Many children these days probably know more about sex than their parents did at the same age. We live in a sexualised society, where young people are constantly being bombarded with messages, images, information and misinformation of a sexual nature. Parents, teachers, carers need to supplement (nuetralise/dilute) this overload with good, clear, factual, age and stage appropriate information; presented in an atmosphere of openness and honesty and support.
But when should sexual education start? Honestly, the earlier the better; children are naturally curious, they absorb everything that is happening around them, they ask questions, they touch and taste and smell everything within their reach. Parents and carers can use this instinctive curiosity to introduce information to even young babies, in a safe and supportive environment. “The ways in which a mother and/or father respond to their child, the sound of their voices, the odour of their bodies, the touch of their skin, are all factors in the development of a child’s sexual attitudes and behavior.” The toys provided help shape gender expectations, the words adults use for body parts and functions can teach about values, tone of voice, displays of affection or hostility are all being observed and absorbed. Children learn about relationships by watching the people around them.
Many parents wonder how much information to give. Children take in what they want and need to learn, and disregard information that is irrelevant to them. We can’t make children listen or learn, so a great idea is to be guided by their natural curiosity. Answer any question a child may ask in simple, clear, language. Don’t embellish or anticipate what they may ask next. When answering children’s questions it’s always helpful to give the answer in a number of ways, use different words or examples. Ask questions yourself – to check that you have interpreted the question correctly. Sometimes a question is not what it seems; it may be a way for a child to see how willing you are to talk about sex-related issues, it may be that they have heard some information and they are checking its authenticity; they may be gauging your values about a certain topic. Treat all questions with respect – and if your child doesn’t ask use TEACHABLE MOMENTS to start a conversation. (Watching TV or a movie, walking down a particular aisle in the supermarket, discussing an item on the news, announcing a friend’s pregnancy, bath time). And don’t assume that one discussion or one explanation is enough. Talk often but listen more.
For many adults answering a child’s questions about sexuality can be an embarrassing and confronting experience.
There is no right or wrong way to go about it, but these tips might help.
- Start early, before your child is aware of the taboos around discussions of sex and bodies.
- Establish a trustful relationship and encourage communication.
- Be honest about your feelings. “This is difficult for me”. I’m actually feeling a bit embarrassed as we talk about this”.
- Be honest about the extent of your knowledge – if you don’t know, say so! Be prepared to do some research, maybe together with your child.
- Be aware of your own values, but willing to respect your child’s views.
- Reassure young people that they are normal – and so are their questions, thoughts and feelings.
- Respect their privacy; don’t disclose confidential discussions and information to others.
- Practice what you might want to say about “difficult issues”.
- Promote decision making skills and responsible behaviours from a young age.
- And again….Answer questions simply and directly. Give factual, honest, short and simple answers.