My wife and I are planning to have children soon(ish) and perhaps that (in conjunction with our growing concerns of raising a family in an over-sexed society) sparked our conversation about sex ed. My wife brought up the conversation and we began to wonder what the best way to teach children about sex would be. What struck us first was how simple it would be to answer any number of similar questions: what’s the best way to teach your children about crossing the street? Or what’s the best way to teach them about the importance of education? The answer to both questions requires teaching children early and often, even before they are ready to grasp the concepts.
In truth, we teach this way naturally. Just recently, my brother and sister-in-law Heather and Justin watched The Lion King with their three-year-old son, Jasper. After the movie was over, Jasper asked about death, a big theme of the movie, and his parents explained that it was true that all animals eventually die and even all people. This worried Jasper and in perhaps the most piteous moment of his entire three-year-old life he said, “I don’t want to die.” As you might expect, Heather and Justin did their best to assure him that death was not the end. Of course Jasper was not and is not capable of teasing out the life-long mystery of death, and yet his parents taught him truths beyond his understanding all the same, and he will no doubt return to them when new questions and concerns arise.
That is how we teach children. No one waits until their child is finally grown up and ready to learn. If we did, it might be too late. A child must be taught to use the restroom before he can understand the social necessities. A child is able to read long before grasping its importance. A child must be taught to act kindly before she is even capable of thinking beyond her own wants and needs. The learning itself provides the paradigm with which it is later to be appreciated.
But when it comes to sex ed, we are shy about our lessons. We relegate teaching moments to private and planned extravagances. What if that is how we treated street safety? Imagine as your child is about to chase a ball across the street and instead of explaining the deadly consequences, you take a mental note that someday—at the proper time and place—you will have to explain the truth about the cars and the street.
Of course the example is ridiculous. You must address the issue now while it’s before you. You cannot wait for another time. As I talked with my wife we agreed that while our children won’t understand everything we teach, we will still be able to supply them with pieces to the puzzle of life. They don’t have to understand how everything fits together, it’s enough for them to begin to recognize patterns and become familiar with outlines. As almost all parents are endlessly telling me, it’s surprising how much and how fast a child begins to understand.
That’s why we have decided to try and limit how much we simplify sex ed (and all topics) for our children. While dumbing down subjects is sometimes necessary, a child does not learn to speak because everyone is making baby noises. They learn from real conversation. And this is true the whole way to adulthood. If you always talk down to your children, they’ll never learn a higher vocabulary.
Our plan is to begin teaching about sex from infancy much like we explain everything else. It’s for them as well as for us. We want to become comfortable talking about sex and we don’t want our children to feel like we have to take them out to dinner before we can broach the subject.
In short, we look forward to family trips to the zoo. I assume at some point I will have the chance to explain to my son that the male rabbit is putting its penis into the female rabbit’s vagina. It’s what all mammals do to reproduce, including humans. That’s how your Mom and I created you. Of course, human sexuality is much more complex than animal sexuality. Sex is something that is sacred to us. That’s why we don’t talk about it much. And that’s why it’s never okay to touch a woman’s breast or vagina or to let anyone touch your penis until you are an adult and married.
Now, as I write it, the words are still a bit awkward, and perhaps that’s a good thing. We want to maintain a proper respect for the subject. But more than that, we want our children to know what sex is from us and not from sources that glorify or degrade it beyond recognition.
Sex is not simple. It’s relational, it’s dynamic, it’s natural, it’s unnatural, it can be meaningful, it can be degrading. It’s a lot of things. It’s one of the richest and complicated parts of human interaction. When we simplify it to something incredibly wonderful shared between two people who love each other, I fear that we may seem to be in cahoots with pop-cultural depictions of a euphoric, out-of-this world, nirvanaesque experience. There’s a lot to sex and unrestrained pleasure is seldom accurate.
To be clear, our reasons for talking about sex early is not primarily motivated by the popular arguments concerning sex safety—we still believe in abstinence until marriage. Instead, we hope to facilitate a richer and more mature conversation around sexuality. A conversation that is too often stifled to the point of creating unrealistic anticipation, expectation, and eventual dysphoria.
That’s as far as we’ve come in our plan. Please leave any suggestions you might have for us as we are inexperienced—stories and mistakes are also welcomed.