Children need to be educated about sex

Children need to learn about sex. It’s a big subject, so it needs to be a conversation that spans the years, starting as early as possible, giving whatever information is needed at each stage of development. Avoiding the subject will send an active message that sex is taboo, not something we talk about in this house.

We live in a highly sexualised society, so our children will inevitably be exposed to sexual images and information from a myriad of sources: T.V., cell phones, the internet, movies, billboards, newspapers, an older sibling, a cousin, a friend, a child in the neighbourhood. Rather let them receive the information they need from their parents first.

Children are naturally curious, so a useful guide to follow is to answer questions, openly and simply, as they arise. You may need to clarify the question first, not like the father who, when asked the big question by his son, “where did I come from?”, drew a deep breath and launched into the story about his conception and birth, only to then be told, “Oh, I just wondered, because there is a new boy in our class, and he is from Durban.”

From the outset a child needs to hear the correct names for their body parts. In the primary school years they will be ready to hear the story of how a baby is conceived and born. They are very egocentric at this stage, and are mostly interested in their own arrival on this planet. Anything can serve as a natural prompt for the conversation to take place. A baby is born in your social circle, or the cat has kittens, or they see a photo of Mom pregnant with them. It is also at this stage that they need to be prepared for the changes that will take place in boys’ and girls’ bodies. It is all very fascinating to a young child, and their interest is in the mechanics and mystery of it all. Not long after having a conversation about sex with one of my sons, we found ourselves walking along the road behind a blind man and his son. “Can a blind man have children?” was the question my son asked. “Of course” I said. “But how”, he said. “The same way as if you were not blind”, I said. “ But how would the man find the hole?” was his mystified response. They just need to figure out how it all works, and this enquiry, as we know, is ongoing!

Children also need ongoing assurance as to what is normal and appropriate. As with all aspects of human conduct, there are limits and boundaries, manners, which a child will need to be taught. These will depend on personal and cultural values.

Why would a parent not teach their child about sex? Often it is because there is a fear that this will sexualise the child, based on the desire to try and preserve the child’s innocence. It is the arrival of hormones in adolescence that sexualises the child. In fact, it is the uninformed child who is more vulnerable and susceptible to abuse. Children will encounter awkward situations, usually with their peer group; in some cases, even with adults known to them, where pressure may be exerted to engage in activities of a sexual nature, which are inappropriate or even dangerous. The child who has been informed about sex – what is normal and appropriate and what dangers might lurk – is better prepared and more able to trust his or her instincts. More able to say “no”. We teach our children about other dangers, so why not about sex-related dangers?

The pre-adolescent years are our window of opportunity. Most teenagers will not be so comfortable talking to their parents about sex, and the peer group become their confidantes. The thought that their parents had sex, and, heaven forbid, still have sex, tends to be something they would rather not think about. They will be more inclined to ask about relationship issues, dating, how boys and girls differ. The channels of communication just need to stay open, to allow questions to arise.

I spoke recently on the subject of the need to educate children about sex to a group of primary school parents. A short while after this I was heartened to be hailed in the supermarket by a mother who had attended the talk. “I did it” she said. “I sat my eight-year-old son down and told him the story about how babies are conceived and born. He listened intently, and then said, “thank you mommy.” And then he went off to play. It’s that simple.

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Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 8:08 am  Comments (2)