Q:What should I tell my children about sex? When should I tell them, and how detailed should I get?
A:In most Western societies “sex education” is part of the school curriculum; in others, it is nonexistent. Many parents abdicate their responsibilities in this critical area of parenting. This leaves youngsters to learn from whispering, snickering companions at a much younger age than their parents may imagine.
While “telling” children may seem to be the most desirable method, we most powerfully “model” the spousal relationship. The respect and values with which we engage with our spouses send to our children a most powerful message. Children quickly learn the disdain communicated by the rolling of the eyes or the power struggle of controlling people locked in matrimony.
Sexuality, when expressed within the relationship of love, mutual support, nurture, and caring, rises to the level God intended. Adam, fresh from the hand of God, was alone and incomplete. He required a companion, designed emotionally and physically as a perfect complement. Eve was a person created to share his daily life, to engage with enthusiasm in the interests, challenges, and especially in the relationships they shared with God and His creation. In our marriages we must powerfully and adequately display for our children the essentials of mutual respect, kindness, gentleness, and caring—which are the foundation for a sexual relationship.
Children learn about “sex” from a very early age. Most parents start too late, with their information being confirmatory rather than new. I recommend the book Human Sexuality: Sharing the Wonder of God’s Good Gift With Your Children, by Ron and Karen Flowers.1 This is a curriculum framework on God’s good gift of sexuality. It outlines the ages at which awareness of sexuality becomes operative, thereby helping parents to gauge the level of understanding.
When children begin asking questions about sex, answer them simply and unambiguously. A 4-year-old’s question as to where babies come from does not warrant a full lecture on anatomy, physiology, psychology, and morality. Our answers must convey to the child the acceptability of their question. We do this by answering without embarrassment, and by telling them to feel free to question further, should they feel a need. It is far better to have our children learn basic facts from us without the sometimes-crude embellishments other children add to them.
Children need to understand that sex is a feature of the marital relationship. The existence of and method by which contraceptives work is an important part of our teaching, although, of course, at an appropriate age. For many this will be much earlier than perhaps anticipated.
In today’s world many children are failing to flourish. This is because of a lack of meaningful connections with caring, responsible adults. The casualness of modern sexuality reaps a dreadful and increasing harvest of broken homes and deprived children. Hollywood—in its isolation of the physical aspects of sexuality from the necessary framework of supportive, emotional, and sustaining marital relationships—has dealt a critical wound to society in general.
As parents it is important to know and teach the uniqueness of the human sexual bond. Desmond Morris, a zoologist, described 12 uniquely human, sequential steps that contribute to human sexual bonding. Each step Morris describes, when fully explored, accepted, and integrated, contributes to the strength of the sexual relationship. Once a step is established and has involved the relevant biochemical and neurosensory receptors, it becomes a part of the lifelong repertoire. Missing a step weakens the bonding process and devalues the relationship. I recommend his bookIntimate Behaviour: A Zoologist’s Classic Study of Human Intimacy.2
One of the most important of Morris’s 12 steps is communication, which needs to mature and become wide-ranging and prolonged if anything meaningful is to come of the recognition of a special person. Most relationships perish on the rocks of noncommunication.
Sexual bonding is far more complex than a financial or convenient agreement. Sexual bonding is God’s glue in marriage and is much more difficult to handle than regular glue!
In today’s world, where so many seek to make human sexuality merely a physical relationship, failed marriages abound. The mental, emotional, family, and spiritual dimensions cannot be ignored. Sexual intimacy prior to building a secure foundation will result in less than what is possible, desirable, or optimal.
To discover whether they are mature enough for the responsibility of a full sexual, marital relationship, young couples should ask these questions (among others): “Am I ready to make a lifelong commitment?” “Do my friend’s values, beliefs, and worldview match my own?” “Are our life goals compatible?” “Do we agree on the roles of a man and a woman in a relationship?” “Are either of us locked into a distorted view that sees one of us serving the use of the other?” “Do we bring out the best in each other?” A negative answer to these questions at this stage should trigger a reevaluation of the friendship. It may be wise to back off and say, “You are a good friend, but we both deserve someone who can dream our dreams with us.”
Long dalliance in the “getting to know you” phase is the most important advice that young people can be given. When there is disagreement on spiritual matters and issues of faith, a marriage is destined for trouble. God’s good gift of sexuality encompasses far more than mere sexual techniques. Provided there is a foundation of friendship that is unselfish, noncontrolling, and deeply respectful, there will be ample time and opportunity to grow sexually skillful. Many ignore these basic fundamentals in the headlong rush to a physical relationship. Marital harmony begins in the marriage of true minds, in the mental, spiritual, emotional, and aspirational world vision a couple share.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, is a former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.