I will have much to say throughout this book on how we as parents can assist our children in making sense of the wall of sexualized messages, how we can be approachable, and what to say to our kids when various situations arise. First, let’s take a preliminary look at how we can help our kids manage and negotiate their wall, and how we might be able to mitigate some of the more deleterious effects of the wall.
We Can’t Run Away from the Wall
For all the concern that I am raising about the hypersexualization of children today, by no means do I think that we are seeing the beginning of the end or that we are facing some sort of Armageddon concerning the future of sexual behavior in America. We certainly have the capacity to assist our children through these highly sexualized times and many parents and adults are doing just that. But unfortunately we can expect to shelter our kids only so much from their exposure to sexualized matters. We can’t expect them to be able to avoid or escape their walls of sexualized messages. I speak to many parents who want to try to cover their children’s eyes and ears, believing that somehow their kids will be able to avoid the wall. To be sure, we should all try to minimize our children’s exposure to damaging sexualized messages. However, we can’t expect to constantly shield them from those realities that exist in the world. We have to accept that our kids will have some exposure. So we need to be there for them on a regular and ongoing basis, prepared to counter and buffer the many confusing messages they receive from their sexualized wall and to help them make sense of what they are exposed to.
By doing this, we can expect to add our own helpful blocks to our child’s wall of sex information. Remember that not all of our child’s sexualized wall has to be problematic, confusing, or harmful. As parents, we add our own blocks to our child’s wall and if we communicate effectively and smartly, those blocks will help promote a healthy and positive sexuality in our child and actually counter those blocks that are less than desirable. When we tell our child why we love them so much, and then go on to give them accurate information about sex and sexuality, provide fair and consistent boundaries for how they should behave sexually, and offer them guidance regarding how to better understand the sexual messages they do receive, we add positive sexual messages to their sexualized wall—and counter the damaging messages.
Preparing to Counter the Wall
I have five key points for you as you begin your effort to counteract the potentially damaging sexual messages your child is receiving:
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Face the Facts
First and foremost, you must recognize and accept the fact that your child is being affected by potentially damaging sexual messages. I have spoken to far too many parents who think their children somehow remain innocent when it comes to sex and sexuality: “Oh, my ten-year-old son is so naive. He doesn’t have a clue about sex, or any interest in it, for that matter. I don’t even think he knows what sex is.”
Yeah, right, and what planet do you live on? I say to myself. By thinking this way, parents only postpone the inevitable conclusion that we underestimate what our kids are doing, what they think about, and what they know. There’s a considerable body of research now that confirms this.1 I suppose it’s only natural for us to want to believe that our kids don’t do all those bad things that other kids do. But we would be wise to rethink our assumptions about what our kids do and don’t do sexually.
So parents, let’s all face up to it right now. Our kids are sexual human beings, they think about sex, they’ve heard and seen their fair share of sexual matters, and they have many things around them that will promote their interest in sex. Of course, this will all depend to some degree on their age. All things considered, the ten-year-old will have more information than the seven-year-old, and the seven-year-old will have more than the four- or five-year-old. Nevertheless, even your charming and cute four- or five-year-old will be well on her way to various sexual exposures as she begins kindergarten. Put twenty five-year-olds together for any length of time and you will see a variety of behaviors and abilities—as well as different levels of sexual curiosity. They will express that curiosity, and at some point your little one will express hers. Most of the behaviors will range from curiosity regarding the differences in girls’ and boys’ body parts (the oldie but goodie “playing doctor”), occasional boyfriend-girlfriend role-play, pretend kissing, some silly talk about things like “wee-wee” and “tush,” some peeking at others in the bathroom or bedroom, and of course masturbation. But, as I’ve been saying, far too frequently we now hear and see things from five-year-olds that we hardly ever heard or saw before.
Even though five-year-olds are quite innocent and fairly oblivious to sexual matters, sexualized behavior in five-year-olds is emerging far too frequently. We now see kids this young touching others’ genitals; we hear them say things like “I want to sex you”; we see them use force and coercion to get others to disrobe, touch each other, and lie on top of each other; and we even know of some who perform oral sex. I’ll have much more to say on this later, but I also want to bring this to your attention early on, because if you’re a parent of a little one you absolutely need to heed the sex contamination factor at these young ages.
