How To Teach Your Child About Sex

My friend Florence called me one day in a panic. She had just discovered her 5-year-old daughter Lana with her playmate Nate from next door with their clothes off. They were busily looking at and gently touching each other's genitals. Florence was horrified, but somehow refrained from scolding them until we could talk.

Her story revealed some very useful facts:

  • This was the first time such an event had taken place in her child's life.
  • The activity was clearly out in the open there was no excitement from hiding and secrecy attached to the event.
  • Neither child was being aggressive with the other.
  • Clearly, they were simply curious and innocently trying to discover the differences between boys and girls.

I told Florence to sit down in the shade with both children, share a snack and have a talk with them. Explain calmly that you understand they were curious, I told her, but that sometimes curiosity can get us in trouble, just like it got Curious George, the monkey in the delightful children's books, in trouble.

I encouraged her to tell them that some things are supposed to be private, including the body parts we cover, so even if a person asks if they can see those body parts, tell them no, and don't let them show theirs, either.

Then, I finished, ask them if they have any questions, and move on to other topics. Read them the book, Curious George, or tell a story from your own childhood when you did something impulsive that caused a problem for you.

I warned Florence about stifling the children's truly healthy curiosity, which is a priceless quality that moves us to explore, learn and grow in knowledge. Yet, like the rest of life, curiosity must be balanced with consideration and caution.

"This sort of innocent curiosity should not create guilt," I said. "Guilt can put a stop to purposefully mean or naughty behavior which this is not. Be careful to avoid making the kids feel ashamed, but do observe their play more closely. Help them find active, creative projects and games. I predict you'll have no more problems." Fortunately, that was true.

Remember that neglect can be a form of abuse. Had Florence failed to constructively take charge of this situation, both children might have become focused on and fascinated with their sexual selves. Or, had she scolded and shamed them, she could have dumped needless guilt on them with its far-reaching damage. Fortunately, she did neither; she found balance in her approach.

Let me offer one more illustration:

Four-year-old Elsie was enrolled in a clean, light and colorful preschool. The play areas were well equipped and lovingly supervised. The staff were trained, kind and seemed to have earned both the love and the respect of the children. Only one area somehow had escaped the careful supervision of the staff the restrooms.

One day Elsie skipped innocently down the hall to the girls' restroom, where she was surprised to find two other girls with their panties down. They were looking at and touching each other's sexual parts with some intensity. Both of them insisted that she join them in their exciting new play activity. At first, Elsie tried to leave, but the girls, both bigger than she, insisted that she play with them. Finally the little girl joined them briefly, but she was relieved at the approach of footsteps, when the girls hurriedly dressed. No one else saw what had happened.

  • At that time, Elsie was living with her loving grandparents. She trusted them completely and told her grandmother exactly what had taken place. Her wise grandparents responded well and did three significant things that helped Elsie.
  • They assured Elsie that they loved her very much and that what had happened was not her fault, but that this sort of play was forbidden. They explained that her body was hers and no one else had the right to "play" with it, nor did she have the right to play with someone else's body. Games and toys are to play with not children's bodies.
  • They promised to talk with the teachers and make certain that this never happened again.
  • They kindly and clearly instructed Elsie to run to her teacher at once if anyone ever tried to do such a thing again, even if it was with another child.
  • They quietly observed Elsie's conduct with friends, and supervised her closely for some weeks. Finally, they realized she had forgotten the episode and seemed to be restored to her wholesome self.

When sexual encounters in childhood are associated with fear or pain and the child has no confidant, he or she may have sexual problems as an adult.

Teach your child to respect the human body

Part of giving your child a healthy attitude about sex means teaching him or her to respect the body. The best way to do that is by example. Tease and tickle only in appropriate ways, not by pinching buttocks. Never tease a child when he or she asks you to stop or seems uncomfortable.

Play hard, wrestle some and cuddle, but remember that each part of the human body has a special purpose. Hands are for creating and doing tasks. Mouths are for talking and eating. The genitals are for excretion and ultimately for reproduction. They are not for finding excitement through the exploitation of a child.

Most people were horrified by the melee in Central Park in New York City. Some 50 young women were horribly mistreated and sexually abused in full view of the public, and no one came to the rescue of the victims.

A major part of the tragedy lies in the conduct of some of the young women. They were dressed provocatively, and initially they laughed and joined in the "fun." But then the conduct of the young men got out of control. A "mob spirit" surged through the crowd and tragic atrocities were committed.

Sex is no longer discussed only behind closed doors and in privacy. Television, movies and talk shows have brought the discussion out in the open. In the sexually charged culture in which we live, parents can help abuse-proof their kids by teaching them what it means to be sexually responsible.

Sexual responsibility means that one never exploits another person for sexual excitement. It means that sex is saved for marital commitment and that one must show respect in this area to friends and, later, friends of the opposite sex.

What else should parents teach their children about sexual responsibility? Here's a list to consider:

  • Teach girls to dress respectfully. Parents need to help their daughters understand, before they reach age 12 (puberty), that spaghetti-strap tops and skimpy shorts are "turn-ons" to boys. While dress never justifies sexual assault, part of being "abuse-proof" means dressing wisely. Many attractive styles are not a "turn-on." Wise parents will start early and help their girls dress in cute but not scanty clothes.
  • Teach girls to be kind, considerate, friendly and fun without being seductive. And when your daughter starts dating, she needs a cell phone or pager in case she needs rescuing!
  • Teach your sons that they are responsible to protect others, not to exploit them. They are never to push a girl to do sexual things with them. Before they reach puberty, boys need to know that they will be tempted to explore adult ideas and behaviors in the sexual arena, but they must overcome such temptations.
  • To discourage your children from trying to act sexy in order to be liked, point out to them how many kids of the opposite sex pay attention to and flirt with them when they are just being themselves. This will help build their self-esteem.
  • Teach your children how to recognize and refuse a date's attempts to use them for selfish gratification, which is blatant sexual abuse by peers. Kids must be taught about the incredibly powerful sexual drive that explodes when petting goes too far.
  • Keep open the doors of communication about sexual issues. When you feel uneasy about discussions or certain questions your children ask, say so. It's okay to say, "I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I'll look it up and get back to you." Then do that. If your children are too young to understand or cope with certain in-depth concepts, it's okay to say, "That's as complicated as Greek! Give me time to think about the answer." Just be sure you always get back to them.
  • Teach your kids to wait until marriage for sexual intercourse. Teach them that in the marriage union, sex is a wonderful pleasure. Most of us who teach this idea are ridiculed, but experience over time verifies that medically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, postponing sex until after marriage is wise.

Years ago, a young friend told me how he approached every date: "I stand in front of my mirror and I say to myself, Steve, you stand in the shoes of Jane's father until you take her home to him.' With that in my mind, I have always been able to resist the strong temptation to get sexual with my date." How I wish every young man thought and acted like Steve!

Just do it

I know that providing good sex education for your kids is a challenging assignment, one that will take much time, energy, and vigilance on your part. Watch for those golden, teachable moments. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; kids will forgive mistakes. Just be faithful in teaching your children about sex, and especially in teaching the sacred value of sex and the need for respect and dignity toward all sexual issues. Later on, if not now, your children will love you for your efforts.

Parents, you can do it. You can do it best. So do it!

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