What Not To Tell A Child About Sex

For several decades, “modern” parents have tried to give their children all the facts about sex, honestly and forthrightly, as casually as if they were talking about arithmetic. Has it worked?

It is hard to find evidence that the current generation is a whit wiser in any more profound and meaningful sense than were the generations of the past. Nor have we learned to take care of the very problems that’s ex information might be expected to solve. Illegitimacy rates have risen markedly in recent years; the number of children found suffering from deep emotional damage is on the increase; innumerable surveys show that young people are desperately uneasy and uncertain about how they should behave with one another.

Can it be, then, that there is something wrong with our basic premise that information is the answer? A number of thoughtful people now believe that this wrong. They believe that while the facts are necessary and important, they are no cure-all, and that we should stop our exclusive concentration on what we tell our children about sex, and start paying some attention to how we tell them. Troubled by the results of our twentieth-century bluntness, psychologists increasingly emphasize four don’ts for parents.

Don’t tell the story of sex matter-of-factly, as if you were talking about the weather. Why should we be “scientific” and detached about something that we don’t feel in the least detached about ourselves? When we pretend that we have no feelings about the subject, what else can our children think but that it’s a subject unrelated to feeling? Naturally we find it difficult to talk about sex as if it were nothing special. It is special. No subject in the world is more sensitive and more laden with emotion.

Don’t tell children too much too soon. Children aren’t alike. While three-year-old Johnny is plying his mother with questions, it may turn out that Bobby, at the same age, couldn’t care less. Moreover, adults are often astonished to discover that the child didn’t understand at all what to them seemed so clear. They forget how strange the information is, and how little experience children have with which to receive it. Mrs. Selma Fraiberg, child psychotherapist, has told of a six-year-old boy who planted a package of cucumber seeds beside a phone “so’s me and Polly can have a baby next summer.” And his parents had been so explicit!

But even if the child could understand, would this mean that he should have it all at once? “The modern child is often jaded at fourteen,” says the distinguished child psychiatrist Dr. Hilde Bruch. “He knows so much, he has nothing to wait for. Parents should leave a child something to find out, to learn about when the time comes, so that he may have sense of the miraculous and joyous instead of merely an anxious curiosity.”

No doubt it is good thing to know the human anatomy. No one can deny that we are physical creatures. But we are a great deal more than that. Love between a man and a woman is – and always will be, one hopes – a matter of the heart and spirit, and no chart has been invented which can teach that. Answer your child’s questions, but don’t use every passing query as a springboard for telling him all you think he will ever need to know. When three-year-old Lucy asks where babies come from, ask her to tell you where she thinks they come from. Then you’ll be less likely to tangle your fact with her fantasy, and you’ll know better how much fact is needed.

Don’t violate your own privacy. So hectored have parents been by the demand that they be “frank” that many have transgressed their own natural feelings of modesty in the name of sex education. One “enlightened” mother was upset because she didn’t feel comfortable when nude in front of her children. A father was disturbed because his four-year-old daughter wanted to watch him at the toilet. He felt he should satisfy her curiosity but admitted that he didn’t want to. Many psychiatrists today feel that such “immodest” behaviour is unwise and possibly dangerous. Often it arouses a premature erotic interest, and may also produce a serious conflict in the child who senses that his parents aren’t behaving naturally. Parents should stop feeling that there ought to be no secrets between themselves and their children.

Don’t think of sex education as a cataloguing of dangers. To be sure, there are warnings that we must give our children. But let’s keep them as few as possible, lest we make our children as mistrustful of beauty and tenderness as our Victorian forebears were of the physical aspects of love. Sex is not primarily a pitfall, but one of life’s great joys. What fun it seems when we first take child to see the zoo, or when he first see snow falling! Couldn’t it seem the same when we first tell him about the miracles of birth and love? The truth is that a child may get a better sex education from parents who never once open their mouths on the subject but who clearly love each other and are sensitive to the rights and dignity of others, than from all the textbooks and anatomical information in the world.

A child learns best about sex from parents who love him and each other and are considerate of each other. He learns about it when he is taught to communicate his feelings to those he loves, when he is given the chance to exercise tenderness towards what is small and dependent, when he is taught to respect the reserves and the longings of another person, when he learns that discipline and self-control are part of the search for everything we treasure. A wise old neighbour of mine said once, “Colts and young ones – they learn best in a green field.”

We’ll be wise to give our children more of the green fields of life, fewer of its clinical facts. We’ll be wise to let them approach the wonder of sex gradually, for the best things in life always come to meet us little by little, as we grow in wisdom to understand them.