Updated: Jul 30, 2020
When preschoolers don't have factual information about something, they make up a story to explain things to themselves. Educational psychologists call this "magical thinking."
An example of dangerous magical thinking is what happens when some boys know nothing about urination. They imagine that their urine comes from their testicles and then, when they are in a hurry to urinate, they stand at the toilet and squeeze their testicles to make the urine come out faster. Testicles can be damaged and there isn't a lot of sensitivity there until puberty begins. Have you ever noticed how preschool boys can grab their genitals and haul them up to their navels? Their dads are yelping with sympathetic pain; the little ones don't feel it, but damage can occur.
Preschoolers also do a lot of magical thinking around issues of reproduction, if no one tells them the truth. Some decide that if you want a baby, you go to the hospital. The hospital, they imagine, has rooms full of babies and the nurses hand them out to anyone who asks for one.
One mother courageously confessed that she'd found herself stuck at this stage. She told her elder child that she was going to the hospital to get a baby and he said he'd like a boy baby, not a girl baby. She said, "I'll see what I can do." When she brought home a baby girl, he said "I don't want a baby sister, take it back and change it." She told him that the hospital was all out of boy babies and they had to take this one.
Stork stories, cabbage patches, and foundlings are all examples of adults doing magical thinking because they are not mature enough themselves to tell the truth.
When a parent is honest and says that the penis goes into the vagina to deliver sperm to the oven, most preschoolers will say, "Oh. Can we have lunch now?" The parent may sweat blood, but the child is fine.
The only challenge at this stage is to be prepared to tell the story again and again. Preschoolers don't always understand it fully the first time, or they only take in a bit of what was said, or more commonly, some other person comes along with a better story and if mom and/or dad is not able to continue talking, they choose to believe the last person who talked.
Preschoolers are the easiest of all children to teach about sexual-health. They carry no emotional baggage. (We adults carry tons of emotional baggage. We didn't have parents who talked openly with us - girls may have got some menses education at school, boys usually got nothing, and we all grew up in a sexually repressed society.) The best thing about this age is that preschoolers have loads of intellectual curiosity. They accept information about their bodies in the same matter-of-fact way they accept information about anything else, so why not share it?
Meg Hickling is an award winning registered nurse and the bestselling author of several books including ”Speaking of Sex” and Boys, Girls & Body Science. After teaching sexual education for over 40 years, she uses her recognized sensitivity, gentle humour and warmth to dispel the myths and instil the knowledge of sexual health in children and parents.
Excerpt from the book The New Speaking of Sex used with permission by Wood Lake Publishing