It’s often said that there is no handbook for raising kids. Such is even truer when it comes to a child’s sexual behavior and development.
Though sex education, in general, has improved in some schools, psychologist Toni Cavanagh Johnson says in her book Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors that most schools still just instruct about “plumbing.” My impression is a bit worse.
Over the years, my college students say that sex education for kids is more like a horror movie: what diseases look like and why not to engage in any sexual behavior. When I ask my students if they were ever taught about healthy sexuality or positive sex, they look at me puzzled. In my 16 years of teaching, only one student said they learned about sex in a positive way.
Yet in a study published by CQ Researcher showed that when kids were told the truth about sexuality and were taught about healthy sex, choices, and boundaries, sexual activity among high school kids dropped by 40%, and those that did choose to engage made much smarter and careful choices.
My advice to parents is that when your child knows more in an appropriate way, that is empowerment. Such empowerment may prevent them from abuse. Often, those that abuse kids or even abuse a date do so by taking advantage of one’s innocence and trust.
Fortunately, there are many good books and resources that can help parents empower their kids, while making appropriate sexual exploration positive instead of the negativity that has been associated with kids’ sexual development.
I understand that some parents may cringe when they hear the words child and sexuality put together; however, Cavanagh Johnson notes that such sexual development starts under three, and how parents handle these stages is critical: 3 and under, 4-9 years, and 10-12 years.
So often, parents think that only older kids become interested in each other during adolescence and that having interest when kids are younger is a sign that something is wrong. This is not true. For example, a book I used with my own children It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families was extremely helpful in helping my kids in an age appropriate way to understand how the body works, reproduces, and what a girl and boy can expect when reaching puberty.
I am sure that we all know people that can share horror stories about the shock they had when their bodies started to do things no one told them about. Such bad experiences can traumatize kids and cause future problems for them. The important thing to remember is that for children sexual play (playing house, doctor) is an extension of normal play with same-age peers, as Cavanagh Jonson notes.
When walking in on children, it is important not to overreact. However, parents should not simply ignore such play, especially when other people’s kids are involved. When discovering such play, Cavanagh Johnson provides these guidelines: stay calm, state what you witnessed, reinforce your rules and guidelines, offer appropriate videos or books on the subject, and offer to answer questions. Never shut the kids down or yell at them. If other kids are involved, contact the parents and discuss the matter with them and what you said. Don’t blame the other kids or parents.
When is such play not okay? I learned when assisting in sex offender treatment programs that it is important to consider age and leverage. If your child is the youngest, they can be at considerably more risk. Never leave your children unattended and playing with kids a few years older than yours. This includes girls. I cannot emphasize enough that girls can also be perpetrators of sex abuse, though boys are more common.
Sexual play should also not be repetitive, as if it’s the only thing kids want to do, and a child should never be forced or groomed into any act. Anything more than simple touching can be a sign of something more severe. If you notice that your child is engaging children in an inappropriate way, it is very important to get the child treatment as soon as possible. The earlier you catch the behavior, the better the prognosis can be.
I know that such a topic can be uncomfortable and scary, even upsetting, but sexuality is a major, fundamental and necessary part of human development. The best thing in the world for your child is open communication. They should be able to tell you anything. Do not judge or lecture. As a college professor, I can tell you, no one ever listens to lecturing. Listen to your child and offer help.
When considering books and resources, remember that children always respond differently. I found that my son was not ready for such books. My daughter was very interested, and she sat down with her mom and went through the whole book in one sitting.
When buying books, both parents should look through the book first and sense their comfort level and address how to answer questions their child may have. Once their child goes through the book, Cavanagh Johnson recommends that parents keep the books around for the kids to look at when that are interested.
Educating your children about sex does not have to be difficult. If parents still want and need help, they look at Dr. Cavanagh Johnson’s website or reach the American Association of Sexuality, Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and find a sex therapist near them. These are all licensed educators, psychologists, counselors, and social workers with a certification in human sexuality education and treatment.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.