Imagine if we started right off teaching math with algebra, or language arts with reading Shakespeare. It would never happen, right? Kids learn best when taught in an ongoing, increasingly sophisticated spiral of knowledge, starting when they are very young. Yet, when it comes to teaching about sexuality, both families and schools do exactly the opposite.
Worried that children are just not “ready,” or that “too much information too soon” might be harmful, many families and the majority of our schools deliberately postpone teaching children even the basics about body parts and functions until it’s time to talk about puberty. But dumping a big box of saved-up information all at once when kids are missing the building blocks they need to really understand it, would be recognized immediately—were it about any other subject—as a clear case of educational malpractice! Ironically, in the name of (false) “protection,” we end up making kids more vulnerable, not less.
Most worrisome, by puberty, most children have already turned to the default options of friends, peers, older kids and siblings, media, the Internet, and, for a small yet growing number, online pornography, to satisfy their normal curiosity about sexuality, gender, and reproduction. This leaves them with a baseline of misinformation and distorted ideas they’ll only have to “unlearn,” if that’s even possible. Above all, the immediate adults in their lives will have lost the opportunity to become children’s primary—as in first and most important—sexuality educators.
So how do we turn this around?
First, everyone needs to understand and accept that our reluctance to lean into—let alone embrace—children’s natural curiosity is based on misguided anxieties and assumptions about sexual knowledge that are actually centuries old. Decades of research demonstrates that information about sexuality isn’t in any way inherently—or even potentially—harmful. On the contrary, children who grow up in an atmosphere of openness are significantly more likely to make responsible, respectful decisions and know how to protect themselves and others. Knowing doesn’t lead to “doing,” as some adults irrationally fear, but to critical thinking and cautious weighing of options.
Next, we need to remind ourselves that children don’t think like adults. They have their own unique way of thinking about themselves and the world around them. So, for example, when a young child asks—commonly at age four—“Where do babies come from”?, they’re most definitely not asking about grownups having “sex,” as an adult might project. The question arises out of their newfound understanding of time (before, now, later) and the sudden realization that they weren’t always “here,” as inliving with their family, and, therefore, must have been somewhere else before they were “here.” To them it’s merely a question about geography, so the best answer is, “babies grow inside their birth mother in a special place called a uterus or womb,” to which the child will likely say, “Oh.” Usually at age five, when they’re focused on the more sophisticated concept of movement through time and space (otherwise known as transportation), they may be prompted to ask, “How did I get out of there?” (otherwise known as labor and delivery). And at six, newly capable of cause and effect thinking, it may well occur to them to ask, “But how did I get in there in the first place? What caused me?” Again, even these questions aren’t about “sex,” but about the mechanics of sperm and egg and how they come together.
It’s really that simple. Readiness is cognitive, not emotional.
Let’s remind ourselves that good parenting is good parenting is good parenting: the same five things children need from us, as they make the journey from dependence on us to independence from us, is the exact same kind of nurturing they need in order to support healthy sexual development. In other words, we’ve treated sexuality differently than other aspects of parenting, but it’s really the same. Here’s what parents can do.
Give your child affirmation.
More than anything, children and teens need our unconditional love and acceptance for who they are.
Sexuality doesn’t exist on the periphery of children’s lives, it exists within them. For example, the part of the central nervous system responsible for generating sexual feelings is up and running at birth, and during gestation, fetal brain development exerts an influence (not yet fully understood) on the development of gender identity and sexual attraction.
And, once children are born, they attend “sex and gender” school literally every day of their lives. From the very moment of birth, when someone scrutinizes their genitals and proclaims, “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!,” their future in large measure will be determined by family and cultural expectations about what those labels mean.
And remember, just by being a loving and present parent you’re helping your child learn about the joys of physical and emotional intimacy. It’s one of the everyday experiences in a child’s life—like many others— that contribute mightily to healthy sexual and gender development. The more aware we are of these “invisible” influences, the more we can actively shape them.
Be your child’s “go-to“ for information.
The time-honored role of “elders” is to pass on the collective wisdom of the ages. Sexuality is
no different. Establishing ourselves early on as our children’s “go-to” people about all of life’s important issues and challenges, including those connected to sexuality and gender, is more important than any specific information we impart.
Help build your child’s “values vocabulary.”
Without our guidance, young children have no way of knowing what to value. As they grow up, giving them a working “values vocabulary” and teaching them how to apply it to life and relationships is key. The core values that most parents attempt to instill in their children—honesty, respect, responsibility, caring, compassion, fairness, privacy, intimacy, and human dignity—are the exact same values parents say they want their children to bring to any and all sexual situations.
Help your child learn and set limits.
Limits and boundaries are the brackets we place around children and teen’s lives to keep them safe and healthy. The art of parenting—it’s definitely not a science!—is judging when it’s safe to move those boundaries out, at least a little bit, maybe more, and when it’s prudent to leave them firmly in place.
Parents of young children face an endless array of situations related to sexuality and gender that call for limit setting—around everything from nudity, privacy, sexual language, and sexual curiosity; touch, body autonomy, and consent; “gender bending,” toys, clothing, videos, TV shows, pop music; to screen time, Internet use, social media, and cell phones. Quite a list! Use these moments to help your child think through their boundaries and how they know when to set limits for themselves and others.
Be proactive, not reactive.
Little by little, the job of a nurturer is to turn children and teens over to themselves. Raising sturdy, resilient, independent-minded children and teens requires years of anticipatory guidance about decisions they’ll face on their own when parents aren’t around. For example, whenever we decide that our kids are ready to handle a new situation on their own—starting with the day they begin pre-school—we “upfront” lots of information and guidance about what they might experience and how to manage themselves.
And no surprise here--that of course applies equally to sexuality, too.
Find resources to help.
Sometimes we need a little extra help as parents. I've partnered with AMAZE to launch the AMAZE Parent Playlist, which is specifically designed to help parents engage young children (age 4-9) in open, honest conversations about bodies and growing up in a fun, engaging, and age-appropriate way. Videos ranging from “How Do You Talk to Young Kids About Sex” to “Where Do Babies Come From” to “Is Playing Doctor OK?” are designed specifically to guide parents on how best to talk with their children about sex, healthy relationships, and growing up.
Parents are the primary sexuality educators of their kids – and These topics don’t have to be hard—in fact, they can ultimate inform and spark many years of good conversations.