's physical development is normal, they should consult a doctor. If an extreme growth forecast is confirmed there, medical countermeasures may be possible. With all adolescents, and especially with those who experience themselves as “abnormal and inadequate”, an attempt should always be made to specifically discover, promote and emphasize the strengths inherent in each one. For this z. B. Sports are also good opportunities for little boys and big girls.

It is typical of adolescents to give attention to their peers, the so-called peer groups. There are the same interests here, for example in music and fashion and the peer group is also an important “argumentation aid” for parents: “The others all have a piercing - I want one too, otherwise I'll be out… Jana doesn't have to be home until ten be why I already at nine… ”. Behind all these concrete negotiations is the gradual "cutting off the cord" from the parents, which especially mothers often cause grief. It is often not easy to act appropriately at this stage. In any case, it is helpful if parents agree with one another and if they also have contact with other parents.

Friendship, partnership, being in love is something completely everyday nowadays already at the beginning of childhood and especially in adolescence. Some of these connections prove to be very permanent. It is just as normal, however, that youthful loves quickly dissolve and develop new ones. These are necessary and meaningful processes of self-knowledge and practicing cooperative behavior.

A new quality of love affairs among young people emerges with the start of sexual intercourse. This is the case on average at 17 years of age, although the age spread has increased sharply in recent years. Around every fourth young person experiences their first sexual intercourse at the age of 15 or even earlier, while on the other hand the number of those who wait until after their 18th birthday has increased again. When is overall less important for the sexual development of personality and partner behavior , but under what conditions and how the first sexual intercourse takes place. It is very positive that nowadays the first sexual intercourse is better contraceptive than ever before. Over 80% of all adolescents use condoms and many girls take the pill well before their first intercourse. The vast majority also experience this for the first time in a committed relationship. However, there is also a small but growing proportion of young people who experience sexuality under less favorable conditions. Early and alternating sexual activities are closely linked to certain personality and living conditions. First and foremost are disturbed relationships with parents, school performance problems and a lack of career prospects. For example, adolescents who fail to achieve self-affirmation and social recognition in school may tend to focus on other areas, e.g. B. on that of sexuality to strive for success. In this case, weakness or failure is not a consequence, but the cause of a certain partner and sexual behavior. Sex becomes a means to an end.

The most favorable conditions for the first sexual intercourse are found in a stable partnership in which both partners learn to treat each other tenderly and without fear of negative consequences. Parents should therefore support the development of long-term partner relationships with their children. Even if homework remains unfinished at the beginning of a young love, the beneficial aspects for all areas of personality development outweigh the future.


For children and parents

  • Fagerström, Grethe; Hansson, Gunilla (2008): Peter, Ida and Minimum. 47 p., Ravensburger, from 5 years.
  • Härdin, Sonja; Geisler, Dagmar (2002): Where are you from? Education for children from 5 years. 36 p., Loewe.
  • Herrath, Frank; Sielert Uwe (1991): Lisa & Jan. An educational book for children and their parents. Weinheim.
  • Schneider, Sylvia; Gotzen-Beek, Bettina (2006): The big book on the body. 63 p., Cjb, from 8 years.

Guide for parents

  • Arens, Ulla (2003): Openness and Shame in the Family. How parents and children treat each other with ease. 224 pp., Ariston.
  • BZgA (ed.): Carefully accompany. Body awareness and curiosity in young children. A guide for parents from 1 to 6 years of age. 54 S. Cologne (can be ordered free of charge at www.bzga.de)
  • BZgA (Ed .; Author: Gnielka, Martin): Talking about sexuality. A guide for parents on child sexual development between school entry and puberty. 54 S., Cologne (can be ordered free of charge at www.bzga.de)
  • BZgA (Ed .; Author: Gnielka, Martin): Talking about sexuality. The time of puberty. 54 S., Cologne (can be ordered free of charge at www.bzga.de)
  • Raffauf, Elisabeth (2003): What is love? Family sex education. 136 pp. Beltz.
  • Walter, Melitta (2005): Boys are different, girls too. Sharpen the eye for a gender-equitable upbringing. 237 pp., € 16.95, Kösel.

More contributions by the author here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Konrad Weller, graduate psychologist

HS Merseburg, Department of Social Work.Media.Culture
Institute for Applied Sexology
Geusaer Str. 88
06217 Merseburg


Created on December 5th, 2013, last changed on December 4th, 2013