How would you explain menstruation to little kids?
September 1, 2009 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find an age-appropriate way to explain menstruation to my young kids. (This question is obviously not for anyone squicked out by female things.)

I have 3 kids - 2 girls who are 3 1/2 and a boy 2 years younger. With kids this young there really isn't any such thing as bathrooom privacy, which isn't a problem for us. However, occasionally they will see blood in the toilet bowl as I'm flushing it or a blood stain on underwear. One of my daughters once asked me if I'd pooped my pants and I really didn't know how to respond...

So I'm trying to come up with a good age-appropriate way to explain menstruation to them. We are very open about our bodies and all that, so there's no embarrassment factor, but I don't want to freak them out by explaining that I'm bleeding from my vagina. To them, blood = injury. I'm also conscious that whatever we teach them will immediately get repeated at daycare. Again, totally fine, but I want to keep it as low-key and non-sensationalist as possible.

Another factor is that my wife and I are two women (who somehow are not on the same schedule), so there's a greater-than-average chance that someone in the house is having their period at any given time...

So. How did you handle this with your kids?
posted by widdershins to Human Relations (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would just say something so simple as "sometimes your mommies have blood between their legs. It doesn't mean they are hurt. It's something that happens with all mommies. You don't need to worry." I think they just need to know that it's normal. When they need to know more, they'll ask for more.
posted by greta simone at 11:04 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


They will thank you later for shielding them from this until they are old enough to understand it. 3 1/2 is too young.
posted by bunny hugger at 11:06 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is how I handled it with my three children:

"Mommy, why is there blood?"

"Little girls grow up to be women. Every month, our bodies prepare to hold babies, like a bird prepares a nest. Most of the time, there is no baby, so our bodies shed the nest in order to make a new nest the next month. Our nests are made of blood and flesh, and that is why there is blood."
posted by psylosyren at 11:08 AM on September 1, 2009 [21 favorites]


"It's just a bit of blood, but not from a booboo or anything, it's a pretty cool thing that happens to women when they're old enough to have babies. [Your wife's name] has the same kind of blood sometimes too."
posted by headnsouth at 11:13 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


I had this come up when my then 6 year old son started talking about he book he was reading, starting to relate a somewhat graphical depiction of menstruation (he's a somewhat advanced reader). After reading the book myself, I decided to let him finish it and explained that women bleed monthly from that area, starting around 12 or so (it was a coming-of-age story), and that it was a somewhat private matter that most people don't think it's polite to talk about publicly (so he wouldn't just start asking random women about their periods. And he would. )
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:13 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


bunny hugger: They will thank you later for shielding them from this until they are old enough to understand it. 3 1/2 is too young.

No, it really isn't. Neither blood nor vaginas are horrifying so there is no need to shield children from them.

"It's a special kind of blood that doesn't hurt and isn't bad that grown-up ladies make in their panties once a month" should be fine. In other words, I would explain it in a way that addresses the concerns you anticipate they might have while being cheerful and casual about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:14 AM on September 1, 2009 [10 favorites]


Granted, there's a pretty big difference between 6 and 3. But the key seems to be to not ignore it, but keep it low-key.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:15 AM on September 1, 2009


Seconding that 3 1/2 is too young to understand menstruation. I think she may get more freaked out if she heard you were bleeding on a regular basis. If she seems worried, reassure her that you are just fine, and try to keep the toilet blood-free and dirtied underwear out of sight.
posted by kookaburra at 11:17 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Um, maybe this is because I don't have kids or anything, but is there a good reason why they're in the bathroom while you're using it? I would think that's teaching them that it's OK to be in the bathroom with people. It might be OK in your family, but not in many others.

As to your actual question, I agree that there's really no reason to explain this all right now. I would go so far as to say that it's something coming out of you that isn't hurting and happens every so often. Details beyond that at this age are too much for kids that young if you ask me.
posted by theichibun at 11:19 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't have Dos, but I do have some Don'ts for you!

