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February 19, 2015

Timing of Sex Education

Let me offer some counsel now, to mothers and fathers who want to handle the instruction of their own children and are looking for a few helpful "how-to's." My hat is tipped to them. Even in this enlightened day, the subject of sex is charged with emotion. There are few thoughts which disturb Mom and Dad's tranquility more than the vision of answering all of their children's probing questions—particularly the ones which become uncomfortably personal.

This tension was apparent in the mother of nine-year-old Davie, after his family had recently moved into a new school district. Davie came home from school on the first afternoon and asked his mother point-blank: "Mom, what's sex?"

The question smacked her hard. She thought she had two or three years before dealing with that issue and was totally unprepared to field it now.  Her racing mind concluded that Davie's new school must be engaged in a liberal sex education program, and she had no choice but to fill in the details. So, she sat down with her wide-eyed son, and for forty-five minutes gave him a tension-filled harangue about the birds and the bees and the coconut trees.

When she finished, Davie held up his enrollment card and said, "Gee, Mom, how am I going to get all that in this little bitty square?"

As Davie's mother discovered, there is a delicate art in knowing when to provide the younger generation with additional information about sex.

One of the most common mistakes committed by some parents and many overzealous educators is the trend toward teaching too much too soon. One parent wrote to me, for example, and said the kindergarten children in her local district were shown films of animals in the act of copulation.  That is unwise and dangerous! Available evidence indicates that there are numerous hazards involved in moving too rapidly. Children can sustain a severe emotional jolt by being exposed to realities for which they are not prepared.

Furthermore, it is unwise to place the youngster on an informational timetable that will result in full sophistication too early in life. If eight-year-old children are given an advanced understanding of mature sexual behavior, it is less likely that they will wait ten or twelve years to apply this knowledge within the confines of marriage.

Another danger resulting from premature instruction involves the threat of overstimulation. Young people can be tantalized by what is taught about the exciting world of grown-up sexual experience. Childhood education should be focused on childish interests, not adult pleasures and desires.  I am not implying that sex education should be delayed until childhood has passed. Rather, it seems appropriate that the amount of information youngsters are given should coincide with their social and physical requirement for that awareness.

The child's requests for information provide the best guide to readiness for sex education. Their comments reveal what the youngster thinks about and wants to know. Such questions also offer a natural vehicle for instruction. It is far better for parents to answer these questions at the moment of curiosity than to ignore or evade them, hoping to explain later. Premeditated training sessions often become lengthy, one way conversations which make both participants uncomfortable.

Although the question-answering approach to sex education is usually superior, the technique is obviously inadequate with children who never ask for information. Some boys and girls are fascinated by sexual reproduction while others never give it a second thought. If a child is uninterested in or doesn't ask about sex, the parent is not relieved of responsibility.

Our two children were opposites at this point. Danae asked all the right (or wrong?) questions one night when she was seven years old. Her shocked mother hadn't expected to have to deal with that subject for a few more years. Shirley stalled for time and came to share the situation with me as I sat at my desk. We promptly invited Danae to sit down for a conversation. Shirley made some hot chocolate and we talked for an hour or so. It all went very smoothly.

Ryan, on the other hand, never asked questions about sex at all. We volunteered bits and pieces of the story as it seemed appropriate and comfortable, but the specific facts were more difficult to convey. Finally, I took my son on a fishing trip...just the two of us. Then as we sat there on the bank waiting for the trout to bite, I said, "It occurs to me, Ryan, that we have never talked much about sex...you know, how babies are made and all that. Maybe this would be a good time to discuss it."

Ryan sat thoughtfully for several minutes without saying anything.  I wondered what he was thinking. Then he said, "What if I don't wanna know?"

I dragged my kid into the world of reproduction and sexuality, kicking and screaming, but I got him there nonetheless. That is a parental responsibility. Even when it is not easy, the job must be done. If you won't accept the assignment, someone else will...someone who may not share your values.

One final comment is important regarding the timing of sex education in the home. Parents should plan to end their formal instructional program about the time their child enters puberty (the time of rapid sexual development in early adolescence). Puberty usually begins between ten and thirteen for girls and between eleven and fourteen for boys. Once they enter this developmental period, they are typically embarrassed by discussions of sex with their parents. Adolescents usually resent adult intrusion during this time...unless they raise the topic themselves.  In other words, this is an area where teens should invite parents into their lives.

I feel that we should respect their wish. We are given ten or twelve years to provide the proper understanding of human sexuality. After that foundation has been constructed, we largely serve as resources to whom our children can turn when the need exists.

That is not to say parents should abdicate their responsibility to provide guidance about issues related to sexuality, dating, marriage, etc., as opportunities present themselves. Again, sensitivity to the feelings of the teen is paramount. If he or she wishes to talk, by all means, welcome the conversation. In other cases, parental guidance may be most effective if offered indirectly. Trusted youth workers at church or in a club program such as Young Life can often break the ice when parents can't.

From Dr. Dobson’s book The New Dare To Discipline.

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