Sex and the sandpit

Questions such as “Mummy, where do babies come from?” have sent many an unprepared parent ducking for cover. But an informed approach to educating children about sex will not only equip them with a healthy attitude to their sexuality, but could also help keep them from harm.

ONCE UPON a time, sex education for little kids fell into the same realm as Santa and the Easter Bunny, with fantasies about cabbage patches and storks. It may not have been much use to children but it was a great comfort to parents. Then came a transitional phase, where it was recognised that older children should be prepared for puberty.

This often meant one painfully embarrassing session in which a welter of shocking information was released and never referred to again.

These days, sex education is meant to start from the time a child can talk. This is partly because it is thought better for sex education to be a natural unfolding of appropriate information at different ages, and partly for reasons that are too urgent to ignore. A child who cannot name and talk freely about body parts, who has not been told what is and isn’t appropriate sex play, or who feels that she or he cannot come to parents with rude stories, is a child at greater risk of sexual molestation.

A study of 122 children by Professor Freda Briggs, at the University of South Australia, has found that common parenting practices make children more vulnerable to abuse and less able to report it to an adult.

The study found that one-third of children aged five to eight had already sought their parents’ help to stop unwanted touching, sloppy kisses and other inappropriate behavior by older relatives. These children had learned that, in conflicts between children and adults, parents support adults. With only one exception, the children said that they could do nothing to stop adults from touching them inappropriately. All but one had been taught that to be good, they must obey all adults.

At five to eight years, they had already learned that behavior or talk about genitals, excretion and nudity were “rude”, and that “rude” was “naughty” and could lead to punishment. As a result, none of them believed that they could trust an adult to help them stop a grown-up’s sexual misbehavior, but thought that their parents would blame them for it, even if they had refused to participate.

Professor Briggs concluded that, when parents discourage children’s curiosity about sex because they fear permissiveness or embarrassing behavior, children learn a taboo that could endanger them.

All this leaves parents of preschoolers treading warily. On the one hand, children are meant to feel comfortable with their bodies, relaxed about sexuality generally and fairly trusting of adults. On the other, they need to be warned about sexuality’s darker side and encouraged to be careful. How can they be taught to be protective of their bodies without becoming anxious or shameful? How does today’s much-promoted tolerance of self-exploration and sex play with children their own age sit with strictures about not allowing bad people to touch them? How can they be helped to set safe boundaries without populating their imaginary world with monsters? Even discussion of normal sexual matters with children this age can be difficult for parents who have no blueprint, whose own parents raised the subject with them much later or not at all. In other research, Professor Briggs has found that most Australian parents plan to talk to their children about sex “next year”, irrespective of the child’s age; the parents never see them as quite old enough to hear the facts of life.

Steve Biddulph is a psychologist, family therapist and author of a book on parenting (`The Secret of Happy Children’) and another on marriage (`The Making of Love’). He says information about sex should begin with the under-threes by helping them name their body parts, so that a little boy can name his bottom and penis, a little girl her bottom and vagina or vulva. (Educators suggest that the clitoris be discussed with girls a little later, by about grade five or six.) Naming genitals makes children comfortable with their bodies and gives them the ability to explain if something is wrong with them. The downside is that it also gives little ones the ability to wander around mother’s next high tea inquiring politely of each guest whether they have a penis or a vagina. More tea, vicar? Professor Briggs says little girls are particularly “deprived” this way; because their genitals are tucked away, parents can avoid mentioning them at all. But little boys are often given private, pet names that have no meaning outside the family; she went around one classroom and found 20 different names for penises. The most euphemistic expression came from the little boy who referred to his genitals as a golf set _ “Because it was a stick, two balls, and a bag.” Very cute, says Professor Briggs, but: “Can you see the position this puts children in? If this child told a teacher that someone had done something to his golf set, she would just tell him to run away and play.” She says this practice also gives children a clear message that adults cannot cope with talking about private parts _ the beginning of the taboo.

From three to five, children can begin to grasp concepts about intercourse and where babies come from in more detail. Their questions are likely to be frank and matter-of-fact, and parents should respond likewise, says Babette Oshry, a community educator with the Family Planning Association of Victoria. She recommends honest, simple answers that don’t overwhelm the child with information, for example: “Where did I come from?” “A special place inside mummy’s body, called a uterus.” (Use “uterus” rather than “tummy”, Ms Oshry says, or they imagine the baby floating alongside Vegemite sandwiches.) “How did I get out?” “There’s a place between Mummy’s legs called a vagina, and you came out there.”
Ms Oshry says it will probably be sometime later that they get to the big one: “How did I get in there?” She says ruefully: “This sometimes occurs in the most unlikely places. With me it was in a crowded lift!” This is the time to start talking about daddy’s penis in mummy’s vagina, and how his sperm and her egg joined to make the baby. Ms Oshry suggests this is also the time to sit down together with a book on the subject, preferably one that the parent has checked out beforehand: “We all come from different backgrounds and have different values, and parents will find that different books suit them.”
Don’t expect to get away with one talk. Questions don’t always indicate what it is that the child wants to know; they might be checking the parent’s willingness to talk about sexual issues, or the parent’s values on particular topics. Children who can remember all sorts of complicated facts and stories “forget” the facts of life over and over, partly because young minds have trouble with abstract concepts, and sometimes because they find it uncomfortable to think of their parents as sexual beings.