I don't recall having this explained to me or thinking it was a big deal, until I turned 14 and had not yet started menstruating, but my mother kept nagging at me to "be sure and tell her when it happened." Well, obviously I was going to do that, but I did not appreciate the monthly reminders that I was a a late bloomer. Then when it FINALLY happened, she made a point of handing me my first package of pads in front of the rest of the family. I would much rather that, when I turned 12 or so, she'd just put some feminine supplies in the bathroom, said they were there when I needed them, and left it up to me to ask questions. This is how my friend's mom handled it, and I was jealous.

Also, for some reason, no one addressed this with my younger brothers AT ALL, so you can imagine all of our embarrassment when we were having a family movie night (and I believe there was company) and my 11-year-old brother asked "What are those things for anyway?" very loudly during a Tampax commercial.

Please educate all your kids of either gender, starting from a young age, and then let them handle the sensitive issues of growing up in as much privacy as possible.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:23 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thank you so much for your answers so far - please keep them coming!

To those who think 3 1/2 are too young - sure, they're too young to understand, which is why we're not giving them the real scientific explanation. But they're not too young to be given an explanation. Avoiding the discussion due to embarrassment would be much worse, in my opinion.

We'll teach them about bathroom privacy a little later. For now, just assume that they will infrequently be exposed to period blood and I want to have an explanation handy.
posted by widdershins at 11:29 AM on September 1, 2009


is there a good reason why they're in the bathroom while you're using it?

Small kids are always in the bathroom when you're using it. That's just one of the many delightful facts of parenting and no, you're not going to be able to keep them out all the time. All you can do is hope they stop by the time they reach puberty (they will, they will.)

I used the nest explanation when my children were a little older - say sixish or thereabouts - but for the younger ones I just didn't make a big deal out of it. "Oh yes, Mommy is having her period, that happens to grownup ladies. Did you like the funny duck at the park? It was a funny duck!"
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:34 AM on September 1, 2009 [18 favorites]


Theicibun, yes, it's because you don't have children. How do you expect parents at home alone with their kids to go to the bathroom? Locking out the kids and teaching them that peeing is taboo is not great parenting.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:34 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Sometimes grown-up ladies have a little blood that comes out of their vagina. It's just the way their bodies work, and it doesn't mean anything's wrong. There's nothing to worry about: this happens to me and {other mommy} and we're perfectly well."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:34 AM on September 1, 2009


Um, maybe this is because I don't have kids or anything, but is there a good reason why they're in the bathroom while you're using it?

Because otherwise three very young kids are left alone in the house, free to play with scissors or smash in the TV or run outside or whatever, while you're in the bathroom doing your business.

So, you can either shuffle the kids into the bathroom with you when you have to go, or else somehow manage to hold all your pee and poop and menstrual-products-changing for the small handful of hours when your kids are all sleeping. Guess which option is more likely, and safer.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:35 AM on September 1, 2009


Seconding that 3 1/2 is too young to understand menstruation. I think she may get more freaked out if she heard you were bleeding on a regular basis. If she seems worried, reassure her that you are just fine, and try to keep the toilet blood-free and dirtied underwear out of sight.

Um, maybe this is because I don't have kids or anything, but is there a good reason why they're in the bathroom while you're using it? I would think that's teaching them that it's OK to be in the bathroom with people. It might be OK in your family, but not in many others.

Geeze, didn't anyone bathe with their parents? Maybe mine were total hippies, but I remember taking showers with my mother when I was 3, 4 and 5 and asking about her tampon string. She gave me a pretty straightforward explanation, which was close to psylosyren's, without the bird metaphor. I wasn't upset by this at all, because she assured me that there was nothing to be uspet about.

