A good sex education is a life-long gift that parents can give their children. Talking to children about sexuality can open up many channels of communication besides sexuality. A young boy said to his mother, “If I can talk to you about sex, I can talk to you about anything.”
If parents don’t talk about sex with their children, children are left on their own to interpret the confusing and often destructive messages that they get from peers, the mass media, and the internet. These sources of information are distorted and may even be frightening. If children do not learn otherwise, they may act in ways that hurt themselves and others. It is up to parents to give children correct information.
Sex education starts in infancy. For example, when parents teach infants and toddlers the names of various body parts such as nose, eyes, and knees, they can teach them correct terms for their sexual body parts that are between the eyes and knees, such as vagina, vulva, penis, anus, buttocks, and breasts. It is okay to also use “pet” and family names for sexual body parts, but knowledge of the more formal terms is important, too.
Pet names are part of family lore and build intimacy. These names also normalize sexual body parts. However, when children go to the doctor or if they have problems with others about sexuality, it is important that they can use terms that others understand. In situations where children are sexually abused or sexually harassed, those who have had a good sex education are more likely to communicate clearly and without shame that someone has violated them sexually.
Simple Explanations Satisfy Curiosity
As children become preschool age, they have questions about where babies come from. They also notice that boys and girls have different sexual organs. They are intrigued.
Simple explanations satisfy children. “Girls have vulvas and vaginas. Boys have penises and testicles. When girls get older, they will have breasts like mommy’s. When boys get older, their breasts will be like daddy’s.” That’s pretty much all parents need to say. Children learn from pictures. There are many excellent books that show the human body. Children are curious and not shocked by anatomically correct pictures. Parents who think they will be embarrassed how much their children’s natural curiosity calms them.
Infants, toddlers, and preschool children often touch their sexual body parts and may touch the sexual body parts of other children. Parents now have opportunities to teach children about public and private sexual behaviors and appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviors.
Parents can instruct children that it is okay to masturbate, but that is a private activity not done in front of others. The places to masturbate or touch their sexual body parts are the privacy of their bedrooms or in the shower.
Parents have an important task of teaching children to respect the personal space and the sexual body parts of others. A no touching rule can be taught. “Please do not touch others on their sexual body parts.” “Keep your hands to yourself.” “If someone touches your sexual body parts, please tell me.”These the kinds of guidelines that parents can provide children so that children are safe and are safe to be around.
As children get older, the kinds of information they require gets more sophisticated, such as what kinds of behaviors are appropriate at what ages. For example, when is kissing okay? Necking? Petting? How can you tell if he or she loves you? What to do if someone pressures you to have sex? What if you like that person or think you are in love? These are difficult topics to broach with children and teens. Parents have a responsibility to help children develop into responsible and responsive human beings who celebrate their sexuality but who also do not exploit others or do not know how to stop others from exploiting them.
Children understand and appreciate parents’ efforts. Embarrassment is no excuse for parents not to educate children sexually. Out of embarrassment, some parents avoid and dismiss children’s concerns and questions. That hurts children’s developing sexuality and could lead to cut-offs in parent-child communication.
There are many excellent resources for parents. Jan Hindman’s A Very Touching Book is humorous and informative. Young children, school-age children, and teenagers enjoy this book and learn from it. Chose books like Jan’s—simple, direct, and with a touch of lightness. It is important to choose books that are appropriate to children’s developmental level. The Sex Information and Education Council of the United States has excellent information, as does StopItNow!
Sexual Development and Family Relations
Direct, accurate, and loving instruction about sexuality contributes to children’s happiness and well-being. Sexuality, however, is not isolated from the rest of life. Other aspects of human functioning, such as self-respect, respect for others, and understanding the give and take in human relationships, all contribute to healthy sexuality. It is important for parents to create an harmonious family life where respect and give and take are the norm.
Fostering children’s healthy sexual development is a life-long gift that parents can give their children. It takes time and effort. Parents have to deal with their own embarrassment. The price for avoiding sexual topics is high. Children are left on their own to interpret the confusing and often destructive messages that they get from peers, the mass media, and the internet. Remember the boy who said, “If I can talk to you about sex, I can talk to you about anything.”