HELEN BUXTON, an educator with the Family Planning Association of New South Wales, recalls her well-informed son coming home from school announcing with disbelief a friend’s claim that making babies required penises in vaginas. Ms Buxton told him that was pretty much how it happened. Pause. “Did Dad do that to make me?” “Yes.” Says Ms Buxton: “He then looked skyward, admiring such self-sacrifice, and said, `Gee, Dad must have really wanted me!” From three to five is the time children learn not only facts, but attitudes, including the notion that their body is their own property.

Says Mr Biddulph, “They can wash their own bottom and penis or vagina, can learn that `This is mine and I look after it’. There isn’t any need for adults to touch children after that stage. It’s not until after five that they really need to know about the downside of sexuality, about bad adults.” He estimates that the average school classroom would contain at least one child who has been involved in sexually gratifying an adult.

Ms Buxton teaches protective behavior to preschool children by breaking it down into simple concepts. She explains that there are public parts of the body, and private parts _ the ones hidden by undies. She explains that there are public and private places; bedrooms and bathrooms, for example, versus parks and shopping centres; and that private parts go with private places. This provides a neat solution to the problem of children playing with themselves in inappropriate venues, such as supermarkets and grandma’s living room.

It also gives children boundaries about where to discuss the topic _ at home with mum and dad is private.

Ms Buxton tells children that they are in charge of their bodies, especially those private places, and that nobody is allowed to touch them if they don’t feel OK about it. With very young children, she emphasises that no one but mummy or daddy may touch them, and even they have to explain why they are doing it. If anyone else wants to touch them, such as a doctor, mummy or daddy must be there too. “It’s important they know they can say no, even to their mum and dad,” she says.

Ms Buxton tells them that there are never any secrets about their genitals, and that if anyone ever tells them something like that is secret, they must tell mum or dad or another grown-up right away.

Sexual exploration of their own and other children’s bodies is normal and healthy, Ms Buxton says. But parents should give children the confidence to talk about any experiences they have, such as the “You show me yours …” encounter. The parent could then inquire matter- of-factly about what happened: “Did you give him permission? Did you look at his? What did you learn from that?” If parents find that one child was taken advantage of and felt unhappy about the experience, they should intervene, the way they would with any other play that went too far and caused distress.

Like Professor Briggs, Mr Biddulph is concerned that the “normal” things parents do increase children’s risks. He believes that this century’s main tools of discipline, spanking and shaming, have much to answer for. “When kids are hit, they experience that feeling of being invaded, of having no power, and that makes them more vulnerable to people who do other things to them that arouse those feelings. They are also going to be fearful of telling you things in case they get smacked or shamed. Discipline may be the key to the whole business.”
Mr Biddulph says children who do not regularly experience fear or shame are also less likely to send out “victim” vibes: “People who work with perpetrators have found that they know to pick children who are either nervous or lonely and therefore vulnerable.”
Professor Briggs, who has studied child sex offenders, says another safeguard is to make sure that boys, in particular, get enough hugs and kisses at home. “The majority of victims who don’t escape a paedophile, and who don’t particularly want to escape, are the ones who have been affectionless, especially those whose fathers are unaffectionate or absent.”
She also suggests that parents spend more time helping children develop problem-solving skills generally, for example, by helping them work out what to do if they got lost in a shopping centre. And parents should take notice of children’s reservations about other caregivers; if a child dislikes a particular babysitter, sack them: “Rely on your child’s gut feelings.” Professor Briggs also says it is important to teach children to say no to things they don’t want.

The sort of children created by these practices will not always be comfortable for parents: they will ask embarrassing questions, let wincing parents know about what goes on in the sexual world of children, and be more likely to challenge adult authority. But it is a small price to pay if it produces children like the English girl who refused to get into a stranger’s car. Her two friends, who did get in, were later found and asked by their parents why they had done something they had always been warned against. They sobbed that they had been told always to obey their father, and the man had said that their fathers had told him to pick them up. The girl who had refused to go explained to her parents, “You told me always to think before I do something.”
The Family Planning Association of Victoria has a booklet, `Talking to Kids About Sex’, designed to help parents of children under 10, and runs workshops for parents and other caregivers. The association also operates Options Bookshop, 266 Church Street, Richmond, which has resources for parents and children. Telephone 429 3500 for a catalogue. Community health centres, libraries and schools also carry helpful materials.

Broaching the subject.

Broaching the subject of sex with your children may be confronting for both you and them. Here are some more subtle approaches: Leave books or leaflets lying around the house.

Watch and discuss television or video programs together.

Visit the zoo or other places where animals are around. Use them as a starting point for many topics.

Casually discuss magazine or newspaper stories.

Visit libraries or relevant bookshops. This can be a good way of checking out your child’s interest areas, or doing some research with them on tricky questions.

Often there are interesting displays and exhibitions at museums and community centres.

Discuss the pregnancy of a relative, friend or neighbor.

Source: Family Planning Association of Victoria.

First published in The Age.