Parents and Their Children's Learning About Sexuality
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
Young people need sexuality education and parents, as essential sources of information and role models, can truly influence their children's sexual development. Two parents, a single parent, a foster parent, a grandparent, or any other adult who cares for and nurtures a young person must assume this task because sexuality education involves crucial family, religious, and cultural values and convictions. Young people inevitably learn about sex and sexuality from their environment anyway, and it is evident that the environment is not always very safe or reliable, so it is up to caring adults to influence their sons' and daughters' moral development, healthy decision making abilities, self-esteem, and knowledge of, and comfort with, their own sexuality. A parent really has no choice in this matter. The only choice is whether the job will be done well or poorly.
Just What Is Sexual Learning?
Learning about sex and sexuality has been long misunderstood by parents. For many, it simply means the hasty presentation of some information on reproduction, like where babies come from, or an anatomy lesson showing that men have a penis and women have a vagina. Others may wait until their child reaches puberty and provide some information on bodily changes, sometimes discussing menstruation, but rarely ever mentioning wet dreams. With very few exceptions, these kinds of discussions are initiated and carried out by the mother or a female in the household. Rarely do fathers provide any direct sexual information to their children, especially their daughters. Many men continue to believe that their interactions with their children are important simply as sex role models and providers. Yet fathers must have a more meaningful role in this process, because they can do much to affect the emotional, social, and sexual development of their children.
Sex, to many people means genital acts, either with a partner or alone. But this definition denies the completeness of our sexuality. Sexuality has to do with being female or male and is conditioned by the cultural and religious views we hold dear. Genital sexual expression can be a very important part of a person's sexuality but it is a relatively small part of overall sexual learning. The other important elements of sexual learning are body image, gender identity, gender role, family and social role, affection, love, intimacy, relationships, sensuousness and eroticism. All these elements together form the total fabric, the full cloth of sexuality. Accordingly, parents have a wide array of themes and opportunities to discuss sexuality within this context through their daily living with their children.
Talking with them about their clothes and how they look and how their looks make them feel and providing them with your view of the role of women and men in families, in relationships and in society are unthreatening, yet critical sexual learning opportunities. Repetitions of these messages throughout their development and daily adult role modeling will provide the needed emphasis on the specific view a parent wants to convey to their child. Being certain these beliefs are shared and repeated by other adults in the household will help avoid problems with mixed and gender biased messages.
Parents can reinforce holistic sexual learning in their homes by watching almost any TV show with their son or daughter. Invariably, the message for women is that the way females succeed is to use her body. That is how she is recognized, receives attention, moves ahead with her friends, and gets ahead in the world of work. This is an example of a social lie that is embedded in every network and cable sitcom, in hip hop music, and in every magazine read by young women. Boys and young also men receive false messages from all the informational sources around them which regularly and strongly indicate that they way males succeed or achieve is through the use of power, force, or wealth. This is also a lie. With every opportunity, parents must assertively challenge these sexuality lies, these untruths about body image, gender and social role, and replace them with the truth. The fundamental truth is that girls and boys succeed by using their brain not their body; they succeed not by their physical appearance or strength but by the strength of their character and their moral core. Parents need to communicate with their children about the truth and then reinforce it daily with a living, authentic example.
Clearly, these issues are not about reproduction or body parts or the technology of sex; that is not needed here. What is needed is a willingness to regularly challenge what a parent sees as wrong and gently reinforce what is right, always facing and pushing through the natural developmental resistance expressed by young people towards adults whose ideas are different than others'. Staying this course takes time, patience, and endurance, but the benefits to young people are incalculable.
The beginning of wisdom for parents as they move ahead in the critical job of influencing the sexual learning of their children is to make abundantly clear, at every appropriate opportunity, in ways that are individually comfortable, that their child is loved, prized, and valued. This constitutes an extraordinarily powerful sexual message.
Lessons for Lifeguards
Working With Teens When the Topic Is HopeDonkey Press, 1999
P.O. Box 20583
New York, New York 10021-0071
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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