How should parents teach their children about sex and sexuality?
In Western culture there is a conundrum. By late teens or early young adulthood when a person is becoming more sexually active the question arises “how do we teach our children about sex and sexuality?” This question, may have been ignored by the parent as the child has grown through childhood and teenage years. The parent may seem lost in an array of questions such as “What do I teach my child?”
What makes the question even more confusing is the different stages of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg sights the early stages as complete dependence on the parent and avoiding punishment; stage two, conformity, conforms to a set of patterns or rules to get rewards; stage three, conforms to get approval, good boy/bad girl; stage four, individualism and independence which normally appears in the teenage years where school friends suddenly become more important than the parents. I would also include at stage 5, the notion of paradox and contradiction where two opposing views both make sense, and then finally stage 6, universal principles.
The problem that churches and the parents or family have experienced is that they try and use a pattern or lens for approaching someone in say stage 4 or stage 5, with a pattern or lens which is operating at stage 2 or 3. For example, using systems of conformity or quoting a rule book with documents like the Catholic catechism or the Papal encyclicals like Humanae Vitae from 1968, whilst the child or person has entered a stage of independence. Stage four. The lens and approach do not work, and the parent is left thinking “Why am I failing?” It is like trying to fit a square object into a round hole.
The question is not “what is the correct teaching” (stage 3 conformity), but rather “who am I” (stage 4 independence). At this point the child or person seeks independence from the parent precisely when puberty or when sex and sexuality all of a sudden become far more important. It is precisely at this point where the wider community, or village plays a pivotal role. Where a trusted uncle or aunty or maybe a significant adult family friend may enter the conversation. “What is the meaning of sex and sexuality?” “Where have they failed in their life with sex and sexuality” or “Where have they succeeded?” This takes a deep sense of vulnerability on both sides. Where sex and sexuality are not hidden or seen as dirty, but is brought out into the light and seen with a great sense of sacredness and wholesomeness, and with a degree of tactfulness. This wisdom and experience from left field must be invited and encouraged by the parents. Parents need to actively encourage and nurture significant people to play an important part in the child’s life.
But as we approach sex and sexuality we must always have in our minds and hearts “that God is love”. And as human beings, we reflect the mystery of this love. All of us. Because, in the very beginning, God said, “it is very good”.