Have you had that talk about the birds and the bees with your oldest child yet? Maybe your kids aren’t old enough yet… or maybe you know the time is fast approaching but you feel a little awkward bringing up such a delicate subject?
This summer, I read an excellent book that helped me tremendously in talking to my daughter about the facts of life. Growing Up in God’s Image. When I realized that the author sometimes goes to our parish, I realized that here was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Here is Part 1 of an interview with a veteran homeschool mom of ten kids, Carolyn Smith, on teaching your children about human sexuality.
Can you tell us about yourself, your book, Growing Up in God’s Image, and how you came to write a book for parents on sex-education?
My husband, Jim, and I have been married for 45 years. My husband works in D.C. in the corporate world but is getting ready to retire at the end of the year. We have 8 daughters, 2 sons, and 21 grandchildren. I was blessed to be able to homeschool the youngest 5 of our children. Our children are now adults, but we obviously have not given away all of our toys and baby things. We are thrilled that most of our children live nearby and still visit frequently. Sunday dinner is a wonderful time for us to gather. I make a big meal every week, and everyone is invited. We also try to vacation together once a year and always have a wonderful time.
How did you come to write a book for parents on sex-education?
In the introduction to my book, I answer this in detail. Here, I will give you a shorter version. My husband had been encouraging me to do it for quite some time. He said he never heard anyone explain it the way I did and felt it could be very helpful to others. Then after helping a friend with what to say to her oldest daughter, she told me that I just had to write it down for others the same way I did for her. So, with much encouragement and help from others, I began the task. I wanted to write something that would alleviate the anxiety so many parents feel when faced with this task. So, I did as my friend asked me to do. I wrote the words parents need. There is no worry about what to say or how to say it. It’s all there. I wrote it first for Catholic parents, but later discovered people of all ages as well as different faiths were benefitting from it.
Why do you believe that parents, not teachers or doctors, should teach their children about the facts of life?
First of all, all parents, whether we realize it or not, teach our children about marital love. Parents are the first teachers of love for their children. Children watch everything we do. Every day we are teaching them about family and the love that makes that family. So, why would parents not be the ones to verbally speak about intimate marital love to their children? Teachers and doctors may be able to teach factual data, but they won’t speak to our children about love. Children can learn the biology of sex anywhere, but it is first at home where they learn the language of love in all its aspects.
I have not had great experiences with the medical profession and its advice to my children regarding sexuality. My experience for the most part is that doctors assume “everyone is going to do it” and treat everyone accordingly. Sadly, perhaps they have seen too much. We are all fighting the culture. I find their expectations of teens to be very low. That is not the message I want for my children.
As far as the schools go, I haven’t found a sex education program yet that would be a suitable replacement for a one-on-one with Mom or Dad. That being said, I realize that sometimes a sex education program can be a good supplement to what happens at home. However, I would throw a big caution sign here. Be sure you know what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, and how questions are going to be addressed. There may be sensitive subjects not included in the curriculum that are raised through questions from the students. How will these questions be handled? I will add that every parent has the right and duty to remove their children from programs with which they are not comfortable. Do not be afraid to take advantage of this right. Unfortunately, even after having removed them from instruction, your child is still subject to the playground and school bus discussion.
All that being said, I think we all recognize there are obviously circumstances when a parent might need help from a trusted teacher, pastor, or doctor. Sometimes, a very trusted professional can be a valuable resource when the need arises.
At what age should parents begin teaching their children about the facts of life? Are there stages or specific ages when you would recommend presenting specific information? For example, what would you tell a very young child? What about a pre-teen?
This is actually the first thing I address in my book through a letter to parents. As you point out, this is not one talk but an ongoing process of both word and example. I’ll try to somewhat summarize the suggestions I make in my book.
Very young children can hear about how God created them to look like Him. We teach them the importance of taking care of their bodies because God made us holy in body and soul. We teach them to respect their own privacy and the privacy of others. One of the first ways they learn this is when we teach them to close the bathroom door. We teach them to share, but we also teach that not everything is appropriate to share. We teach them to respect personal space such as purses, dresser drawers, etc. We teach them to be kind to others in word and action. They are always taking new first steps under our watchful eyes. By teaching them to respect themselves and others, we provide them with a sense of self-respect and boundaries.