This also made later sex talks make a lot more sense.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:52 AM on September 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


I say, "It's my cycle. It doesn't hurt, it just means I am not growing a baby inside" And they are very glad that it doesn't hurt, that no baby is coming, and that their questions are taken seriously.
posted by MiffyCLB at 11:52 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"That's mama's period. It looks like blood, and it has some blood in it, but it's mostly just goop".

What's it for?

"When girls grow up into women, this is how their bodies clean themselves out every month".

Etc.

They're somewhat older now and the subject has come up again along with other similar subjects, and my seven year old, at least, has a pretty good handle on what menstruation's about and how it relates to reproduction.

As to your actual question, I agree that there's really no reason to explain this all right now. I would go so far as to say that it's something coming out of you that isn't hurting and happens every so often. Details beyond that at this age are too much for kids that young if you ask me.

Reproductive health education is best handled as an ongoing process, not dumped on a kid all at once at the age of ten in a classroom sequestered from the opposite gender or delivered in a somber "birds and bees" talk scenario. The idea is for this stuff not to be taboo.
posted by padraigin at 11:56 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


My mom had ovarian cysts when I was a little kid (about 5 years old), and she bled nightmarishly profusely before she finally had surgery to get rid of them. She had massive "accidents" all the time, and it TERRIFIED me. I thought she was dying. That was my first introduction to menstruation, and I never really got over the trauma until I finally got MY period and realized that it's not always like that, and it really doesn't hurt (well, cramps aside). It would have helped me if I had known about menstruation BEFORE I saw all that. So, yes, you're right in wanting to talk to your kids now.

I don't have kids myself, but I've worked with children that age. I would suggest explaining that "Mommies do this every month, and it's normal. I'm not hurt."

They'll probably repeat this at daycare no matter what, so you can't stop that. BUT... you might also want to make the distinction that you're a grown-up and, like greta simone said, it happens between your legs. You don't want your kids getting confused and thinking ALL blood = nothing (should they or another child hurt themselves and need attention). You just don't want them thinking you're dying on a monthly basis.
posted by katillathehun at 11:57 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Make up some joke about vampires, kids love them (I still do actually)
posted by matteo at 11:59 AM on September 1, 2009


To those with issues about children hanging out in the bathroom with their parent:

1. How is a kid going to learn the basics of potty training?
2. How is a child going to learn that their body parts are like other peoples' body parts?
3. This is one of the best time for the discussion: That is your penis. Or that is your vagina. It is ok for you to touch. It is yours and it is private. No one else should ask to touch it, or touch it and tell you to keep it a secret. If someone tries to touch it, you can say no, and then please tell me or the closest police officer.

It is very important that children, as soon as they can talk, are taught as much about their bodies as possible. Do you know that the majority of children seen at my local Child Advocacy Center fall between the ages of 2-7? This is a center that exists for the main purpose of providing forensic exams for sexually abused children. A simple conversation about menstruation in the bathroom, whether or not mom's panties are on the floor, is key to prevention.

And in a couple of years, I will be teaching three children all about the beautiful cervix!
posted by psylosyren at 12:01 PM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


[Folks, the question is not about whether it's okay for little kids to be in the bathroom. Please drop that derail.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:02 PM on September 1, 2009


I think my mother explained menstruation to me when I was six or seven -- she showed me some blood on her underwear, explained what it was, and she showed me how tampons work by dunking one in a water glass in front of me. (This may or may not be related to my enduring tampon dislike, so maybe I wouldn't recommend that.) All very matter-of-fact, but probably a bit more detail than younger kids would need.