The important thing here is not to be naive about your child’s sexualized wall of messages. For if you are, you will fail to appreciate just how much your child needs you to be approachable on sexual matters. Should you fall prey to thinking that your son or daughter is entirely innocent, you will pay the price for not paying attention. Your child is going to be exposed to—and affected by—sexual messages and behavior much earlier than you think.
FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES
A parent once told me that her little boy’s kindergarten teacher had called her and reported that, after being told by one of the girls in his class that she had a boyfriend, the little boy promptly asked her if she had had sex with him yet. Needless to say, the little girl’s mom was upset. None of this is especially problematic, but it does represent how things have changed over the years.
How should a parent respond to this type of behavior? You could say to the little girl, “Oh, Tommy was being silly, and he shouldn’t have said what he said.” Be prepared to clarify what sex means if she appears to want to take your conversation further (see this page). But if she’s satisfied with your response, let it go for now.
The boy is another matter. Since he’s the one who used the word sex, you could say to him, “Do you know what sex is?” Chances are he would say it means kissing or that he doesn’t know, and you could say, “Well, let me tell you what it means. Sex is much more than kissing or hugging. It’s something that only adults who love each other do, like mommy and daddy. What happens is that mom and dad take their clothes off and lie in bed next to each other and start to hold and kiss each other.” I think that at this point the boy would probably not want to hear you say anything more. He’d probably cover his ears and say something like, “Yuck, that’s disgusting,” and that would be it. You see, five-year-olds really don’t want to hear too much about sex, but this little guy needs to understand that what he said can mean a whole lot more than what he thought it did.
Do not wait for your child to ask questions about sex before speaking to her about such matters. She may never ask you those questions. You must be one or two steps ahead of your child, knowing from a developmental standpoint what your child needs to know about sex and sexuality. You’ve made an excellent decision by picking up this book and, by the time you’re done, you’ll know exactly what your child needs to know and at what age they need to know it. This book will also help you better understand parenting issues and parenting styles that pertain to our role as sex educators (see later in this chapter and chapter 9). None of us went to school to learn how to be good parents, yet it is without question the hardest thing we will ever do in life.
Take Advantage of Teachable Moments
If you and your child are watching television, listening to music, or passing by a billboard that is sending a sexualized message, be ready to intervene and help your child make sense of it. Don’t be shy. Share with your kid what you think about the sexual message. Share your thoughts, your beliefs, and your values—whatever you feel would be helpful for your child.
I will elaborate much more on such teachable moments later on. These are the major way in which we provide most of our sexuality education and guidance to our children. For now, suffice it to say that we need to learn how to recognize teachable moments. Many of us think that we have to have those formal sit-down talks with our kids when we communicate about sex and sexuality. I personally recommend them, but it’s actually in spontaneous real-life situations that we provide most of our guidance about sex and sexuality to our kids. For example, perhaps you’ve caught your seven-year-old masturbating on the couch in the living room: “Hey, sweetheart, I know it feels good to masturbate but as I’ve told you before it’s a private behavior and I really don’t want to have to see you do it. You can go up to your bedroom for that.” You acknowledge the behavior, you share your values (in this case, you support the behavior), and you put it in context with boundaries (it’s a private behavior for the bedroom).
