Most parents will agree that having the “birds and bees” talk with your children is one of the most uncomfortable conversations in the world. Teaching children appropriate names of the genitalia is equally uncomfortable for most. Some parents may question whether early sex education will steal their child’s naivety, often framed as “innocence.” Will teaching children about sex steal their childhood? These concerns are common and valid; however, I want to share my thoughts on why it is important to educate and empower children as early as possible.
You probably still get that feeling of discomfort when you think back to the time your parents had the birds and bees talk with you. When we talk to young children about the topics covered in this post, it should not take place in the format of a lecture and or a sit-down serious conversation. The conversations should occur more naturally where we seize opportunities that present in a variety of contexts. Mary Flo Ridley describes how she talked with her children about how to know whether a baby is a boy or girl when born. Her son stated “well, because if it’s a girl, she’ll have a boy; and if it’s a boy, he’ll be wearing blue.” Sure, she could have left the conversation there; instead, she explained how babies are born naked and if the baby is a boy he will have these body parts and if the baby is a girl she will have these body parts. This was a non-threatening and flowing conversation. It was not scheduled or planned. When we are on the lookout for these opportunities we will find them. A link to more resources from Mary Flo Ridley will be included at the end of this post.
We must remember that God created sex. Sex, by God’s design, is sacred as two become one. When we question if teaching our kids about sex will steal their childhood, we inadvertently send the message that there is something bad about sex. We do not want to over-expose children to sexual information; however, I believe we can find balance in teaching them about privacy and how sex is designed for adults within the covenant of marriage. As a parent or caregiver, you have the opportunity to teach your children first about the beautiful way God created their bodies and why God created sex as well as the very clear context he created it to occur. I want to be the one to one day teach my children about their bodies and sex- before media tells them, before a friend tells them, and definitely before an abuser tells them. You can choose the narrative your child first hears about sex.
The narrative you begin with can simply include the correct terms for various body parts, as described in the example earlier. It teaches children why we wear clothes and why some body parts are considered private. The early education should focus on the biological aspects of sex, not the sensual aspects. However, you can help children understand what a safe, healthy touch feels like compared to a hurtful touch or a confusing touch by teaching children about feelings. Provide them the tools to know what steps to take if they experience a hurtful or confusing touch. When children are taught this information at an early age and their questions are received with warmth and age-appropriate answers, they become comfortable with these conversations. This foundation will be integral for the days when talking with your teen about sex is met with eye-rolls, shrugs of the shoulders, and embarrassed silence.
We live in a sex-accessible world. Studies suggest the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornographic material is anywhere from 8 years old to 11 years old; however, any child with access to the internet or television, also has access to pornography. Even without unsupervised internet access, children are going to begin learning about sex anytime they hang out with other children. Children’s minds are sponges- they hear and see things they do not understand and will attempt to process that information by talking to others about those very things they heard and saw. Decades ago, maybe it would be realistic to wait until a child reached puberty to talk with him/her about sex because a parent could reasonably control whether a child could access sexually explicit material. There was far less sexually explicit material available. It would require a child stumbling across a magazine hidden in a drawer or possibly a pay-per-view channel on the television. While many children were still exposed at an early age to pornography, it simply was not as easy to access as it is today. The day you decide your child can access the internet unsupervised is the day they need to know about sex and pornography. Whether the child is using the internet at school, at a library, at a friend’s house, on a parent’s smart phone, through a gaming system, or on the desktop computer in the living room, we need to assume that child will be exposed to pornography. There are wonderful apps and software available that work really hard to block certain material on devices, but there are always loopholes and pornographers are continuously creating ways to target children and expose them to pornography. Once again, we do not want children to learn about sex from the images and videos depicted in pornography.
Teaching a child about his/her body and sex will empower him/her by providing the words he/she needs to describe what has happened if he/she has been abused. I often reflect on what information or knowledge may have helped me to disclose earlier. While I can never know for certain, I definitely think I would have understood what my abuser was doing to me was sexual if I had a greater understanding of sex at the age he began abusing me- eight years old. Abusers tell children that what they are doing is normal or it is their special secret. Abuser may even explain how what they are doing will actually benefit the child because they are teaching them things they need to know. I remember feeling absolutely gross and disgusting when I believed my abuser was peeing on me. I did not know that my abuser was actually using me for sexual stimulation. I did not know that penises had any other purpose than for boys to urinate. I did not know there was a thing called sex that should only involve a mommy and daddy. I did not know that I was being sexually abused. I did not know.
Not only does educating children about their bodies and sex empower them, I also believe it can serve as a protective factor. While it will never be a fool-proof way of protecting children from manipulative abusers, I do believe it is worth the initial discomfort adults may experience in these conversations to decrease the likelihood a child will be abused. Imagine how an abuser may respond differently to a child who questions: Why are you showing me your penis? Or, my daddy taught me that vaginas are private, and it is not okay for anyone to show a child a vagina or a penis. Imagine next how an abuser may respond to a child who shows an initial curiosity when seeing a penis for the first time and asks, what is that, or a child who silently does whatever the abuser instructs. When we as adults willingly answer children’s questions as honestly and truthfully as possible with age appropriate information, it teaches children that they can ask mommy or daddy any question. They can tell an adult when something confusing or uncomfortable happens. The adults have showed a genuine interest in what they experience on a daily basis. Children need adults that they can ask or tell anything without feeling shame, embarrassment, or like they are an annoyance.
There is never a time when sexual abuse is a victim’s fault. Neither a child nor an adult should ever be blamed for not disclosing sexual abuse. Educating a child about sex and his/her body will not prevent a child from being sexually abused.
We have the opportunity to choose what narrative about sex will be the foundation for a child. We can provide a child with knowledge about his/her body and how God uniquely designed him/her. We can equip the children with the vocabulary to describe abuse and other inappropriate acts they may experience that will clearly depict what occurred, which is very important for law enforcement. We dismantle confusion about what is healthy and what is unacceptable. We empower children through these conversations. We can make a difference.
Mary Flo Ridley: https://birds-bees.com/
Family Life/Mary Flo Ridley: https://www.familylife.com/podcast/guest/mary-flo-ridley/
Darkness to Light: https://www.d2l.org/education/5-steps/step-3/
National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/fact-sheet/caring_for_kids_what_parents_need_know_about_sexual_abuse.pdf
Play It Safe: https://www.playitsafe.org/index_parents.php