Teaching Babies about Sex

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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.

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13 thoughts on “Teaching Babies about Sex

  1. We had the same plan, introduce nature to the child at appropriate age levels, then compare and contrast–it would work out great. But nature considers the best laid plans of men and giggles. The first child, who was an early verbalizer, explained anatomical correctness to complete strangers, ‘that’s your ‘gina, boys have peanuts,’ and we honed the art of social avoidance and verbal cleansing.

    Then child number two sprung forth, an alien species to number one, and we learned that nature doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Although we weren’t living out on the farm, the animal genius knew the intimate detailed mating habits of all the birds and most of the bees of every phyllum, kingdom and species inside and out. Yet despite our discussions, science-minded nature-child just wasn’t getting it. After years, Dad finally had to be blunt and much more descriptive and I can still hear the shocked response, “And She Lets You?”

    Memories of sex ed. with number three is a fogged blur, and may have involved a booklet and short question/answer period following.

    I can’t wait to read the hindsight 20/20 essay, circa 2020?

    1. Oh yes, I am sure there is much I have simplified and unknowingly glossed over. We will see. Thanks for the stories!

  2. WARNING: This is long. I have four children: 3 girls with a boy being the third. I am a little over a decade into analyzing this topic for myself so perhaps I can save you some time and offer some good food for thought. One reason I am so passionate about this is because I hope to save my children some of the heartache I have suffered.

    I was raised and continue to be a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I was taught early on about the importance of chastity and morality regarding sexual relations and intimacy. My spouse and I did both wait to the honeymoon and though we kissed before dating we did not French kiss or anything else that could lead us into “temptation”. I never experienced arousal of any sort with him before we wed. I am only speaking for myself. I was terrified of sinning. I was terrified that even having sexual feelings aka arousal was sinning and that I would be cast out forever; that the mouth of Hell would swallow me up if I so much as had an impure thought. I have a SIL in the faith who told me she too abstained and it took her quite some time to get over the feelings that it was wrong after marriage. The way the Christian community at large surrounds teachings of chastity in a blanket of fear is wrong and very harmful. I absolutely DO NOT want this for my children, especially my daughters. My husband does not seem to have the inhibitions about sexuality that I somehow gleaned from my church instruction. We girls were taught if we even dressed immodestly we would be tempting the guys to have immoral thoughts which was presumed to be a sin for both sexes. I feel now, knowing what I know, that the teachings were too strict and not open and honest enough. My mother did nothing to help. She constantly complained about sex with my dad and my grandmother told me sex is “all guys want” from girls. Having said all that, I have some ideas about how I hope to teach my children. It is not enough to just tell your child “it’s sacred”. They need to know WHY. For me, there’s at least a couple reasons.

    1. Sex is divinely appointed for procreation. In kid terms divine means “from God” and procreation is the creation of a LIFE, the body of which grows inside the mother. I ask my kids to consider why its important that two people create a LIFE within marriage? The basic answer is this: that a child is ENTITLED to a father AND a mother who are in a committed relationship (in God’s eyes this is marriage) of love and respect. This is HIS plan…that we live in family units as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. Period. When a kid is asked to think about what it would be like if mom or dad was going it alone it affects them. How sad and scary would it be if we were all alone on this Earth without a family to surround us with adventures, aggravations, and all the rest that come with living together? I tell them that there is one WHOLLY DIVINE characteristic we share PERFECTLY with God: the ability to CREATE LIFE, just as HE did when He created the Earth and all things on the Earth, including mankind. That is HUGE and AMAZING and we should be honored, in awe and do all we can to protect that power He has entrusted us with. And that characteristic requires boundaries (in kid language: rules) to protect it and ensure that it happens in the optimum conditions and so that a child has the BEST chance at happiness and safety. I have also asked my children to consider that the children they bring into this world are MY grandchildren. How will I feel about my grandchildren? How do you think your grandma or grandpa feels about you? How will I feel if one of my children brings a child into this world prematurely and its best chance for happiness is adoption into another family so that the child will have two mature and stable married parents? How will I feel to know someone else outside our family is raising my grandchild? I have told my older children that adoption is a consequence of bearing a child prematurely. [Of course it is a blessing to someone else and God bless the mother’s and father’s who have both made the difficult to give that gift and those who have accepted the gift.]

    2. Abstaining from sex is not to torture us. It is a sign of RESPECT. It shows respect for our bodies but mostly for our partners body, which is our temple that God has given for us to use in this earthly life. If your partner pressures you then this is not someone you would want to be yoked to for life because if they cannot respect your boundaries now, they will not respect them later. The same goes for you and treatment towards someone else. Most people desire to find a trustworthy, safe relationship where they feel accepted in love and respect. In addition, if a person is willing to wait it shows something in their character akin to commitment. Two people will make a commitment to abstain out of respect but if they are willing to make a lifelong commitment of marriage to someone who they have not physically “test driven” yet this shows a strength of character. It says to their partner that “I choose you even though I do not yet know all of you”. It also is a peek into a person’s ability to demonstrate faith. We all know that faith is imperative to marriage. I am not just talking about Godly faith. I am talking about the ability to have faith in this person you intend to yoke yourself too for life! It sets up a precedent for a deeper commitment and this produces the optimum environment/foundation for a lasting marriage. It is not a guarantee (which some people are mislead to believe, as I was before marriage schooled me) but it is the BEST foundation. Everyone wants the absolute best chance to succeed in marriage because it is such a weighty life decision and this sort of commitment is the formula for it. One thing I would ask a young man is to consider the burden on a young woman’s body if she conceives by him? Consider all that pregnancy involves for her and the sacrifice she would make for his child? He certainly will not have go through that. Abstaining is the only 100% sure way he can respect her and prevent her from making this bodily sacrifice before she is ready and physically mature enough.