Or you’re walking your eight-year-old daughter to school in an urban area and you pass an adult sex shop with a strap-on dildo and a naked blow-up doll in the window. Your kid looks at it with confusion, and your first instinct is to pick up your walking pace and hope you can get away without having to say anything. What the heck do you say to an eight-year-old about dildos and blow-up rubber dolls? Well, being the good parent that you are, you realize that you need to do the right thing and address with her what she’s just seen. You can’t do what so many adults do—that is, engage in the age-old parental practice of avoidance response. I hear so many stories of parents avoiding uncomfortable situations involving their child, in the hopes that they will just go away. Well, they don’t go away; they only come back to haunt you. Don’t let her add these images to her sexualized wall and allow them to affect her as they may without any adult intervention. Intervene now: “Well, honey, there was some pretty weird stuff there in that shop window, huh?” Wait a second to see how she responds. I’m not sure if an eight-year-old would notice the dildo or not, but let’s assume that she does. “Yeah, why was there a naked doll and fake penis in that store?” she asks. Your response might be something like this: “You know, as crazy as it sounds, there are some adults who buy things like fake penises and naked dolls. I know it sounds nuts, but it’s true. Some adults think it’s kind of funny to do that; they do it as a joke. But there are some adults who use them as though they were real by touching and holding them. Daddy (or Mommy) and I think that’s silly, but if some adults want them, I don’t think they’ll cause any harm.”
You don’t need to worry about your eight-year-old being negatively affected by saying this to her. She probably doesn’t have much interest in any of it to begin with. But I do think you need to address the fact that she has seen these things. She may well see them again, perhaps numerous times, if she goes to school down the block from the shop. At some point she may begin to talk with her peers about what she has seen and things could really start to get a little out of hand if she doesn’t have a context in which to place the information. Help your child process the many confusing messages that are out there. By intervening early and giving some context to what she sees, it is likely that your thoughts on the matter will stick with her and mitigate future exposures to the adult shop.
You need to be aware of what your child is experiencing. Be vigilant in monitoring his life and world. This applies to parenting in general, of course, but it is especially true as it pertains to sex and sexuality.
Know who your child’s peers and friends are and who their parents are. Many parents don’t. You have to find out some of the values that your child’s friends espouse. This will give you a window of insight into their thoughts on sexual matters. Plus, it’s just a good thing to do on many levels. You might as well start early on this, as you’re going to really need to key in on his peer group when he’s eleven to fourteen years of age—a critical time for peer group formation—so start practicing now.
If you have computers in your house make sure your ten-, eleven-, or twelve-year-old does not have unsupervised access to them. Make sure your kids don’t sign on to Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking site.
Of course, you know you will be challenged. “But why, Mom?” your daughter asks. “My friends are allowed to join.”
“Because I love you, plain and simple, and you are too young for this kind of virtual interaction. Plus you are a unique individual—you are not your friends—and you will be better off without it.”
Just take a firm stand, especially with your younger children. Some of your kids will protest, shout, and kick like crazy when you tell them no, but that’s just too bad. Tell them that you will not let them be on the Internet without supervision, and you will not let them join a social network. In fact, parents of teenagers thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years of age should do the same—certainly with regard to social networking.
Monitor your children’s relationships with each other. If your kids are three or four years apart, for example, make sure you know what the older one is teaching or possibly showing the younger one. Do not assume that just because they’re siblings the older one won’t corrupt or hurt the younger one. I had a parent tell me once that her eight-year-old son bathes with her five-year-old and when they’re in there he pokes and pinches the little one’s penis and butt. She asked me whether or not she should allow them to continue bathing. My message to her was very simple; it is never a good idea to allow siblings of significantly different ages to bathe together. Don’t believe me? Then go ahead and allow it, but please keep an eye on them. If you don’t have time to supervise, don’t let them bathe together.
Make sure you have parental controls on the television set if your child has one in her bedroom. Even with the controls, check periodically that your child hasn’t cracked the codes. Our kids always seem to stay a step or two ahead of us in the realm of technology. In fact, we should take little for granted when it comes to our kids. They’re wonderful and lovely, and we can trust them—that is, to a point. You should always keep in mind that your child has the potential to do things you would not want her to do. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times, and try to develop the ability to “see from the back of your head.” I was asked recently by a parent of a fifth grader whether or not I think it’s a good idea for her to snoop on her child. My instant answer: “Of course you should.” Actually, what some call snooping I call proactive monitoring, and it is an essential ingredient to effective parenting. Naturally, you want to give your children increasing opportunities for independence as they demonstrate they are capable and responsible enough to handle things. But make no mistake about it, you are in charge and you will proactively monitor their lives as long as you feel it is necessary to do so. And you should do this especially with regard to sexual matters.
