Let’s talk about sex
In a sexed up world of in-your-face images, how and when do parents talk to their kids about sex in a kid-friendly way? I dropped in on a friend unexpectedly for a quick coffee and was pounced on at the door. ‘I was just going to ring you. I don’t know what to do. Guess what I’ve found out?’
It seems that at the state primary school where her three children attend, sex education for Grade 5 includes teaching ‘safe sex’ by learning how to roll a condom onto a banana. Her daughter will be in Grade 5 next year and she doesn’t know what to do.
The principal’s response is that it ‘falls within the guidelines’. Other parents at the school have expressed discomfort with the idea but seem resigned to the perceived necessity.
Some have said young children know more about sex these days and need this kind of information earlier. Some have indicated my friend is making a fuss about nothing. Is she?
Like me, my friend is mid-forties with a teaching background and plenty of experience with children, both personal and professional. She has good instincts about what is healthy and appropriate for children.
She is certain that such an activity cannot be in her daughter’s best interests, but the pressure to follow the trend to show and tell even young children more and more about sex is very strong.
When is the right time to ‘talk about sex’? How much do very young children need to know? How important is our role as parents in this?
Confidence and timing
Sex education is one of those subjects that can cause us anxiety, perhaps because we don’t want to let go of the innocence of our little bundles of joy.
It’s one thing to chat comfortably about the new baby growing inside mum’s tummy, but inevitably questions about anatomy, sexual intercourse, menstruation, wet dreams and so on have to be answered as well.
Later again, questions about contraception, marriage and partnering, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and abortion will enter the picture.
As you look now into the innocent eyes of your preschooler, such conversations may seem impossible, but if you lay the groundwork when your child is little, the element of embarrassment or hesitation will largely be overcome. It’s all a matter of confidence and timing.
Children learn best about sexuality when information is given within a warm, healthy parental relationship; when questions are answered naturally and children are not given the message that the subject is off-limits.
After all, to a curious child, asking about mum or dad’s body, or a pregnant woman’s shape is no more unusual than asking why the stars are in the sky. It’s just one more thing in the long list of what they want to know.
A good rule of thumb is, give enough information to satisfy their curiosity. For example, a question from a 3 year-old about where babies come from doesn’t require detail about sexual intercourse, just a simple description of how a baby grows safely inside a special place in the mother’s tummy until it is time to be born. An older child will have different questions and be ready for more detail.
It’s at this point that embarrassment can kick in. This reaction may be linked to our own experiences as a child, or perhaps to the time and place our inquiring offspring chooses for that question, but the best approach is always to answer as matter of factly as you would any other question. If your child asks a further question you know they need more information. If they drop the topic they are probably satisfied for the time being.
The more you practise this calm accepting approach, the easier it will become, especially when the questions get trickier. You will have established an open line of communication about sex that will be incredibly valuable as your child matures and the stakes get higher.
Take the Lead
As parents what we have to provide is a warm family environment where children feel a sense of belonging, where questions are welcomed and where we share our values about life, including sexual values, with them. Is marriage important to you? Then say so and why. Are children special? Make it clear.
Studies show that young people with a strong sense of connectedness to family, school, church and community are more likely to postpone sexual involvement.
Think about what your children are seeing on television. Even quite young children commonly view teenage soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away where messages about sex and body image are blatant.
Even fashion trends for the very little – like bras and midriff tops - encourage the sexualisation of children. It may seem cute on one level, but think about the underlying message. Do we want young children to be seen as sexually aware? Do we want them to see themselves as sexual beings?
Take the lead here. Don’t be afraid to censor inappropriate material when your children are primary age. For older children, reserve your right to censor, but make opportunities to watch and discuss with your teens the content of TV programs, music lyrics, etc.
Again, be clear about what you believe is right and appropriate. Children need to hear their parents’ values declared – this helps them form their own value system.
What about the earlier onset of puberty?
Girls in particular are reaching puberty earlier, some as young as 9, and this raises anxieties about how best to educate them about sex. However, for both sexes development in other areas - mental, emotional and psychological - lags many more years behind.
Expecting primary aged children to process contraceptive ‘safe sex’ information is more a reflection of the helplessness of adults in the face of current social problems than a rational approach to the needs of children.
Embrace the privilege
So, what is my friend going to do? Without resorting to drastic measures such as changing schools, parents can:
- seek clarification from the school about the content offered at different grade levels
- ask to see the resources and guidelines
- calmly explain any concerns and give your reasons
- find out what Education Department policy is in relation to sex education, and perhaps get involved in your school’s policy development. Depending on where you live, it may be up to individual schools to develop local policies, guidelines and practices to deal with sex education in ways that respond to the needs of their school students
- suggest alternative resources, particularly those that support parenting in this area
- suggest alternative approaches, for example: an ‘opt in’ policy instead of an ‘opt out’ – this way the onus is on the school to present a program most parents are happy with
- ensure the sex education you provide at home is sufficient and on-going to meet your child’s needs, whatever the school does or does not provide.
Sex education is primarily a parent’s right and responsibility. It should serve the child’s needs and development, not the adult’s fears or politics. A school’s first aim should be to support and resource parents and boost their confidence to embrace this privilege.
Whether your child is a pre-schooler or already at school, open up the line of communication about sexual matters now. It will pay dividends when your wide-eyed toddler morphs into adolescence in a very few years time.
by Alison Campbell Rate
Alison Campbell Rate is the Executive Director (Hon.) of Open Doors Counselling and Educational Services, Ringwood, Victoria. Open Doors provides specialist counselling services for crisis pregnancy and pregnancy loss, as well as value-based sexuality education resources for primary and secondary schools. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wonder of Living video series Available from Open Doors.
A New Baby
Suitable for any age, shows parents answering their young child’s questions about when he was born and using this sharing time as a celebration of each of their children’s special place in the family.
And Now There’s Me
For 9 -10 years and over, looks at the amazing human body, sexual intercourse, the importance of families, and healthy decision-making.
I’m Stepping Out
For 12 years and up, covers the physical and emotional changes of puberty. Part 1 of the video I’m Stepping Out deals solely with the physical changes of puberty and is suitable for the younger girl.
These videos model the way an effective parent responds to a child’s natural curiosity about sexual matters and can help boost your own confidence as a parent in this situation. Information is given in a context of values such as love, caring and respect for the individual, and respects the psychological development of young children.
Where Babies Come From by Susan M. Green, AXIOM Publishing, Australia 2001.
(Factual information, primary)
There’s a House Inside My Mummy by Giles Andreae and Vanessa Cabban, The Watts Publishing Group.
(Picture story book for pre-school/early primary).
Period by Joann Loulan and Bonnie Worthen, Book Peddlers, Minnetonka, MN. 2001.
A terrific book for girls approaching puberty. As it deals almost exclusively with understanding and handling menstruation, it is also suitable for the younger girl. Other publications tend to cover a wider range of issues, for which the 9 year-old is not yet ready.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, October 2005. Updated July 2009.