Teaching a Healthy Sexuality to Our Children

Sexuality and gender identity-based cultures

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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

Eugen de Blaas: The Flirtation

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.

14 thoughts on “Teaching a Healthy Sexuality to Our Children

  1. Sarah Kolath

    Thanks, Kate. I’ve always agreed about the early introduction and using correct terminology! I hate to hrear little girls and kids saying booby especially! Although I do have to check myself every now and again to make sure I say breasts!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more! And what bothers me the most is how negatively pubescent girls talk about their own bodies… no wonder we grow up with self-image problems!
    “I’m on the rag” is a vile way of referring to a period, even though I’ll acquiesce that rags were originally used. Most young girls wouldn’t look at it that way. It just sounds dirty.

    It’s true that boys will never learn respect for girls, and vise versa, if periods and ejaculations are shrouded in mystery or repulsive jokes.

    I just recently had to discuss toddler erections with my 8-year-old daughter, because she laughed wickedly when I changed her brother’s diaper. I hope she understands normal bodily functions a bit better now. 😛

  3. Amen!! My parents taught me real words and answered all my questions from the very beginning, so I grew up looking forward to puberty, sex, pregnancy, and childbirth instead of feeling frightened or disgusted by them.

    My son went to a childcare/preschool with a very good rule: “We do not talk about private parts or bathroom activities outside the bathroom because that’s not polite. But we can talk about these things in the bathroom.” That cut down a lot on the giggly shock-value stuff. It did mean that he and I wound up discussing circumcision in a PUBLIC restroom, which was not my ideal, but nobody else was in there and it was a lot better than most other public places!

  4. Those of us who are adults are going to have to overcome an aversion to speaking on these topics frankly, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that when things are shrouded in secrecy and taboo, they fester into unhealthy attitudes. (Thus also my no-holds-barred infertility series. 🙂 )

  5. I’m a bit late commenting, but I agree wholeheartedly. Our pediatrician seemed surprised that I referred to our son’s penis as………..a penis. He said, “Oh, do you use the actual names of genital parts with your children?” and I said, “Yes. We’ve never called them anything different. I want my children to know what their body parts are called.”

    he shrugged and of course seemed fine with it, just surprised. So I guess he doesn’t see that too often…which I think is kind of sad.

  6. I took my youngest to the doctor once because she said her vulva hurt and the doctor made her repeat herself a couple of times because she didn’t understand what my daughter was speaking of, but once she did, she said she was glad we used proper terms.

  7. evanscove

    Excellent points. It’s been my observation that a lot of Christians, in their desire to protect the sanctity of the body and sexuality (as well as shield their kids from things that could corrupt their sexual morals), unfortunately end up going to ridiculous extremes. What they often do is surround our sexuality with outright embarrassment and taboos. And that’s really what it comes down to much of the time: they’ve become ashamed to discuss it. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine (this was when we were in either very late adolescence or early adulthood) and he said the word “sex” but then immediately apologized for saying it. When I asked why he felt he needed to apologize for that, he said that in his family (very conservative Protestants) you would get slapped for saying the word “sex”! So instead of honoring our sexuality, some people take measures that actually treat our sexuality as something inherently shameful.

    I’m glad to see you discussing this so frankly, and I like the steps you and your husband have taken.


  8. Well written, Kathleen. I’ve done my best to make sex discussions with my son a regular thing since he was young. Frankly, it bugs me when moms avoid saying penis when they have to refer to their son’s penis. I think that “Pee pee,” “Wee wee,” “Thingy,” and such are belittling. I can’t help but think it promotes the notion that mom doesn’t have much respect for the son’s stature as a sexual being. That might just foster in him the posture of “I’ll show you!”

    By the way, I think my over-protective parents with their too-late and too-infrequent sexual information may have contributed to a decades-long obsession with masturbation and such. My blog is devoted to my victory over those problems.


  9. Paula

    Yeah Kathleen! With 4 girls we try to do our best. Always used correct terms for our bodies. My oldest, soon to be 10 year old, looked down yesterday and said “mom what’s this hard bump under my nipple?” my face went white, my baby is growing up and getting her breasts! After feeling so sad for about 5 minutes that she was growing up I decided to now embrace her and her changes and be so excited for her. But my mind is reeling with what comes next and how to prepare her (and me)! So do you have any good recommendations for catholic books that I can read for this next phase in her life? Thanks for all you help and for keeping us mother’s strong for families!

    • Paula, I’m sorry to say I have no idea about books. To be honest, I’ve thought about writing the book myself. But I think I’ll have to wait until I raise my kids before I start setting myself up as expert. 🙂 Unless I can draw on all you wonderful people to help! In the meantime, my only suggestion is to look for the teachable moments: keep it short and simple, so that it’s a natural part of the fabric of life and not something we introduce with fanfare and trumpets (or, just as bad, a closed door!). I really think that’s the key. Making it oh so ordinary that kids will look blankly at everyone else and say, “Are you crazy?” because what they’ve been taught is so central to their identity that they’ve never even thought there could BE another way.

  10. marly

    Well, I must confess; I am one of those parents whom ya’ll have spoke of. I grew up in a *sexually* dysfuncional environment. And therefore have been absolutely terrified to mention anything about body parts, etc. for fear of somehow damaging my children by mentioning those things at an early age. After reading all of your posts I realize that it is the right way to *go at it*. My oldest is 11 and my youngest is 4. I am at a total loss as to how to talk to them about this stuff. I have tried teaching them that their bodies are a gift from God. And also, do not like them to use terms like “boobies” because it is disrespectful to a womans body. But I haven’t taught them the proper terms either (out of fear). I feel like I need a book or guide of some sort to help me say the right things. I am so afraid of saying the wrong thing. Anyone have any suggestions?

    • CAVEAT! I am hardly an expert. However, here’s a thought:

      I think the important point is to start small and “organic,” aiming for the 4-year-old, and not making a big deal of it. Maybe that way you can teach the older children in a roundabout way, by telling THEM how to teach their siblings. They might not, then, realize that they also are being taught. You definitely have reason to be paranoid, based on your background–for which I am so very sorry! I will say that I have had to outgrow some misunderstandings and hangups about sexual matters, though nothing like yours. I only bring it up because for me to teach my children a healthy sexuality, I have had/am having to learn a better attitude myself. Maybe that’s helpful to know?

  11. marly

    Yes, I need to change my attitude as well. I have to start with me. I am uncomfotable even calling our sexual *body parts* by their real names. So naturally I will struggle with teaching my children. I guess that’s a good place to start? Thanks for your reply =)

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