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Bringing up Children Sexually

by Lonnie Garfield Barbach Ph.D.

Many women in the groups were concerned about what they could do so that their children, particularly their daughters, would not grow up with the same inhibitions and misconceptions about sex that had taken so much energy to reverse in themselves. Few good books have been written about the sexual education of children. Material is available carefully detailing how to explain reproductive matters and at what age information is appropriate, but very little has been researched or written about how to deal with children's natural curiosity about sexual matters. However, three books have been recently written by Dr. Wardell Pomeroy on the subject: Girls and Sex (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969), Boys and Sex (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1968), and Your Child and Sex: A Guide to Parents (New York: Delecorate Press, 1974).

Self-exploration is a natural part of the developmental process, and this includes a child's exploration of bodies  the mother's body, the father's body, friends' bodies, and child's own body.

How would we have liked to have been brought up sexually so that we were less inhibited and more sensual and sexual? How can we change things so our children can have a better experience? Child-rearing is an individual matter and something with which each mother and father has to struggle. Perhaps this discussion will present a few options for you to explore further in your family.

All too frequently, children have been treated as innocent asexual beings. But children most certainly are not asexual. All the sexual organs capable of providing pleasure are present, and children are sexual creatures, from birth. Theirs is not the same sexuality we know as adults, but it is nonetheless sexuality. The baby playing with your breast is at least sensual if not sexual. The two-year-old who seductively crawls into bed between Mommy and Daddy is sexual, although not with the same explicit sexual intent of an adult. The five-year-old girl, who dresses up and sits on her father's lap kissing him and asking him if he will marry her when she grows up, is sexual. The seven-year-old who is masturbating, possibly even to orgasm, is sexual. The eight-year-old prancing around without any clothes on is sexual. These are children passing through learning stages on the way to becoming adult sexual beings. Some of their behavior represents a mimicking of Mommy or Daddy and some results from natural bodily curiosity but it is all sexual though not necessarily with the adult's awareness of what sexuality means.

A major problem in dealing with sexuality in children has been the adult's own embarrassment and discomfort with sex. There has been a tendency to ignore children's sexual questions and gestures, a tendency to believe that an adult doesn't have to answer sexual questions because the child couldn't possibly know what she is asking. This denies the child's sexuality because of the adult's own uneasiness. The result, of course, is that the child gets the message that she is asking improper questions that her mother doesn't like to hear, so the child's tendency is to stop risking her mother's anger, keep quiet, and wonder silently to herself. Meanwhile, the child feels embarrassment, shame, and remains ignorant about sex, and many reach adulthood to experience excessive sexual inhibitions, the absence of orgasm, or the experience of an unwanted pregnancy.

A number of my colleagues, informed in the area of sex and child-rearing, advocate open, honest, direct dealing with sexual questions or sexual curiosity in children. They feel this is the best method. The child should be given information, with the parent frequently asking questions to determine if the child understood, if she has any further questions, if the information disturbed or upset her, so the parent can correct misconceptions from the beginning.

The biggest obstacle is dealing with issues that are not resolved in the parent's own mind, while still trying to be honest. One mother accepted masturbation intellectually, but found the old fears and feelings of disgust or shame were evoked when her son played with his penis. She did not want to alarm him by forbidding him to touch himself, but she knew he would detect her discomfort if she told him that what he was doing was fine, while she was feeling otherwise. Children pick up mixed messages quickly and respond with confusion. They realize something is wrong, although they may not be quite sure exactly what. A parent's attempt to inform the child of more than one prevailing intellectual opinion while also directly expressing personal discomfort may be one way of dealing with unsettled issues. In that way at least the child knows exactly why a parent is uncomfortable. This particular woman said, "I know it feels good to play with your penis and it's OK, but it makes me uncomfortable when you do it here in the living room. I would feel much better if you would go in to your bedroom where you can have privacy."

It is important for children to know that touching one's sexual organs is supposed to feel good  that other people touch themselves and have similar sensations and the response is not abnormal or shameful; that sometimes a special feeling called orgasm can occur, but it doesn't always so they shouldn't feel abnormal when it happens, or ignorant if it doesn't. It might be a good idea to say that the feelings are good feelings and should be enjoyed but possibly only in the privacy of one's own room, and when others aren't around. There are special rooms for many activities (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). Children are able to understand this.

The issue is a touchy one  to be able to give your children positive sex messages and open the home to sexual questions when you don't feel totally comfortable about it yourself. To give one's children experiences different from one's own, however, is a valid goal.

