Though children are educated about the physical aspects of sex at school, they still rely on their parents to teach them about the emotional and psychological components of sexuality; as such, parents play an essential role in the development of healthy sexuality. Parents model behaviours and espouse views that show their children how they ought to treat the other gender and how they should feel about their own sexuality—two factors which greatly contribute to any child’s self-image.
While many parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their children, it’s important to understand that the subject need not lead to feelings of embarrassment or anxiety for either parents or their children. By establishing a healthy approach to teaching sexuality early on, parents can make the subject feel like a natural, normal part of life – as it should be. In order to educate your children about sexuality, you will need to lead by example (in addition to having productive conversations about sex and sexuality); some strategies for helping your child to develop healthy sexuality include:
1. Demonstrate affection freely. From birth onward, children need to be shown that touch is normal, acceptable, and pleasant. Even though very young children do not comprehend the concept of sexuality, they do understand touch and the messages it sends; affectionate touching therefore lays the foundation for developing healthy sexuality later on. A baby who is handled frequently and who often makes eye contact with his parents is given the message that his body is valuable, enjoyable, and loved; as a result, he will grow up expecting to receive those same messages from his sexual partners.
2. If possible, make sure that your child is nurtured by both men and women. Though childcare was historically considered “women’s work,” research is increasingly revealing the many ways in which children benefit from having both male and female caretakers. Namely, by teaching children that both men and women can be nurturing—and showing them the different ways in which men and women express caring—parents can help children to accept and cherish their own genders and to respect and value the opposite gender. Likewise, young men who experience the warmth and caring of their fathers grow up knowing that it’s acceptable for men to be loving, sensitive, and empathetic, regardless of the influence of the media.
3. Encourage children to see both genders as equal. A child who sees his gender as being somehow inadequate will inevitably integrate that sense of being lesser into his own self-image; this will gradually lower his self-esteem and contribute to unhealthy sexuality. Parents should therefore affirm their child’s gender (never directly or indirectly convey the idea that you wished you’d had a son or daughter “instead”) and reiterate the fact that both genders have a great deal of positive qualities (this is just as important for little boys as it is for little girls; remember that the media often portrays men as inherently aggressive and harmful). Likewise, when your children go through the normal developmental stage of comparing the physical qualities and abilities of both genders, gently remind them that “different” does not necessarily mean “lesser.”
Generally, children start to notice gender by about age two-and-a-half; parents of toddlers can therefore expect to be asked a range of questions about why girls and boys dress differently and why they have different genitalia. While these questions can be uncomfortable for parents, it’s important to address them frankly and openly. Ideally, you should begin trying to minimize the “who’s better?” debate as soon as your toddler approaches the subject of genitalia; for example, if your son begins to assert that boys are superior because they have a penis and girls don’t, explain to him that girls have a vulva, which performs a similar function. Be assured that if you do not feed into the natural competitiveness children exhibit when trying to understand the concept of gender, it will gradually wane over time.
4. Value your child as a person, not as a gender. While it’s important to emphasize the fact that gender differences are normal and acceptable, you should avoid implying that the behavioural differences between the sexes are immutable. Your child should feel free to be himself, rather than feeling as though he must fill a specific role based on his gender. Remain sensitive to your child’s needs and wishes and interact with him in the ways that he prefers (rather than pushing for him to behave in “gender appropriate” ways); for example, if your son dislikes roughhousing or sports, don’t push him to engage in such behaviours, but instead show an interest in what he does enjoy. The more comfortable your child is with himself as a person, the more confident and balanced he will be when he begins to explore his sexuality.
5. Demonstrate gender equality at home. Children learn primarily through observing their parents, so it’s extremely important for you and your partner to model healthy gender roles and not just talk about them. Make sure that family discussions are balanced, with parents both contributing equally, and show your child that both mom and dad have the same level of authority when it comes to household decisions. You and your partner should, above all else, remember to behave like a team and never like adversaries; present a united front when administering discipline and when providing care. Additionally, both parents should show their children that they like their chosen roles in the household and in the world at large.
6. Understand that discipline affects your child’s developing sexuality. Just as affection, touch, and healthy attachment show a child what he ought to expect in his adult partnerships, harsh, callous, and abusive discipline can condition him to take on abusive characteristics in his future relationships. Similarly, neglect and invalidation can make it difficult for him to express himself both emotionally and sexually (making him appear cold and detached) and excessive indulgence may make him sexually impulsive, unable to say “no” to the prospect of gratification.
Parents must remember that even discipline ought to be given sensitively; teach your child to investigate the reasons why he misbehaved in the first place and encourage him to consider how his actions will affect others, rather than simply punishing him without further discussion. The more you can educate your child about the mechanics of mutual caring—how to satisfy his own needs while also meeting the needs of another person in an act of loving exchange—the healthier his adult sexuality will be.