Many parents focus on a single talk about sex as their children start to get older, but I believe that it should be an ongoing conversation. If that sounds a little intimidating, remember that from the very first moments of life, you began teaching our children life-long lessons about their sexuality. Some of the most profound messages we will ever give them take place without a word.
When we gently caress their silky skin, smooch that little spot on the side of their necks that always makes them giggle, when we play patty cake — every time we demonstrate appropriate, loving touches, we are teaching them that their bodies are wonderful. They learn from snuggles and being held that they are loveable.
When we teach them the names of all their body parts, we show them that their bodies are special. I believe that it is important for them to learn correct names from the beginning. I have heard the argument that we use non-clinical names for tummy and so on. That is true, but it is also a pretty standard term used and understood by everyone, regardless of age. Most cutesy names for genitals are not. Aside from the important matter of accuracy, it conveys a great deal about our acceptance of them and of talking about sexuality. If we teach them that there is something shameful or embarrassing in the very name vulva or penis, they will internalize that. If we make it obvious that we don’t want to talk about it, eventually they will stop talking to us and talk to someone else.
We teach our children about gender stereotypes from our first observations. Do our girls hear that they are strong and powerful? Do our boys learn that we value tenderness and sensitivity? Our society is so proficient at marketing gender roles that by age three, most girls and boys know that pink is a girl color, and blue is for boys, that girls are princesses (passive and prissy) and boys are tough and active. As toddlers, my little girl loved blue and Spider-Man, and my son loved dolls and sparkly clothes. Within just a couple of years, though, they were telling each other that blue was for boys and dolls are for girls. I believe that colors are gender-neutral, and that both sons and daughters grow up to be parents. But we must speak up for our children to know, and speak more loudly than our culture.
We teach our children about body image through our own. Do they hear us putting ourselves down and criticizing our own bodies? Do we point out our flaws or gripe about our weight? Do they hear us make comments about other people and laugh at their appearance? Each word nails in deeper the truth about our values, and what their own bodies are worth.
We also teach them about sexuality when they first begin to say no. Comments like, “Give Grandma a kiss or she’ll be sad!” teach them to ignore their own body boundaries and give feigned affection to placate adults. Acknowledging and respecting their right to say no to unwanted touches is vital. It may mean intervening when relatives or friends try to bully them with unwanted hugs, kisses or tickles. The message we send about their right to say no is far more important than a miffed adult.
What they witness in our adult relationships matters, too. They learn how to treat others and how they should be treated based on what they see. We teach them about gender roles. We teach them what affectionate touch looks like. What friendship with a spouse means. What healthy boundaries are. How to have healthy and respectful disagreements. I think most of us are works in progress in this area, but I would encourage you that if you are concerned about what they see, work on changing the relationship, not at doing a better job of hiding the problems.
Before our children ever hear about the mechanics of sex, they are picking up all kinds of messages from us about the value and worth of their bodies, about the extent of their control over their bodies, and about what it means to be male or female, and what relationships should be. We need to be conscious about the silent talk that we are giving them, because our actions do speak much louder than words.
Dulce is learning to walk in grace with her amazing husband and four wonderful kidlets. She is a perpetual provider of magic mami milk who practices gentle discipline, shares a family bed, homeschools, teaches Spanish, and blogs at Dulce de leche. Each day brings plenty of iced coffee and a fresh lesson in trusting her children, herself and the Love that surrounds and fills us. Sometimes it feels like livin’ a vida loca, but overall, life is incredibly sweet.
This post has been edited from a previous version published at Dulce de leche
Photo credit: Leo Reynolds on Flickr