Reflect on Your Parenting Style
There’s a ton of research out there on parenting styles and we know a lot about what style of parenting works well and what doesn’t. When you sift through the research, you’ll find basically four styles of parenting:
I won’t focus in any great detail on parenting styles, but I will touch on the ingredients of the various styles in terms of the role of an approachable parent on sexual matters, with a greater emphasis on the authoritative style. You should educate yourself on the merits of authoritative parenting and make every effort to practice its effective components.
CAUGHT IN THE SOCIAL NETWORK
My boss recently confided in me that his twelve-year-old daughter was being exposed to sexual talk on her social networking page from a male peer who wanted to kiss and lick virtually every private part of one of her female friends. His daughter was very upset the day this happened—she eventually told her mother, who then shared the news with my boss. When I told my boss that he needed to help her process what she had experienced and then close her social networking account, he became conflicted over whether or not he should do that. He believed his daughter would protest vehemently and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to have that confrontation with her.
Ah, not wanting a confrontation! He’s exhibiting the classic wishy-washy response of a permissive parent (which I will address in more detail later). What he should be doing is to be empathetic but take a firm stand with his daughter. He should say to her, “Honey, what have you learned from this experience?” He should let her respond—but the message he wants her to get and needs to steer her toward is that it takes a lot to really get to know the core of an individual. And even then you still can’t be absolutely certain what the person might or might not do. Then he should follow up by saying, “I can imagine how shocked you are. I am really glad that you shared this with me. I think this boy was way out of line. What he did was wrong and he should apologize.” Finally, he needs to tell her that she must close her page on her social networking site. There’s no magical statement to make for this one. The bottom line is that she’s too young for any of this, and as her father it’s his job to protect his daughter.
Being Authentic in Our Approach to Challenging the Wall
To enhance your chances that you will be approachable and the most influential source of sexual guidance for your child, be authentic when teaching your child about sex and sexuality. We are all sex educators. The mere fact that we are parents dictates this, and—just like the teachers I train to teach sex education—we need to be authentic when we go about our instruction with our kids. This means we need to take our kids to a real place when we teach them.
Look Both Ways Before Crossing
Think about how you taught (or will teach) your child to cross the street safely. That is, you will have endless conversations about crossing at the corner, looking both ways before venturing out into the street, and crossing on the green. You’ll role-play different situations that she could encounter when crossing a street, creating scenarios that could actually happen. For example, a driver might run a red light, or she might come to a large intersection where multiple cars want to turn simultaneously, or an intersection with no lights and only stop signs; you will create every imaginable situation that your child could possibly encounter when crossing the street. And of course you will take her out to the street and actually practice crossing it correctly and in a way that reduces the risk of accident. When you do, you will be doing authentic instruction (see sidebar) in its purest form: teaching your child by having her actually practice the very thing that you want her to learn.
Authentic instruction, or authentic teaching, is a form of instruction that uses circumstances that are as close to real life as possible. In its purest form, authentic instruction involves learning by actually doing. If you are teaching about climbing a rock wall, you have your pupil practice climbing a rock wall. Or if you are teaching your child to cross the street, you actually practice crossing a street with him. Admittedly, it is harder to use real-life experiences when teaching your child about sexuality (you can’t have your child actually have sex, can you?). But there are many strategies that come close to creating a sense of real-life circumstances that you can use. Throughout the book, I will give you examples of authentic instruction strategies for the issues we’re covering—issues like sexual feelings, peer pressure, sexual decision making, and being male and female. I will offer some strategies for addressing love, respect, and trust in chapter 3.
Imagine a Real-Life Scenario
When you are teaching your child about sex and sexuality, come as close as you possibly can to having him experience what it is you want him to learn. So, for example, if you want your ten-year-old to understand how to avoid sexual peer pressure, you might create a scenario where he is older and in middle school and that drop-dead gorgeous girl comes on to him when at a party at a friend’s house:
“What are you going to do when she tells you you’re hot, touches your butt, and wants you to come with her and her friends to another party at someone else’s house?” you ask him. “You feel so flattered she’s noticed you and no one else, your heart is jumping out of your chest, you’ve got butterflies in your stomach, and your pulse is racing. You are even getting an erection. So, what are you going to do?”
