Today sex is a familiar term to children and adults alike. Sex-Ed is even part of a child's health curriculum at school. Parents may not find it much easier today to answer their child's questions about sex honestly and comfortably but they do have help.
Sex-Ed is short for sexuality education. Our sexuality encompasses all that makes us male or female - physical, social, emotional, cultural and ethical dimensions of sex and gender. The World Health Organization states that "Sexuality influences thoughts, feelings, actions and interventions and thereby our physical and mental health. Since health is a fundamental right so sexual health is also a basic human right".
It is helpful for parents to recognise that they are their child's first and most important teachers of sexuality. Sexuality education begins at birth in the way a parent responds to the new born baby. Girl babies are usually touched more often and more gently than boy babies. Girl babies are dressed in pretty clothes and given soft toys while boy babies are encouraged to be active and have noisy bright toys. Even in the first year of life, an infant gets many messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl. There are many differences between a male and a female. Some are biological and certainly the physical differences are obvious. The more subtle ones are those differences associated with hormone and brain activity that influence sexual development and behaviour. Also, society creates expectations for males and females, and parents generally socialize their son or daughter according to these accepted norms of behaviour. Social values are expressed through religious and cultural teachings and accepted behaviours and lifestyles.
During the second year of life, a child will be able to identify himself or herself as a boy or a girl but not understand many of the differences between the sexes.
As a toddler learns the names of the body parts, the words parents use for the genitals (vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum) tell about their comfort level with sexual body parts. It would seem silly to call a nose a 'sniff-sniff' yet parents often do this with the private parts of the body and this is very confusing for children. Curiosity about their bodies is normal for young children and they are just as curious about their genitals as they are about their hands or feet.
A young child continues to learn about sexuality in many ways. Watching the different ways parents relate to each other and how family members express feelings tell a lot. Also the roles of mother (female) and father (male) show children what is expected of them. By age five, children are aware of what it means to be male or female in the family. Family values and beliefs guide their everyday lives and help children in making decisions.
A child continues to learn through interactions with other children and adults in school, church and community. As well, many messages come through a variety of media such as magazines, newspapers, TV, movies, videos and now, the Internet. The manner in which sex is used in the media can be confusing to a child. Sex is used extensively to sell, to promote, to create interest or as a story line. In our society where many people do not talk openly about sexuality, this delivers a message of do it but don't talk about it.
Parents play a very significant role during the early years in helping their children grow up to become sexually healthy and responsible adults. There are many ways to do this but one of the most important is to be an ‘askable parent.’ This means encouraging children to ask questions at home and giving them simple but honest answers that reflect your family values. There are age appropriate books that you and your children can read together. Many parents find books particularly helpful when they did not have these kinds of discussions with their parents or are unsure of what to say. Remember that children have a natural curiosity and do not carry the emotional baggage about sexuality that influences you as an adult. Their questions usually come from a simple and honest desire to understand about themselves.
Sex education classes in school are another way children learn about themselves as sexual persons. Parents can find out what is being taught at their children's grade levels and take time to talk at home, again encouraging children to ask questions about what has been discussed at school. In responding, parents can say "In this family we................" which allows them to share their religious and cultural beliefs and family values.
Parents are sometimes concerned a teacher or another student will say something that will be a negative influence on their children. In reality, compared with all other courses, Sex-Ed provides very limited classroom instruction time. Children can balance what they learn in class with what they learn at home over many years as part of a family. This is another reason why discussion in the home is so valuable.
Just as talking about sex in the early years may seem difficult at first, dealing with the adolescent years can be very challenging for parents. This is a new and important learning phase. The adolescent years are a time of searching and growing, as young people start to understand their evolving role as an adult. Parents should find it helpful to know that the beliefs and values they have shared with their children since birth remain with the adolescents. However, these are under scrutiny as shown in the way teens become critical of self, family and society. This is a process by which adolescents figure out what is important in their lives and what they will hold as their own beliefs and values as young adults. Parents should listen and gently repeat their beliefs and values to be helpful at this time. Parents, accepting a role of supporting not controlling, will assist their adolescent children to become healthy responsible individuals who will not be unduly influenced by others.
Some of the more significant issues your children will deal with in adolescence are related to puberty. The changes that start on average at about age 10 for girls and age 12 for boys (earlier or later than this is normal) can be confusing for both a child and parent alike. The physical changes that occur over three to four years change the body from that of a child to a young adult. The psychological changes take longer as the child begins to understand and prepare for a role as an adult.
In adolescence, peers become very important and sometimes seem to be more important than family. There is an awakening sexual interest and boyfriends and girlfriends may come onto the scene. Setting limits and keeping the lines of communication open during these years is a challenge. Parents should respect the need of adolescents to become more and more independent over the next few years. Although young people want to be independent, parents can best assess when their children are ready to handle the responsibility that goes along with these independent behaviours.
Adolescents need to learn they now have many new factors in their lives. All behaviours have consequences and at this age some behaviours can have a significant impact on their future plans. An unplanned pregnancy, an untreated sexually transmitted disease causing infertility, an HIV infection or the beginnings of substance abuse can create a very different world from the one a young person idealized for the future. Talking about new responsibilities in a caring, non-threatening manner helps adolescents realize and accept the need to make healthy, informed decisions.
The school curriculum can assist by providing factual updated information -something many of today's adults did not have the opportunity to learn until much later. Encourage your teens to get information available at school on topics such as reproduction, birth control and sexually transmitted disease. Often a teacher will invite professionals (doctors, nurses, health educators) to speak with students on such topics.
Also in the higher grades, classes can provide teens with a forum for discussion about themselves as they mature and about relationships as they start to be naturally interested in the opposite sex. These are useful in helping your teens understand how to keep sexually healthy and the complexities of relationships. When young men and woman talk together in a classroom it can help dispel myths and stereotypes about the opposite sex and encourage conversations about responsibility that can continue in individual relationships. Parents can also encourage these types of discussions in the home.
Difficult topics such as masturbation and homosexuality will come up if you are an ‘askable parent.’ Recognize you may feel discomfort as an adult not having had the opportunity to talk about and explore your own values in these areas. You can use this as a wonderful learning opportunity for yourself and your children by saying “I don't understand some things but let’s keep talking and maybe get a book from the library to learn more about it.” Family doctors, public health nurses and community agencies are also sources of information.
As your adolescents finish high school, and go on to further education or get jobs, your parenting role changes. As independent young adults, your children will be making decisions in life. For the last 18 to 20 years, you have been preparing your children for this time. Learning about being a sexual person means these young adults can be healthy responsible individuals who understand and treasure intimacy.