From day one, one of the most intimidating things about parenthood for me has been how to teach my children sexual morality. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. As with every area of parenting, we think about the way we were raised—what worked, what didn’t—and we try to imitate and improve. Of course, what works and what doesn’t is different from child to child within a family, but I’d like to propose a general first step:
Begin by speaking of the human body with respect.
I got to thinking about this at Christmastime, when my sister and her husband shared that their son, a second grader, has recently brought home a fit of the giggles about the word “booby.” Now, we all went through this. Somebody says something at school, you don’t know what it means, or you have a vague idea but not a clear understanding, and it becomes a source of hilarity because you know, instinctively, that it’s a taboo subject. Anything related to the body—whether it’s excretory or sexual in nature—falls under this heading. It happened to me; it happened to you; I feel safe saying it’s fairly universal human experience among children who attend school.
The problem is that then our first lesson in human sexuality is one that turns the body and its most miraculous function into something dirty, something to be giggled about in private, and never really understood.
When I heard that story from my sister, I realized that before long, it’s going to happen to my son, too. And I started wondering how to head it off. That’s when I realized:
The only way to get ahead of this is to start talking about the body frankly and respectfully from day one.
I was working in the Church when the sex abuse scandal hit the fan. Because I worked with school children, I was required to do “Virtus” training. They presented the idea that we should use body terminology with children. We should get them used to the words “penis” and “vagina,” and stop shrouding those parts of our bodies in undignified terms like “wee wee.” We shouldn’t
be embarrassed to name the parts of our bodies; our bodies and all their functions are holy. If children’s first lessons in sex consist of dirty jokes and embarrassed giggles, how can we be surprised at the corruptions that ensue in adolescence and adulthood? They’ve laid down a film of disrespect for the physical human person, and all the healthy layers we try to put down on top can’t overcome a shaky foundation.
Christian has always understood this instinctively. He banned the word “boobs” from our house, because it has this connotation of disrespect. If you’re going to talk about a woman’s breasts, say breasts, he says. It’s more respectful of the woman.
Kids need to be introduced to human sexuality the same way they are introduced to everything else: one tiny piece at a time, beginning in early childhood. For a very long time, I resisted the idea that we should be doing sex ed in early childhood. But as time passes, I recognize the wisdom of it. If we wait until a girl gets her period to give her any sense of her own sexuality, then the first associations she has with the subject are wrapped up in awkwardness and self-disgust.
The concepts of abstinence, of the sexual act being something reserved to marriage, and so on—these concepts are built upon a foundation of respect, and if we wait till puberty to teach them, we’ve missed the boat. By then, kids’ attitudes are already half-formed. Cloak the human body in dignity, not in giggle-worthy slang, and you lay the foundation for children who have a healthy attitude toward sexuality—and toward the opposite sex.
It’s not a total solution, but it’s a place to start.