Saying "don’t" is not enough when talking to children about sex.
Imagine attending a dance class focused entirely on what steps not to do. It would only create questions and confusion. It is definitely important to teach children to avoid mistakes, but it is equally importantly to teach them what healthy sexuality is, so they will know how to create a healthy marriage later in life.
Scientific studies have clearly demonstrated that children who understand their bodies and are lovingly guided to understand the physical and emotional facts about human sexuality make better, healthier relationship choices.
Dr. Mark Kim Malan, Ph.D, MPH, DACS, a board certified clinical sexologist and sex therapist practicing in Utah, has found clinical evidence that many Utah children are not being prepared for marriage and sexuality in a healthy way. He believes parental sexual ignorance and cultural shame about their own sexuality often gets emotionally passed on to children. This often contributes to sexual dysfunction when they get married. A sexually dysfunctional marriage is very difficult to cope with. It can lead to divorce. Sex-starved spouses often turn to dysfunctional coping strategies rather than lose their kids and family.
Utah ranks No. 1 in subscriptions to pornography, says Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard professor who tracked subscriptions and published his findings in the article “Red Light States, who buys online adult entertainment” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
“Where you have a culture that is known for family values, morality and apple pie, you will also have curiosity and interest in the forbidden,” said Theresa Martinez, a professor of sociology at the University of Utah.
It is possible many people have turned to unhealthy sources like pornography because they haven’t received enough information about healthy sexual relationships from their parents?
Malan said there is much more parents can do to teach their children about sexuality. They could better prepare them for a healthy marriage, while still teaching them to have healthy sexual boundaries. He recommends the following tips for parents:
1. Be a healthy role model. Before parents can teach their children how to be sexually healthy, parents must make sure they have a positive attitude about sex. Children learn more from what parents do than what they say. Parents who hold hands, cuddle, kiss and who tell each other “I love you” model healthy love and sexuality for their kids. If parents feel uncomfortable showing affection or think they may have a sexually unhealthy marriage, they may need professional help.
2. Use a child’s questions as learning opportunities. The best teaching moments happen when kids are curious. Simple factual answers delivered with a positive and caring attitude are all that’s needed. Children need emotionally safe and caring parents who are approachable about sex. Kids won’t ask questions if they know their parents are uncomfortable or overly moralistic about the answers. The love parents express in their answers is as important as the facts they share. Always relating sex to love helps children form positive sexual values. Help them to understand that sex is a beautiful expression of love for a husband or wife.
3. Answer questions accurately. When they ask about why girls bodies are different than boys, explain that it is mostly so children can be born. It takes both a mom and a dad to create life and love and nurture it. The inevitable “Why?” that follows is an opportunity to explain the beauty of love between two people and their natural joyful connection that creates the desire to have a family. Then follow with, “How do you feel about that?” This opens the door for an emotional and supportive connection.
Children are fascinated by the miraculous story about how human seeds in our bodies grow life, just like other plants and animals. Children will see the reproductive process as magical and loving, if parents exude that same attitude as well.
Parents should prepare themselves for questions beforehand by reading books about sexual health written for children like “Belly Buttons are Navels,” “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “It’s So Amazing” or NOVA’s “Miracle of Life.” Parents should read them first so they can decide if they want to read a book with them or simply verbalize information in a way that fits their personal values.
4. Nurture self worth. Sexual health begins with a healthy body image. Children need to be able to name all the parts of their body correctly and see them as beautiful and nothing to be ashamed of. Children need to know they are “good” and their bodies are “good.” There should be no “naughty” parts. Little children have no natural body shame. Being undressed is not sexual to them. Don’t “scrub” the fun out of bath time or rob them of their innocence by over-attention to their genital touching that unnecessarily and negatively sexualizes their bodies.
5. Never shame. Humans have pleasurable genital feelings from birth. Children must feel safe to explore and accept their bodies and sexual feelings in order to function as healthy adults. Small children will naturally discover that their genitals give them pleasure regardless of any parental supervision. Telling them not to touch their genitals backfires (they will anyway) and is psychologically unhealthy. This only instills guilt and shame, which can later lead to dysfunction.
Instead, acknowledge the joy of feeling these good feelings in a positive way by teaching them about privacy, personal sexual boundaries and the value of sharing this special pleasure with the person they love and marry when they grow up.
When children make inevitable mistakes, help them understand mistakes are teachers and guide them to better decision making by acknowledging the natural consequences of their behavior and exploring healthier alternatives.
6. Innocence not ignorance. Knowledge prepares children to make healthy choices. Childhood ignorance about our bodies and lack of understanding about sexual feelings can lead to adult sexual dysfunction. No one can be healthy who is uninformed or feels guilty or shameful about his or her bodies. Studies confirm that children who receive unconditional love and acceptance from parents form healthy psychological and sexual self-worth.
7. Waiting until a child is a teenager to talk about sex is too late. By the teenage years many incorrect ideas about sexuality have already been developed. Parents in this position need to be open about sexuality and create a safe place where teenagers can talk about their feelings, questions, and insecurities. Teenagers won’t be embarrassed to talk about sex if mom and dad aren’t either. This instills confidence that his parents are a wise and caring resource.
If parents have not handled talking about sexuality with their children in a positive way before now, the most effective thing they can do is have a heart-to-heart talk and apologize for their lack of sexual knowledge or underdeveloped attitudes and give their child permission to become sexually healthy anyway. Parents can also become a better role model by exemplifying healthier sexual attitudes in their own marriage. Even the adult children will notice the difference.
A note from Malan: If any of these suggestions make you feel like a “fish out of water” or uncomfortable, it may be a good idea to learn more about sexuality and parenting. Your parents may not have given you a healthy sexual education because they didn’t have it to give. Parents can break the unhealthy cycle. They can re-parent and learn to be honest and helpful to their children. Their future relationships are in your hands.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.