Parents sometimes ask our advice about helping children who see commercial about intimate matters on TV.  The following is a typical question; our response follows.

Question: We have two children — a 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl. We are careful about what they watch on TV, but they still see advertisements with explicit references to feminine hygiene and erectile dysfunction. They hear about erections, “when the time is right,” and other things. My 7-year-old smiles and my 9-year-old seems to start talking when these commercials are on, but neither asks questions. Short of burying the TV, which tempts me sometimes, what should I do or say when they see these commercials?

Answer: There are some situations in this world for which there are options but probably no good solution. This may be such a situation. Here are some common parenting misperceptions and things to consider as you think about how to make the best of this situation.

Did they even hear it?: If you are like most parents, you hope that your children just weren’t listening. This is really pretty unlikely. Children listen and take in at least as much — maybe even more — than most adults. You have noticed that your children are clearly responding to what they see and hear.

Children ask if they want to know: Many people believe children will ask about things they don’t understand, but they often don’t. Children — just like adults — tend to avoid asking questions for many reasons. For example, they might not ask because they are embarrassed about the subject, worried about the answer, feel dumb about not already knowing the answer, or worry that they should not be even wondering. Sometimes children sense that their parents would be uncomfortable about the question or would prefer that they not ask.

Children won’t understand explanations about intimate matters: Although children have limited ability to understand complex matters, we can explain many things at their level of understanding. It may or may not be a good idea to talk about intimate issues such as those you are asking about, but there is much they can understand if you choose to explain.

Sexual information will lead to curiosity: Despite the worry of some, a straightforward and supportive discussion about body development and the intimate aspects of sexual relations does not cause excessive curiosity or premature sexual activity. On the contrary, mental health clinicians find that some adolescents engage in sexual activity because they view sexuality as a forbidden and confusing secret that they are driven to explore.

So, with these considerations in mind, what are your options? One choice is to wait until your children ask something directly. However, you have to assume that they heard the commercial and that they will be aware that the commercials concern sexuality in some way.

School-age children are aware that sexual relationships exist, even if they have only vague ideas about what they are. Not asking questions can either mean a lack of interest or lack of courage! So biding your time and waiting can be best if your child is not interested, or it can leave your child alone with a bit of confusion or even an excited mixed-up curiosity about sexuality.

If you decide to bring up the subject of these commercials, consider the following suggestions:

  • Have individual discussions. Each of your children will have different questions and different degrees of readiness for details.

  • Follow your child’s lead, but don’t expect him or her to ask every question. Provide some information, discuss, and use your judgment about whether more information would be welcome.

  • Assume that the information you offer to one child may well be shared in some form with the other.

  • Start simple. Perhaps you might say: “The commercial mentioned some things that you may not understand yet. Is there something you’d like me to explain?”

  • Emphasize the moral dimension of sexual activity, if the discussion progresses that far. For example, if your family believes that full sexual activity belongs only in marriage, say it.

  • Include the fact that sexual activity is pleasurable. Parents often avoid mentioning this basic fact. Why include it? For one thing, it helps (but not fully) explain why two people who love each other would want to have intimate relations. Furthermore, including a mention of pleasure helps a child understand her own body and make sense of the future possibilities. Children have pleasurable feelings in their genitals beginning in infancy. Three- and 4-year-old boys and girls touch themselves frequently because it feels good.

  • Discuss feminine development with boys and girls. The change from a girl to young woman is something that many girls have sensitive feelings about, and it would be particularly important in this discussion to be open to your daughters’ worries about development.

When all the considerations are weighed, we lean toward suggesting that if the time seems right, you gently explore whether your children have questions about a commercial. At the very least, they will know that you are there for them.