With all our recent headlines about rape and violence, no doubt parents are worrying about their children’s safety and wondering when to talk to them about sex. You may feel uncomfortable and out of your depth discussing these topics, but it’s extremely important, as research shows that children who receive sex ed and learn about sexual boundaries and safety are less promiscuous and safer than their uneducated peers.
It’s natural for children to be sexually curious, and if you don’t tell them, they’ll learn from someone else (often the wrong info)! Children who don’t understand sexual boundaries are far more likely to be sexually abused or molested. Child sex offenders often try to break personal boundaries, gain trust and normalise sexual activity between adults and children. If you’ve taught your children about personal boundaries, they’re more likely to pick up that what the adult is doing is wrong and disrupt the grooming process, reducing their risk of being sexually exploited. Knowledge is power – ignorance may be harmful!
How do children learn about sex?
Their sexual knowledge and behaviour is strongly influenced by their age, what they observe (including the sexual behaviours of family and friends) and what they are taught (including cultural and religious beliefs concerning sexuality and physical boundaries). As Heather Coleman, PhD said, “Young people do not wake up on their 13th birthday, transformed into a sexual being overnight. Even young children are sexual in some form.”
So, how do you go about teaching your child?
Firstly, respecting children’s personal boundaries teaches them how they should expect to be treated. Some parents or adults cross these boundaries without realising how unsafe and insecure it makes children feel. Obvious transgressions are telling children sexual jokes, showing them sexually explicit material, sharing personal sexual information, engaging in sexual activity in the presence of children or with children, touching future erogenous zones e.g. breasts, buttocks, penis, vulva. Less obvious: washing your child’s genitals when they’re old enough to wash their own, ignoring or disregarding the child’s right to privacy, opposite sex parents walking around naked when child is developing, undressing child in public, opposite sex parents sleeping in same bed as child, discussing child’s development with other people, telling child that sex or body parts and body functions are dirty, evil or nasty, making sexual comments about others in front of child and using poor judgment when taking child into a public toilet.
What should we teach children, and when?
Parents will have an idea of how much information their child should get by the questions they pose, as each child has different maturity levels. Don’t worry about giving too much info, as your child will ignore what they aren’t ready to hear. Here’s a general guideline:
|Grade 0-3||Grade 5-6||Grade 7|
Children must learn that sex is meant to be an expression of love and that there’s no room for violence in a relationship. Boys must learn that gentleness isn’t a sign of weakness and girls must learn that it’s okay to be assertive and they’re allowed to say no! All children must learn that transactional sex is wrong and they must tell an adult what is happening.
Discuss the difference between safe touches (which are comforting, pleasant and welcome) and unsafe touches (which are intrusive, uncomfortable, unwanted or painful). Explain that their body belongs to them and that it’s sexual abuse when someone touches their private parts or asks them to touch their private parts (even if it’s someone they know). Tell them that children have the right to say NO to being touched, even by grown-ups and that if an adult tells them to keep a secret they should say NO, and immediately tell an adult they trust. Discuss the difference between safe and unsafe secrets and who to tell when boundaries are crossed. Create “circles of safety” by drawing a small circle in the middle of a paper plate with your child’s name in it. Then draw another circle around that and write the people who they should tell if they’re feeling unsafe. Next draw an outer circle with other people or organisations your child may contact. Include phone numbers and addresses if necessary. This should help your child to feel safer, protected and secure (a bit like a cocoon).
Create a password to be kept secret from everyone and used when necessary, e.g. if you’re delayed at work and have to ask someone else to collect your child from school or arrange for someone to babysit your child in your absence. The adult must be told the password and the child told to request the password before they go with the adult or let him/her into their home, even if they are known to the child. You must reiterate that if an adult tries to force them to go with them, they should remember the three important words: RUN, YELL and TELL.