With pre-teens, we do a lot of building on these first lessons. We give new emphasis to the importance of showers, proper nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc. Conversations about modesty may begin. When I refer to modesty, I refer to the value we put on our own privacy as well as the respect we show for the privacy of others. This refers to private space, whether it be property, personal belongings, thoughts, feelings, etc. The pre-teen world lends all kinds of possibilities for “teaching moments”. At this age, gossip is usually a biggie. Those lessons we taught about talking nicely when they were very young take on all new dimensions now. We address self-respect and respect for others on a new level.
It is good for them to realize that respect is also the issue with physical modesty. It is important for girls to understand that boys are very visual. That puts responsibility on them to dress in such a way that respects that visual space and protects them. Do some fashions make it harder for the guys to see you and not just your body? Do these fashions really show self-respect? Be aware that some younger girls may be oblivious to what certain fashions are exposing. They simply have not become sensitive to it yet even if they have begun to develop.
The first signs of physical development usually occur during these pre-teen years, usually by the time they reach the fifth grade. Parents know their children best, but it is usually during these years that you have a discussion about changes that are and will be taking place in the body. This usually occurs earlier for girls than for boys, for whom you may wait another year or two. My book provides the necessary words parents need for this talk in the sections entitled, “How to Talk With Your Daughter” and How to Talk With Your Son”. Depending on the child’s maturity, his/her environment, and his/her peer influence, the discussion about sexual intercourse can occur at the same time or it can wait another year or two. With some of my children, I did it separately. With others, I was comfortable doing it at the same time. With some, I was forced to have that talk before I felt they were ready. These were the times I was particularly grateful to be able to explain this intimate love as an image of God’s love for us and His oneness with us. It was such an easy way to explain both the biology and the love that is there. These words are all written down to make it easy and comfortable.
What is your advice on talking to teens about human sexuality?
The teen years are absolutely full of formative conversations. Well, sometimes those conversations can go well, and sometimes not so well. These can be rebellious years, but even when that’s the case, they are wonderful years of watching gifts and talents unfold and take on new dimensions. It’s like watching children take first steps all over again. I think it’s a good time to give them the book again and let them read it on their own and even at their own pace. In their own quiet time, hopefully they can absorb it a bit further than they could during that initial talk. I firmly believe that if given the facts of life in all its beauty and holiness according to God’s plan, they will recognize the counterfeits for what they are. In my book, I include a section called, Thoughts To Consider. It is full of questions and answers about God’s beautiful design of sexuality from which teens as well as adults can benefit. Each topic is followed by references from the Catholic Catechism for further support and explanation. The Catechism also provides scripture references as an additional aid in understanding God’s plan.
In our world, I would venture to say that you are not going to completely escape the influence of the culture. These are the years when that message will probably conflict with yours, and it’s time for talk about the consequences of sex outside of marriage. This need not be one talk. In fact, I would suggest it is better that it not be. I find it better to seize those opportunities when they present themselves, and present themselves they will. Never pass them up whether the source of the reason is media, peers, school, etc. It can be done in a way that indicates the unhappiness and emptiness that really exists in certain lifestyles. We make choices and live with the consequences of those choices. Consequences of bad choices are real, and there is a lifetime ahead to live with them. If you are so inclined, there are numerous pamphlets and web sites depicting pictures of STDs or STIs, as they are now called. The physical consequences are not pretty. The psychological and emotional consequences are not pretty either.
Let me raise a question so popular with middle school and high school students: “How far is too far?” I always answered this question by first remarking about the nature of the question. By asking the question, perhaps you’ve already gone too far. Is this someone you care about? So you want the best for this person, to protect this person? If you care about this person, you would never do anything in any way that might hurt this person.
How blessed we are by our children! How blessed they are by us! It’s up to us what we do with those blessings. There will always be input in your children’s worlds. Gratefully, some will be very positive and nurturing as they make good friends and encounter nurturing adults who truly care about them. At the same time, the culture’s message will also be screaming at them from all sides. Nothing can replace the strength of family relationships. Nothing can replace the tools of learning how to build those relationships and then enjoying them. Loving families provide the perfect antidote for the cultural chaos.
Want to learn more about Mrs. Smith’s book? Click here to see reviews of her book and a radio interview.
The rest of our interview will be posted next week on Part II of Your Kids and the Facts of Life.