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12 Things To Say to Your Daughter to Encourage Healthy Sexuality

Written by Erin Feher

Photography by Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

It’s never too early to start the work of raising confident, sexually empowered girls. And with the advent of the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, and the daily attacks on reproductive rights across our country, it can seem more pertinent and necessary than ever. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting to teach children about sexuality as early as 18 months, which allows them to learn about themselves slowly and over time, just as they learn about absolutely everything else. Daughters, in particular, look to their mothers for answers and support, and the way we respond can shape their relationships with sex and their bodies for the rest of their lives. According to Joyce McFadden, author of Modern Mothering: What Daughters Say They Need from Their Mothers Regarding Sexual Development and Its Impact on Their Self Worth, many girls report feeling left alone with their sexual development and its attendant relationship complexities. “One of the most upsetting questions girls ask me is, ‘Why won’t my mom help me?'” says McFadden, who is also a psychoanalyst with over 30 years of experience treating women, men, and older adolescent girls. “The value of [growing into their sexuality] with their mothers’ help is that it provides the emotional connection to us that our daughters want.”

Below, McFadden reveals 12 things we should be saying to our daughters—from toddlerhood to the teenage years—to encourage healthy and satisfying sexuality.

Birth to Age 3
What To Say: “That’s your earlobe. And that’s your vulva.”
Why You Should Say It: “Teach her the accurate names for all of her body parts without drawing moral distinction between them. To her, there’s no difference between learning what her earlobe is and learning what her vulva is.”

What To Say: “I love absolutely everything about you.”
Why You Should Say It: “Love her in all ways, and notice the positive impact of being physically affectionate and emotionally comforting on her well being. Respecting these features now will help you understand the role they’ll play in helping her be comfortable in her body in her teen and adult years.”

What To Say: “Let’s snuggle.”
Why You Should Say It: “Be conscious of the importance of physical connection and sensuality from the beginning of her infancy so that your comfort with its role in her life will grow right along with her. This can be done in incredibly simple ways, such as noticing her delight when you play This Little Piggy Went To The Market.”

The Preschool Years
What To Say: “Nope, it wasn’t the stork.”
Why You Should Say It: “Be candid. Speak to your daughter or answer her questions truthfully and very simply.”

What To Say: “You’re right, touching your vagina does feel good! But try not to do it at the dinner table.”
Why You Should Say It: “It’s normal for little children to touch their genitals, not because it’s sexual, but because it soothes them, much like thumb sucking. If this is the case, don’t shame her. Let her know it is normal and special because it feels good, but should be done in private. Focus on what your daughter is learning and let your respect for that process temper any embarrassment you might feel.”

Elementary Age
What To Say: “Our bodies do some pretty amazing things, and yours is just getting started. Let’s read about what’s coming up.” 
Why You Should Say It: “Continue to speak and answer truthfully, but move it up a notch from being very simple, to simple. When she’s eight or so, read a children’s sex-ed book with her, such as Robie Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health.” (For more modern sex-ed books for kids, check out these 15+ titles).

What To Say: “My body is still changing, too! Let’s figure this out together.” 
Why You Should Say It: “Be open to the ways you can mother yourself as you mother her. The more connected to you she feels in learning about her body, the less alienated from herself she’ll be. And the same can be true for you. She’ll be beginning the process of positively assimilating her sexuality into the whole of who she is, and you’ll be furthering your own assimilation as you experience looking at your sexuality through the eyes of a mother raising a girl.”

Middle School
What To Say: “That’s a great question, let me explain how it actually works…”
Why You Should Say It: “Speak to your daughter and answer her questions truthfully with more complexity.
Respect the reality that who she is in the world now begins to expand to include more adult sexual feeling and meaning.”

What To Say: “When I was your age, I was definitely trying out a lot of new things.”
Why You Should Say It: “Remember what it was like for you when you were neither little girl nor a young woman. Remember how it felt to stand on shifting sand, day in and day out. Share stories of your own experience at her age, ones that will help her see herself on a plane of females who all went through something similar.”

High School
What To Say: “Love and trust are key ingredients to really great sex.” 
Why You Should Say It: “Start to build a more complex bridge between ideas and concepts—such as the bridge from the idea of sex to the concepts of intimacy and erotic longing.”

What To Say: “Better sex comes to those who don’t rush it.” 
Why You Should Say It: “Advocate waiting for sexual activity by teaching her that the longer she waits, the more comfortable she’ll be.”

What To Say: “You’ve got the rest of your life to have good sex, and the best is yet to come—trust me.”
Why You Should Say It: “Teach her that you share and value female desire. Don’t contribute to the illusion that mothers are not sexual beings. Trace the difference in your own sex life from when you lost your virginity to now, and recognize that it was through practicing and learning that you arrived to where you are.”

For more on this topic, check out our pieces on Talking To Girls About Sex: The Basics You Should Know, 15+ Sex-Ed Books For Kids, Rape Culture: What It Is & How To Combat It, Raising Sex Positive Kids, Teaching Body Autonomy, How To Fight Gender Stereotypes In The Media Your Children Consume, Teaching Consent Starting With Tickling, and What To Do If The Kids Walk In On You During Sex.

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