A colleague of mine phoned me the other day very upset. He had shown a film entitled ‘Human and Animal Beginnings” to his 3rd-grade class. After depicting the birth of various kinds of animals, the film showed a brief shot of a human baby being born. The baby’s head was shown emerging from the mother’s vagina. Afterwards the children asked, “Did our parents know we were going to see this film? Were we supposed to see that? Was that X-rated?” What messages had these children picked up about the female genitals? Clearly they had learned somewhere that the vagina, in and of itself, even in the process of childbirth, was pornographic. What a frightening attitude to instill in young children.
I have a theory about how this attitude has developed in our children and what we can do to avoid it. You see, educating children about sexuality is, to me, like attending a Broadway musical. When you go to a musical and really like it, you often leave the show humming the melody of a favorite song. You rarely sing the lyrics because you can’t remember them. The same can be true in sex education. When we talk with children about sexuality, they may not remember many of our actual words, but they will remember the tone of the conversation and the feelings engendered during the discussion.
If the attitudes conveyed are positive, children will remember that their questions were always accepted. They will remember hearing that their emotions and concerns were normal. They will remember the positive messages about the human body and the need for caring touch among all human beings. Children will adopt, with increasing comfort, the language their parents and teachers use when they discuss sexuality issues with them in an open and unembarrassed manner. They will hear and appreciate the “music” we play.
Children learn about sexuality every day of their lives regardless of what parents, teachers, or other adults do or don’t tell them. They learn not only by listening to adults but by observing them: the way they interact with other people; the way they show (or fail to show) affection; their reaction to TV programs and events in the community; and the attitudes they convey in their conversations with other adults.
Let’s look more closely at what children are learning. Messages from parents or caretakers vary from home to home. Some families show affection openly, others do not. Some parents are comfortable with nudity, take baths with their children, skinny dip together, and so on. Others may not engage in such activities with their children but aren’t uncomfortable if their children find them nude in the bathroom or the bedroom. Still other parents show displeasure if their children catch even a glimpse of them nude.
Today’s children are growing up in an era plagued by social problems related to sexuality. There is greater awareness of child sexual abuse; the problem of teenage pregnancy has not gone away; and now AIDS has made death a potential consequence of unsafe sexual behavior.
Today’s children are dating at younger ages and having sex at younger ages. In some urban communities the average age that boys report beginning sexual intercourse is 12. In light of these sobering realities, many school and community programs have focused on “disaster prevention"--educational efforts designed to help children avoid specific sexuality-related problems. Thus, some states mandate AIDS education without providing any sexuality education. Many primary classrooms offer child-sexual-abuse prevention, though often not in the context of a broader discussion of family life and sexuality.
This sexual learning environment is potentially hazardous for children. What message would you get about sex if the only thing you were told in formal settings was that some adults force children to have sex and that sex can lead to AIDS? Sexuality educators worry that a great many of today’s young generation will grow up to be anxiety-ridden, sexually dysfunctional adults.
In my work teaching elementary school children and training elementary teachers, I have learned that many children come to school with pre-formed attitudes, both positive and negative, about sexuality. Some families have tried hard to raise their children in nonsexist ways and to present sexuality as a normal topic of conversation. However, a wide range of factors influence every child’s socialization.
For reasons that go well beyond parental instruction or modeling, some children learn early that:
- Sex is a taboo topic.
- The human body is shameful.
- The genitals are nasty.
- Roles for boys and girls are rigidly determined.
Societal norms and values about sexuality can and do influence children’s attitudes about themselves--how comfortable they are with their own bodies, how they think they should behave as boys or girls, how comfortable they are with physical affection, whether they view themselves as attractive.
The earlier parents and educators begin to consciously plan the messages we give young children, the greater the likelihood we can encourage their sense of themselves as lovable, capable, and responsible sexual beings. However, educators who talk freely with adolescents about sensitive issues often get nervous when faced with the challenge of discussing sexuality with 4- to 10-year-olds. They may wonder, “What will I say to these children? How will they react? Am I putting ideas in their heads? Will their parents object?” Many parents have similar worries: “When should I bring up the subject of sex with my children? What should or shouldn’t I say? I caught my child pretending to have sex with another child... what should I do? How can I protect my child from AIDS?”
These are all valid questions and concerns. Parents and educators want to keep children safe from emotional and physical harm. The challenge in sexuality education is to arm children with the information, attitudes, and skills that they need to keep themselves safe from abuse, unplanned pregnancy, and disease and, at the same time, help them develop the capacity for adult sexual relationships that are loving, healthy, and responsible.
Think about both the words and the music of the songs we play for children. We must compose the melodies and the lyrics and find a voice to deliver appropriate sexuality messages to children.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Sex—the Words and the Music