Have we scarred our little girl for life?

Dr. Daley on Sex and Relationships

Dear Dr. Daley: I’m a 30-year-old woman married to a wonderful man. We have a beautiful seven-year-old daughter. We are as much in love now as we were when we first started dating, and our sex life reflects that. Even with a young child in the house, we still have a very passionate sex life, doing it several times a week.

When our daughter was younger, we waited until she was dead asleep before making love. But now she’s a bit older and she wakes up and comes into our room occasionally. She does it rarely, so my husband and I haven’t really let it affect our sex life. But last night she walked in on my husband and I making love, and we were so engrossed in each other that our daughter was there watching for several minutes before either of us noticed. Now we’re worried that we’ve scarred her for life. Do we try to talk to her about it? What do you say to a seven-year-old who saw Mommy and Daddy having sex?

photo / drcorneilus 

In rereading your letter, I fear the most severe trauma you may inflict on your daughter will result from English abuse. You write, “she walked in on my husband and I making love,” when certainly “my husband and me” would have been correct. People who use the nominative case where the objective is clearly called for tend, in my never-humble opinion, to be either ignorant or eager to impress. It’s kind of like lifting your pinky when slurping a Starbucks. Dear Lady, try to relax.

Throughout most of human history, and across most of the world, homes with multiple bedrooms and luxurious master suites have not existed until recently. Freud kicked up quite a hornet’s nest (that’s a metaphor) when he emphasized the “primal experience” as a source of trauma, pleasure, envy, and shame all rolled into one. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote (some say “fabricated”) a great deal about sexual practices in faraway places like New Guinea, thought that the true primal trauma came not from witnessing parental intercourse, but from the child hearing the adults speak in a language he or she could not understand.

I say, why not both? The parental relationship is the cornerstone of the family. It’s both public and private, shared, and – when it’s good – enviable. Kids are supposed to be reassured and disgusted by their parents’ physical affection. Remember, seven-year-olds think people of the other gender have cooties; it’s all part of a natural developmental stage that helps them shift their focus away from potential mates to things like taking turns, getting in line, and doing homework. However, it doesn’t render them sightless, deaf, or uninterested.

This is a great opportunity for your and Loverboy to pick up on some language that will help your daughter make sense of the thrashfest she recently witnessed.

Despite McMansion layouts and state-of-the-art door hardware, it’s not that unusual for people to take your daughter’s approach in learning about sexual intercourse. The students in my Human Sexuality class are asked to write several essays, one of which being “How I Learned About Sex.” Guess how many of them first learned about it by catching Mom and Dad in flagrante delicto?

Answer: A lot.

Guess how many of them received adequate explanations as to what they had seen.

Answer: Not so many.

Like every other aspect of parenthood, there is no perfect approach to explaining sexuality to kids, although there are myriad stupid approaches. Just remember this: The manner in which you and Dad handle this situation tells your daughter everything she needs to know about whether you can deal with the sex topic at all. If you freak out, she’ll know better than to ask you anything, instead taking her curiosity to friends, the sixth-graders on the school bus, and the Internet.

Aside: Has your daughter really never asked how that baby got inside Mrs. Soandso’s tummy? Really? Wow.

I’m hoping you and Dad have provided her with the names of at least a few personal parts, since this is where the two of you must begin. If the names you have provided run along the lines of “thingy” and “tee-tee,” the two of you need to run to the bookstore and find a book about explaining sex to your kids. Start with anatomy. Practice pronouncing the real names for things with each other until you can get with your daughter and have a Real Vocabulary meeting.

By age seven, most American kids have been exposed to at least some aspects of physical intimacy. They have usually, by this age, seen themselves naked. Many of them have even seen someone else naked. Some of them have seen sexual scenes on TV or in movies. They appreciate the words for such great mysteries, and the correct words are respectful. I am reminded of a student who wrote that the first time he heard the bigger kids on the bus refer to a “pussy,” and he learned what that meant, he replied indignantly, “Why would you call it a pussy? It’s a vagina.” Not that we have anything against the word pussy, but I feel there is great dignity in such an announcement.

Since there’s been some lag time between the event and your writing to a sex teacher for vocabulary, you may need to bring the incident up. “Petunia, we want to talk with you about the other night when you came in our room and Daddy had Mummy tied up.” Or something along those lines.

Keeping in mind that a seven-year-old only wants to know just so much about your thrilling sex life, and also keeping in mind that kids are highly reassured to know Mom and Dad really love each other a whole lot, simply explain to your daughter that what she saw was Mom and Dad showing their love for each other with their bodies in the special way that grown-ups do. Kissing and touching and rubbing all over.

You and Dad know your little Petunia well enough to know whether this is the day to explain Sexual Intercourse. Many kids have a vague notion that babies grow in a mommy’s tummy, and I believe it is perfectly reasonable to tell kids how that all gets started: When grown-ups rub and touch and kiss, a dad’s penis gets hard and fits into a mom’s vagina very nicely and then it puts sperm into her body. Dad’s sperm finds Mom’s little egg, and that’s how a baby gets started.

Ask Petunia if she has any questions. This will help you gauge how much more detail is called for. Maybe she’ll wonder why you were hollering so much. Maybe she thought someone was getting hurt. I think it’s perfectly fine to say that all that touching and rubbing feels so good that grown-ups sometimes get pretty noisy, just like when kids get into a tickle-fest and shriek their heads off. You can reassure her that no one was getting hurt at all. A good cover-stick should conceal your bruises and bite marks well enough to bring this off.

Your aim is to convey the wonderful pleasures of sexuality, respect for her own body and its amazing workings, and the fact that sexual pleasure is best saved for a time when you are old enough to handle it.

And if our bedroom door is closed, please knock.


About the author Dr. Nancy Daley is a licensed psychologist and adjunct assistant professor who teaches Human Sexuality at The University of Texas at Austin. If you would like to submit questions for her to answer in this column, please send them to drdaley at thatotherpaper dot com.

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Anonymous's picture

Scarred your little girl i think notthis kind of thing happens allthe time some of my friends said when they were only six they could hear their parents having sex and it was not big deal thats life.
My bestfriend who has two eight year old girls know all about sex it may better purpare them in the future of some of the dangers of sex.