    I also intend to teach my children not to fear the feelings of arousal. There is nothing sinful in becoming aroused. Arousal is a natural physical reaction which draws us towards being able to accomplish the act in the most comfortable and pleasurable way. If we did not feel aroused we would not succeed very well. Before marriage arousal serves two purposes (in my mind). The first is to give us a clue that this is someone we are physically compatible with, which we all know is important for a content marriage. The second purpose is as a warning. If you feel arousal during kissing or any other physical touch then it is a warning to stop. It is a warning that temptation can arise to break the rules of chastity. Of course, the church teaches to avoid certain physical touches but they do not explain WHY! They say “no necking, no touching under the clothes or underwear, use caution when kissing, no petting” but they do not say that it is to avoid arousal, which arousal leads to experimentation and temptation.

    There are two caveats I would like to leave with you in closing. The first is that there are definitely parts of these teachings that are more appropriate for certain ages. You are right in your thinking of comparing teaching sexuality and sex as a puzzle and you give them a piece at a time as it is appropriate. You are correct that it is a many years long conversation. Please remember this: children are primarily self aware until around the age of 10-12. This means when you tell your kid what you are feeling because of some action they don’t get it. They only know how THEY feel. They cannot comprehend your feelings very easily. God made them this way to protect them. Its like a defense mechanism. So keep that in mind when you are asking them questions and save some of the deeper thoughts regarding adoption, ect. for later.

    The other caveat is that we tend, as Christians, to minimize or overlook the principle of repentance too much. We focus a lot on the sins and preventing and avoiding sin and ignore repentance. Our children need to understand more fully this principle from a younger age. This prevents all these fears of sinning and the guilty, self-consuming perfectionism that so many Christians end up CRIPPLED by. We fear that if we teach repentance kids will think they have license to sin. We need to consider very carefully how we teach our children about the price Christ paid for their life and their sins so that they understand that they ALREADY are HIS. He already accomplished the task. But they must learn to use it. We have to teach our children HOW to get and keep a relationship with God. They learn very much by example but it is not enough. Here are a couple excellent articles about teaching these things to children that I have found so helpful: http://www.ldsfacts.net/justfun98.htm https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/the-music-of-the-gospel?lang=eng

    I hope you find my lengthy thoughts worthwhile; a decade of thoughts for children and still a work in progress. God Bless. Sincerely, JS

    1. Thanks for your very thorough comment. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to formulate it. I also appreciate your perspective and experience. I agree with you when you say that often christian paradigms have created unhealthy relationships with sex. Other paradigms have been equally flawed. It is as easy to glorify sex as it is to condemn it. And sometimes it’s hard to know where to come down. We seem to do both fairly often. Thanks again!

      1. My favorite resources that I discovered in ,y gospel library app: answers to prayers. Parents Guide helps navigate talking about family life with your kids at each age/stage and Strengthening the Family Lesson Book is the best parenting book to me. SO useful, and I hadn’t even heard of these 2 resources. :):)

  3. Thanks for this excellent article. In my growing up, sex was a secret, unspoken thing. I had one friend, though who seemed to know a lot and she would help some of us understand; it seemed horrible! I also had a friend whose family was very socially successful and very “worldly.” When I told her my mother was expecting another baby, she replied: “Why does she have so many children? Do your parents just like to “do it!?” I knew this was wrong and replied: “No,
    they love children!” That to me was all that mattered and I knew that was true. I never dared to mention any of this to my parents until after I was married and had children. Then we all laughed about my friend’s stupid comment.

    I had wonderful parents, but I was not prepared for things sexual and marvel that I could have been so naive and still
    get to 21 without some serious problems. In the Blair household, at least for our older children, I had a biology book which I left in the bathroom that had an excellent chapter on Sex and Reproduction. Several of my children asked if
    I knew that this book was being read. I did! It was scientific and interesting and they all read it.

  4. My children are still young so as far as speaking to them when the time comes for actual sexual relationships I’m still preparing. But for my kids, 8 and younger I have always used anatomically correct words and pretty much if they are asking about it they are ready for some kind of answer and I never wanted to distract or ignore their natural curiosity. I give them an answer, simplified to some degree depending on age and if they ask more questions we go on in the conversation til they are satisfied.

    It can be uncomfortable the first time your child says penis or vagina or breasts in public but really that’s an emotional reaction for the person feeling uncomfortable to work out. A child, especially a young child is purely innocent in their curiosity and will use the words they’ve been taught to describe what they are seeing and shouldn’t be hushed and made to feel like they’ve said something wrong.

    Anyway, the advice given to me of answering their questions, has worked well for me. And I like using the correct words for our body, even though they are our private areas that are used to create life and express love they are still in fact body parts and no one gets upset when someone says “my knee hurts.” 🙂

    A nice little story, since I’m pregnant currently I have had lots of opportunities to talk about how babies grow and how they come to be and have showed my kids some really neat computer animated films of what it looks like from conception and the growing baby. It doesn’t show the sex happening but starts with the sperm swimming up to enter the egg and on and on. But my understand that my husband and I both have a part that makes a baby, the egg and sperm. My oldest 6 year old son thanked God in his prayer just last week that “Daddy has the parts to make a baby with Mommy.”

    So sweet and innocent and their knowledge will grow as their curiosity grows and details will come when they are ready to ask about them, my main goal is building a comfortable environment for them to ask questions. Like I said though, mine are still young but it’s working well so far.

    1. What a great story! Made me laugh. Thanks for sharing. I think you’re exactly right when you say our main goal should be to create a, “comfortable environment for them to ask questions.”

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