One of the comments on yesterday’s post took issue with the idea that teaching children about their dignity as human beings, and in particular the dignity of the body, can be any protection against predators. I’d like to address that as a starting point today.
Realistically, there is no foolproof way to protect our children from any of the dangers they may face. But to me it seems self-evident that whatever defenses we can arm them with are wise investments. I do believe that young women and men who truly understand their value and dignity as human beings are more likely to be capable of protest when they are pressured, either by peers or by authority figures, to do things that violate that dignity. It’s no guarantee, but it’s another tool in the arsenal.
I used to believe young children should be shielded from all references to sexuality, because it would sully their innocence. But this implies that sexuality is a) not innocent, and b) something separate from personhood, when the truth is that the two are braided together so tightly that separating them leads to dysfunction.
I am now convinced that lessons about sexuality cannot be imparted in a single conversation upon the onset of puberty, but must, MUST be introduced a bit at a time. You don’t dump Pi r squared on a student without laying the foundations first; they’ll never, ever understand it. They might be able to plug in numbers to a formula, but they won’t understand. The same is true of sexuality. A child’s psyche isn’t prepared to deal with so much earthy, bodily frankness if it’s never been introduced before.
So in our family we start in early childhood by laying foundations.
1. The key concept is this: the body is holy because it is the dwelling place of God. God lives in the soul, and the soul is housed in the body. Our bodies were given to us in order to make the world a better place. A place that looks more like what God’s vision for it.
2. Because of this, we take care of our bodies. We don’t play with them as if they’re toys, and certain parts of us are not meant to be touched by anyone other than a parent or perhaps a doctor in an examination, and beyond a certain age, not even by a parent. We care for our bodies by keeping them clean, well-nourished (healthy eating and exercise are part of this lesson) and well rested.
3. We call body parts by their proper names. Euphemisms and slang imply that there’s something that needs to be hidden because it’s bad to talk about. The kids are comfortable with words like breast and penis and labia and scrotum. (More comfortable than we are, to be honest.)
Once these foundational concepts are worked into life, it’s not such a stretch to talk about where babies come from. God puts the baby in the mommy’s tummy, but you know the child is going to ask how. It would be easy to punt and say something lame and evasive, but I think that’s shortsighted. Kids need to understand that something holy and miraculous happens in the sexual act, and that they have a part to play–that their choices and their dignity are relevant.
So I tell the kids that mommies and daddies have a special hug they give each other, and sometimes when they do, God takes something from the mommy and something from the daddy and makes it into a baby that grows inside the mommy.
Alex has probed further, and I have had to say, “You don’t need to know that yet.” I think of Corrie Ten Boom’s story about the suitcase a lot.
Now, when we need to address abuse by authority figures or even something Alex sees in the movies that doesn’t add up, we aren’t constructing elaborate evasions in a misguided attempt to preserve his innocence. This weekend we were watching Superman Returns and Alex, puzzled by the complicated relationship between Lois, Superman and Richard, and how that boy could be Superman’s kid, asked, “So…are they married?”
“Alex,” I said, “the thing you have to understand is that the special hug is meant to be given by people who are married to each other, because that special hug makes babies, and every baby has a right to grow up in a family with a mom and a dad who are married to each other. But the hug can be done by people who aren’t married. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but sometimes people do.”
What I’m trying to get at is that the issues of sexuality are all tied together. You can’t just address child abuse in a vacuum. Because then, yes, it does destroy a child’s innocence. But if you give them a vision of their own dignity as human beings, that facilitates those other, more difficult, conversations. It gives them one more ring of defense in case, God forbid, they do face a situation you can’t protect them from. And in the long run, it should help them live an integrated, holistic life, too. This is my theory. I’m the first to admit it’s unproven, but it’s in the testing phase, and so far the indications look good.