I was (am) a giant nerd, so in addition to answering any question I could possibly have, my mother also bought me a bunch of books about puberty, normal range of variation in genitalia shapes, etc etc. (She did explain that I probably shouldn't show them to all the neighbors' kids.) When your kids get older, I really, strongly recommend Period: A Girl's Guide. It has the facts, has nice drawings, and does a really good job explaining menstruation in a positive way and making it sound like something you shouldn't be scared of, which for me was actually very comforting. I liked it a lot. I know it's probably not a viable suggestion for right now, but it's something to keep in mind for the future.
posted by sineala at 1:20 PM on September 1, 2009


And for when they're old enough (that age will be determined by you and your wife; the two of you know your kids best), I can't recommend highly enough the book "The Care and Keeping of You," published by American Girl. Yes, that American Girl. My daughter is nine and the reproduction/puberty curriculum begins this year at her school. I wanted her to have some facts before they had the curriculum but she's never been a question asker. Like, never. My son asked me several times what tampons were, as I was putting them in the shopping cart, when he was about four (I answered him simply) but she's just never asked about stuff.

So I got her the book and when I gave it to her I said something like, "I know you have questions but maybe you're afraid to ask. I hope you know you can always ask me or Daddy anything and we'll answer you the best we can. But in the meantime, here's this book." She read it in a day and a half and when I asked her about it, she said it was great and it did answer lots of questions she had.
posted by cooker girl at 1:48 PM on September 1, 2009


You could explain that when girls grow up, their bodies clean themselves out every month if they are not having a baby. Like a runny nose!

I would try to explain that it is not really blood because "period blood" is mostly uterine tissue and not actual blood. If I didn't realize that and I saw a pad or something in the trash I would think it was a hospital dressing from someone who was stabbed and I would be scared. (if I were 6)
posted by WeekendJen at 2:23 PM on September 1, 2009


I think I was about that age when my mom explained this to me. She did something similar to the bird metaphor (love it!), and she showed me her pad with blood on it, like it was no big deal. I wasn't scarred by it. It was just a question answered.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:55 PM on September 1, 2009


"You know how when you haven't eaten in a while, your body sends you the signal that you are hungry. If you stay up late, your body sends you the signal that you are tired. This is a signal that lets me know I am not going to have a baby. It doesn't hurt, and when you're all grown up like me, you will have this signal too".

Add more as the years and maturity rise, and with my 7 & 9 year olds I sometimes like to end with "there's more to it, but this is what you need to know right now. We'll keep talking as you get older".
posted by agentwills at 4:39 PM on September 1, 2009


Like others upthread I've told my 3 year old that about once a month Mummy's body makes a kind of nest made of blood. When there's no baby to grow in the nest it comes out of her vagina, and this kind of blood doesn't hurt. We've also explained that it takes an egg and sperm (kind of like a seed...) to make a baby. This is important territory to cover because we're a same sex couple and both our kids were conceived with anonymous donors. We also have a 1 year old but she's still small enough to be as amazed at a rock or a bug as anything else, so no point explaining anything much to her yet!

I grew up in a family where discussions about bodies and sex were very open and it is one of the things I treasure about my mother's parenting style. I don't remember when I learned how babies were made or what menstruation was, I just always knew and it was never a big deal.
posted by Cuke at 5:21 PM on September 1, 2009


I personally would go with mygothlaundry's example: brief, casual sentence that what happened is a) not scary and b) totally normal, then change the subject. If they were a bit older, more detail would be appropriate, but at 3 they aren't going to be paying attention that long anyway (probably)!
posted by asciident at 6:08 PM on September 1, 2009


I'm delighted to see so many matter-of-fact suggestions about how to have this conversation in this thread. I would add, however, that I personally would avoid the "cleans itself out" language from otherwise great suggestions. Your kids are going to get a lot of cultural information that people's (and especially women's) bits are "dirty" and while I totally get that is not at all what is being said with the idea of cleaning, I truly think erring on the side of "happy happy yay cool!" is the best choice to make here.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:31 AM on September 2, 2009


Thank you everyone for all the thoughtful answers! I picked the ones I thought were most age-appropriate for my kids as best answers. Thanks!
posted by widdershins at 9:41 AM on September 2, 2009


I would avoid the idea that this is something that only happens to "mommies". It happens to all women sooner or later, whether they have children or not.
posted by jvilter at 5:55 PM on September 2, 2009


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