He will likely say he doesn’t know (he’s still only ten). So you will guide him through various options for managing this dilemma and then cap it off with what you hope he will do, which is of course to avoid any sexual contact. You’ll remind him that all feelings are normal but that ultimately he needs to make a choice that reduces the risk for sexual involvement.
Going through this scenario with your ten-year-old child is a perfect example of how you can approach the concept that “ten is the new sixteen.” It’s hard for a ten-year-old to fully relate to this scenario, simply because kids of this age are not likely to encounter a peer pressure situation like this. But you want to start to get your ten-year-old to think about these sorts of situations now rather than when they are thirteen or fourteen. Remember, it is much easier to reinforce the concept of sexual abstinence with kids who have little or no interest in actually having sex, rather than trying to do it at a later age when interest is on the rise.
Let’s look at another example of authentic teaching. Your six-year-old comes to you complaining about a boy in her class who has on several occasions tried to touch her buttocks and between her legs. He has also tried to do this with some of the other kids in her class. Tell her she did the right thing to tell you, and that she should always tell the teacher when he even tries to touch her. Tell her you will address this with the teacher and the principal, and that they will all work together to keep him from trying this behavior in the future. You tell her that some kids have trouble keeping their hands to themselves, and that they will do this to either get attention or make themselves feel bigger and better than the other kids. Then, say: “Next time he tries to do this to you, tell him ‘no’ in a very firm voice and go and tell your teacher. When he wants to work with you or play a game with you, you can tell him you will but that you will not allow him to touch you.”
You and your daughter can role-play different situations when the boy is being appropriate in his interactions with her and other times when he tries to touch. Each time, have your daughter act out how she would handle each situation. Role-play is an authentic technique for teaching about sex and sexuality.
Share Your Values About Life and Sexuality
Always share your particular values about whatever you are trying to teach. Values drive our sense of what is right, what is wrong, what is to be cherished, and what is to be avoided. Your children need your guidance and instruction in order to form their own value systems as they develop.
For example, let’s say you want to address the topic of HIV/AIDS with your five-year-old. A values-related issue that will come up is the acceptance and kind treatment of persons with HIV/AIDS, or for that matter anyone who has a potentially life-threatening illness. You will want to instill in your young child the value of helping those who are sick and ill.
Or perhaps you want to discuss homosexuality with your five-year-old. This is a perfect time to help your child develop what will be a lifelong acceptance and tolerance of persons who are gay and lesbian. (If you do not adhere to this view that all people are to be accepted regardless of their sexuality, then shame on you! People are attacked and killed in this country every year just because they are thought to be gay or lesbian, so enough of this thinking once and for all.) Discussing tolerance in general only strengthens a young person’s ability to do just that—become tolerant. Discussing homosexuality with your five-year-old child will not cause him or her to become gay, just as discussing tolerance of persons of a different color will not change your child’s skin tone.
So how do you explain homosexuality to your child in a respectful, nonjudgmental way? You start with something like, “You know, just like men and women can fall in love with each other, so can two men or two women. Two men who fall in love with each other are called gay men. Two women who do so are called lesbian women. They are also called homosexual.” It’s likely that at this point your five-year-old will be pretty bored and say “Okay” and be done with it. You could then follow up by saying, “There are some people who disapprove of people who are gay and lesbian. Sometimes people try to hurt people who are gay or lesbian. I think that is so terrible and wrong. I want you to grow up with respect for people who are homosexual.” And keep in mind that it’s entirely possible your five-year-old may actually be homosexual him- or herself—which is one more reason why it’s so important to reinforce values of acceptance and kindness. You want your child to accept him- or herself regardless of sexual orientation.
