Teaching kids about sex (other than through 'the talk')

Continuing the discussion from Pornographic Adventure Time parody:

This is actually a topic I’ve been thinking about recently, as I have a 5 year old son and a 2 year old daughter, both of whom will need to learn about important issues related to sex. Traditionally there’s been a lot of focus on ‘the sex talk’ or sex ed, which seems to carry some assumption that educating kids on the theory will go a long way toward encouraging good practice. This doesn’t really work well in other topics, as many kids learn more from practice than theory. Obviously I want my kids to learn about sex without making too many mistakes in the process (thereby damaging their lives and the lives of those around them), but hands-on learning is a bit more problematic when it comes to sex, while at the same time being relevant to more people’s lives than most other topics they learn in school. However, I think there is a lot of crossover between the lessons kids learn in daily life and the things they will need to know in the future.

We’ve been developing a few principles for teaching our own kids, with the overriding principle being that we don’t teach fairy tales. Not every topic is suitable for young children, but they need to be developing a framework that is accurate for the purposes of what they need to know. There can never be a point where they have to dismantle an old framework in order to understand reality. Some others:

A lot of sex is social rather than biological, so it’s important that we are reinforcing the right messages throughout our interactions with each other and the kids. Respect is very important and kids pick up on a lack of respect between their parents. The relationship between parents and children is one of unequal power, so this is particularly important. One scenario that can come up is roughhousing with the kids. Usually they think it’s hilarious and it’s part of the kind of joking around that strengthens a family, but it needs to be clear that they can say “stop” at any time and we will respect that. I think moments like this are important building blocks as children learn the concepts and language surrounding consent and autonomy over their own bodies.

Your body is good and normal, so you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it or afraid to ask questions about it. I realise that they may feel awkward about being open later on, but it’s important that they know we’re not judging them for stuff that is natural. This may not be for everyone, but when our daughter was almost due, my wife showed our son a few birthing videos on YouTube (she may be half American, but she’s also half German). It doesn’t seem to have damaged him that much and he was just disappointed that he couldn’t be there for the birth itself. Traditionally a lot of value has been given to the mystery of the opposite sex (particularly if that sex is female), but I’m not sure if it’s very helpful. Going back to the main principle, if it freaks you out that your parents have sex, there does seem to be a problem with the framework about relationships that you have constructed (note: it’s probably still OK to be freaked out by actually seeing your parents having sex).

Encourage children to have normal relationships between the sexes and to be free to express themselves without being overly constrained by cultural gender biases. I remember when I was younger hearing people ask whether it was possible for boys and girls to be friends without it being awkward (there are a number of influences in my childhood that I don’t really want to see repeated with my own children). I certainly hope so, as long term sexual relationships without the respect, understanding and normality of regular friendships are going to be pretty problematic. What’s more, this attitude doesn’t bode well for all of the other times you encounter the opposite sex at work and other places. Going to the far extreme of this attitude, you get people like Elliot Rodger who saw male-female interaction as defined by sex, to the extent where women became a status object to attain. Rather than being challenged to have normal relationships, he seems to have picked up the message that he was just doing it wrong and that there was a secret to having great sex with anyone he wanted (or that he just didn’t have enough status points or wasn’t attractive enough). I would imagine that this is something that can be strongly influenced by childhood relationships from a very young age, so maximising natural interaction is vital (of course I’m not suggesting that most people have this attitude, but I want my son to be as far from the culture of entitlement and objectification of women as possible).

Assume that your children will come into contact with porn at a younger age than you would instinctively imagine. When my wife was younger one of her friends watched porn with her parents every week, then asked my wife to join her because she felt uncomfortable with it. I don’t think we’ll go down that route, but it is important to address porn. Sexual fantasies are often culturally learned and can have an influence on real life relationships, so it’s important that children are sufficiently equipped to critically examine porn and other cultural influences.

Obviously my kids are still very young and my idealism will probably suffer to some degree as they get older, but it would be good to hear some comments on this issue, particularly from parents of older kids (or adults, of course).

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