Talking to your grandchildren about sex

'What's a condom?' 'How do you make a baby?' These sorts of questions can come out of nowhere from our grandchildren, usually when we're out somewhere in public with them. Despite our own years of close acquaintance with the birds and the bees, we might have to take a deep breath and think fast.

Sex education isn't an exact science – any more than bringing up children is. Here we've gathered together some ideas and approaches to give you some ideas about what's appropriate for each age range.

Mostly, though, the message is: Sex education needs to start early, and it's best delivered within the informality of normal family life and with parents and grandparents all thinking about it and working as a team. Could it be that the 'big embarrassing talk' is a bit over-rated and out of date? 

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When to have the conversation about sex

It can be hard to know which discussions about sex are necessary or appropriate at which ages and especially difficult to consider talking about sex with a child you still see as young and innocent. Family Lives can help you to think about what sorts of things are helpful to talk about when and ideas of how to make that talk easier. 

Pre-school children - Young children often start to ask questions about differences between the sexes. Give short, simple and honest answers. They are naturally curious about their bodies, so don’t be afraid to introduce them to the correct terms for their genitals. This is also a good time to help them understand about the private areas of their body that should not be exposed in public or touched by others. 

Children aged 5 to 8 - At this age, you can start talking about puberty. Girls can start periods as early as the age of 8 so need to be prepared and understand what happens and why. Boys also need to know about periods, as well as about the changes that will happen to their own bodies. Give both boys and girls accurate information about these changes.

You can discuss the mechanics of sex simply but honestly. For example, you could talk about a special seed that is inside daddies and which combines with an egg inside mummies. Books can be helpful in explaining this. 

Pre-teens - Older children may not want to admit that there are things they don’t understand, so try asking them to tell you what they do know and then fill in the gaps or discuss issues together. It is important to remember that they may feel a degree of embarrassment and therefore you may be better to use a TV storyline or perhaps a magazine article to start that discussion.

Emphasise relationships, not just sex.  For instance, talk about the importance of respecting your partner and waiting until both partners are ready. You also need to make sure they understand the importance of contraception and the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This should help them make informed decisions as they get older, particularly when faced with pressure from peers or partners.

Familiar situations when talking about sex

When I was looking after my 5-year-old grandson, he asked me how babies are made. I just said they grow inside a mummy’s tummy, and was very relieved when he went back to playing with his dinosaurs! Should I have made more of an effort?

Our grandchildren ask questions about sex in the same way they ask questions about how trees grow or planes fly. They have not concept of embarrassment. How should we answer? The answer you gave might seem to you like fudging it, but as it seems your grandson is happy with it right now, it was spot on!

You obviously felt that he was too young for long complicated explanations of 'eggs', 'sperm' and 'fertilisation'. It really does depend on age and on the child, too, and on the circumstances in which you find yourself when they ask. So trust your gut instinct and don't feel obliged to be an instant fount of knowledge.

As your grandson is interested in the subject, find a suitable book for his age that you can read together – first checking with his parents that they are happy for you to do this, of course. He might ask for more information over time, in which case you can build on what he already knows. If you want to prepare for that, there are parenting and sex education websites to investigate – we’ve listed links to a couple of those we've found quite helpful.

During our frequent walks in the park, my 8-year-old granddaughter has suddenly started asking questions about any and everything with absolutely no shame. The latest one was: 'When can I have my own baby?' I just mumbled, 'I don't know.' As a man, I feel very awkward with questions like these, and as a grandfather, I feel like saying: 'Never go near a boy'! How can I give her the answers she needs?

We all have our own comfort zone when it comes to questions like these, and clearly this one was beyond yours! But you can count it as a blessing that you're so close to your granddaughter that she feels comfortable enough to ask you these awkward questions.

A simple answer to her question might be 'Not till you're ready' or 'When you're grown up' or 'When would you want a baby?' – but only when you're in the mood and in a place where you can listen carefully to the answer. Otherwise, saying 'I don't know' gives you thinking space – and children usually forgive their elders' apparent ignorance! And unless you're the full-time carer, we've got the best get-out clause there is: 'You'll have to ask your mum [or dad] about that'!

It's worth bearing in mind, though, that your granddaughter might not really be bringing this up out of the blue. She may have had a conversation at school about sex or babies or be concerned about something happening at home – is her mother pregnant? If you decide to mention her question to her parents, make sure she isn't within earshot – she could become embarrassed and decide that she's not allowed to ask you such questions, which would be a shame