Helping to shape and instill values in your child is no small matter. Your child’s sexualized wall will have many messages that reflect various values about sex and sexuality. And of course many of them will be values that you would not want your child to develop and ones you will need to counter: messages that glorify the objectification and denigration of women, messages that tell young males that the more women you can have sex with the better man you’ll be, messages that damage a young person’s body image, messages that promote sexual irresponsibility, and a whole bunch of other messages that will run contrary to the values you want to instill in your kid.
Let Your Kid Know What You Think Is Right and Wrong
When you share your values about sex and sexuality with your kids, you are also letting them know what you think is right and wrong. You can’t do better as a parent or do more to add to your approachability than when you share with your child the boundaries you expect for their sexual behavior and positively reinforce those boundaries on a consistent basis. You’re doing this when you take the following kinds of actions:
Our children need to hear from us what we believe to be right and wrong behavior when it comes to sexual matters. Why are too many of us reluctant to do this? So many parents who come to my school presentations don’t want to commit to drawing the line with their kids on different sexual behaviors. Some have actually told me they had sex before they were an adult and it didn’t ruin their lives. “So why be so harsh on our kids?” one mother asked me. A dad recently said, “I should tell my daughter she can’t have sex before being in love? Why? I didn’t.”
It is our job as parents to set limits. We just have to set those limits and talk about them in ways that allow our kids to listen to us. And we can’t wait for their middle school years to do this! We estimate that 7 percent to 10 percent of kids in the United States will have intercourse before thirteen years of age. That’s between five million and seven and a half million kids who will have intercourse before becoming a teenager.3
So you say to your eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old, “I love you, and because I love you I hope that you don’t have sex until you are an adult, and then, only with someone you respect, trust, and love.” If your daughter or son acts as though she or he can’t stand to hear you say that—because, after all, this is still pretty young—you can say, “Okay, okay, I understand this is tough to hear, but trust me, it’s really important that you understand what your parents think about the right time to have sex. And it’s better to hear this now than when you are older and maybe it’s too late. We will continue to have talks like this with you as you grow older.” Many high school kids have told me, “Hey, Dr. Fred, when you told us that stuff in fifth grade I didn’t think it was that important, but I sure do now.”
Our kids need to know where we stand and what we think is right and wrong about sexual matters: masturbation, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, oral sex, sex toys, skirt length, pants hanging below the underwear line, and on and on. Our kids will at some point develop their own values for these issues and it is essential that we share with them what ours are before they form their own. You can’t be shy about any of this stuff. Let’s say, for instance, you believe the following:
These are values statements, and you can share them with your child by ten years of age. So where do you stand on the issues? What are your values? We will explore many as we go through this book together.
Form a Bond
I probably cannot say too much about bonding. It is perhaps the single most important factor in a child’s life—forming a loving, respectful, trusting relationship over time with a significant adult. And who better to fill that role than Mom or Dad or another designated guardian? So much of what I have been talking about here in this chapter lends itself to helping us bond with our child. Bonding with our kids means so much more than being friends with them, or doing things with them, or “hanging” with them, or having them do as we ask. Bonding is a meaningful and deep, insightful, everlasting, symbiotic relationship with another human being—in this case with your child.
Bonding with your child will create a protective barrier that will insulate him against some of the most significant risk factors facing young people today.4 If you bond with your child, the chances that your child will engage in drug use, commit a violent act, or engage in some form of risky sexual behavior will decrease. That’s right: if you make it your business to bond with your children, you will increase the odds that your child will avoid these destructive behaviors. So much of this goes back to what I was saying earlier. We hold such significant power to positively shape our children’s sexual behavior.
What does bonding mean?
A Pause to Reflect
Before we move on to considering what’s at stake in our efforts to ensure a healthy, happy sexual future for our children, please take some time to think about the following points:
The answers to these questions are critical, because there is so much at stake. We will take a closer look at what’s on the line in chapter 4. But first we’re going to focus on what I call the big three: love, respect, and trust. They are the most important factors for achieving a happy, healthy, fulfilling sexuality—and, for that matter, a happy, healthy, fulfilling life.