I came across an article recently that discourages talking about sexuality with children and teens, especially girls. It claimed it was “immodest” and “inappropriate.” As a social worker and mother to three daughters, I must take a stand. I understand the topic of sexuality makes people a little squeamish. So, if this is a topic that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading. Still with me? Let's press on.
What do birds have to do with bees? Just some of the questions I often wondered but never felt comfortable asking growing up. Conversations about sexuality were discouraged or even punishable offenses in my youth. In sixth grade, my school brought in a woman to speak with us about puberty. The woman spoke about life changes, sanitary napkins and the importance of wearing deodorant. We all were squirming in our seats, wishing for the speech to end, but it only got worse. "Girls," she said, "I'm sure you have sleepovers where you talk about boys. This is dangerous. If you speak about boys, it’s not okay, it can lead you to do inappropriate things with them. For the sake of your future, forget boys exist.” I heard one message that day, sexuality is shameful.
This is not what we should be teaching our girls or boys. Instead, a different message should be given -sexuality is normal, healthy, even beautiful, just don't act on it... yet.
I can already hear the gasps. We can't teach our children that. Surely you don't mean what you're saying. Oh, but I do! Delayed gratification is a wonderful concept we teach our children all the time. My favorite example of this is baking a cake. Let's say I've just put a cake in the oven and my daughter walks into the room. She sniffs the air and says aloud, "yummy, I want cake." I respond, "cake, who told you about cake? You can't have cake, you're not ready for cake! Don't ask again until you’re eighteen. Then we can talk about you eating cake."
Now let's try this exchange instead.
My daughter walks into the room and she sniffs the air saying "yummy, I want cake." And I say. “Sit down, and we will talk about cake." We sit down at the table and I ask my daughter, "tell me why you want cake?" My daughter says, "because I'm hungry, and it smells good."
"You’re right, it will be good, but the cake isn’t ready for eating yet. Let’s think of things we can do in the meantime while we wait for the cake to finish baking and cool off, so it does not burn us.”
Positive discussions about sexuality will help our children know there is something worth waiting for. Refusing to bring up the topic based on concerns of modesty leads to fear of the subject. People often confuse the concept of modesty and decency. What's the difference? Modesty refers to what should be kept hidden or refrained from. Decency is what is proper. For instance, one wears clothing in public to be both modest and decent. But while it might be immodest to go without clothing in the shower it is most certainly decent. Discussions of sexuality is not a modesty issue. Modesty is wonderful and it has an important place in our lives, but the connotation of modesty is to cover, hide and refrain from. Framing the reason for delaying sexuality as a modesty issue will stay with our children well into marriage. Do we really want our children to feel ashamed, uncomfortable, or immodest for sharing and revealing themselves to their spouse when there it is a perfectly decent setting to do so? The distinction is important.
Sadly, I’ve read many books on the topic of marriage that don't even cover intimacy. Worse still, I’ve attended a class that was supposed to cover the topic of intimacy, but the speaker began by saying, "I won't be going into any inappropriate material due to the sensitivity of the audience." I learned one thing from her class; that sexuality is immodest, but I already knew that since sixth grade.
Children can tell the difference between a park and a cemetery, even though both have green grass. Children know that they are supposed to wear a bathing suit at a pool even though they go without clothing in the bathtub. And they can also learn that what is decent between spouses might not be decent between sixteen-year-olds.
We should work to reframe the discussion with our youth around sexuality. We can and should stop the cycle of shame and ignorance. Too many dysfunctional marriages are the result of this approach. I'm starting with my girls. I hope you will join me.