Physical contact is essential for children. Studies show that children in orphanages who received adequate nourishment but were not held, cuddled, kissed, and caressed would often become ill. 1 But in our culture it is frequently customary to discontinue physical contact as the child grows older, especially with sons. Then after marriage, miraculously, the two people who have been denied physical contact for years are supposed to be able to respond physically and emotionally without inhibitions  which was natural for them as a child, but was trained out of them as they grew older. Many of us grew up in families where touching was prohibited and so we tend to maintain a distance from our children. Others of us may find ourselves sexually turned on by our children, and these impulses may frighten us so much that we maintain physical distance in an effort to avoid the unacceptable sexual feelings and possibly even to protect our children from being the object of our sexual fantasies.

Sexual feelings for our children begin early. It is important to realize that sexual fantasies about one's children are normal. Many mothers in the groups reported having some such fantasies at least occasionally. Children are sexual, warm, cuddly human beings  we can feel turned on and have the fantasies but we don't have to act them out. Acting them out can be detrimental to the child, while just having the fantasy is perfectly harmless.

One of the group members, Samantha, had sexual fantasies about her five-year-old step-daughter who was going through a very seductive stage. Samantha was afraid she might actually try to seduce the child and as a result picked fights with her to keep them physically apart, hoping this would prevent her from acting out her worst fears. Their relationship was getting worse and worse. Another woman in the group announced that she, too, had had sexual fantasies which included her four-year-old daughter. She would use the fantasies during masturbation and found that after about two months her fantasies began naturally to include activities and people other than her daughter. So it was suggested that Samantha allow herself to have the fantasies, to exaggerate them, and carry them, still in fantasy, to the greatest possible extreme. Samantha returned the next week to say that she had followed our advice and actively fantasized sexual situations which included her step-daughter; she found that not only did she not act on them, but she felt closer to her step-daughter and could allow herself to be more affectionate and caring with the child. To her amazement she tired of the fantasies and soon replaced them with more interesting ones. She also found that she wasn't jealous of the daughter's seductive behavior toward the child's father any more.

Accurate information is important to curious youngsters. If your relationship is a close and caring one, and your child trusts you and feels comfortable with you, she will look to you for guidance and answers  especially in the early years. During adolescence things may change because of the adolescent's intense need for privacy and rebellion in order to establish herself as her own person. But if your relationship has been open until then, she should have received the necessary and important information about sexuality before this difficult and conflicted time.

Information need not exceed the limits of the child's question. A child asks a question, but we may not be aware of exactly what it is she wishes to have explained. Seeing the world through a child's eyes, and knowing exactly what she wants to know, can be very hard for an adult. A good way to find out precisely what is confusing the child, which in turn will make it far easier to answer her question, is to ask what she thinks about it or how she thinks it works. This can radically simplify a seemingly all-encompassing question. For example, one three-and-a-half-year-old asked Diane, "How does a car work?" Diane's mind immediately raced to all the complexities of a combustion engine, most of which she really didn't understand herself. But before she jumped in over both their heads, Diane asked, "How do you think it works?" "Well, I don't think you push it with your feet," the child answered. This greatly simplified Diane's problem as she explained the absolute rudiments of a motor attached to the wheels which causes the car to move. If the child wants more information, she will usually ask further questions. Generally, children hear only as much as they are prepared to hear at a particular point in time and walk away when they become anxious or burdened with information they cannot handle. Always asking if the child understands or has further questions or is upset by something you have said can help weed out the child's misconceptions and keep disturbing information from festering within.

Using diagrams and pictures can sometimes clarify things, or just using words that a child will not misinterpret. A friend of mine was told at the age of five that babies came from an egg in Mommy's tummy that Daddy fertilized. For years she carried around the mental image of Daddy shoveling manure on a chicken egg sitting on Mommy's tummy.

Information about sex is generally met by children with embarrassment and giggles  especially at the beginning. Their reaction may make it even more difficult for us to sensitively answer their questions if we feel they are not serious or are ridiculing us, especially when we are already experiencing discomfort and yet are trying to deal with the issue. It is important to remember that children may pick up our discomfort or may already be aware that this is a private subject and feel awkward and uneasy discussing it even though they are starved for accurate information. However, as you begin to address their questions, children will generally quiet down and listen attentively.

There is no reason to keep children from knowing that sex is an enjoyable, pleasurable activity; that sex is for fun first and for babies second. It makes no sense to hide the physical side of a loving relationship. It is important for children to see their parents embrace, kiss, cuddle, and in general act affectionately toward one another. However, in our culture, this does not mean making love with the children as spectators or participants, though two- to four-year-olds have a fantastic ability to open unlocked doors at precisely the wrong moments. It might be good to let your child know that you and paddy make love in the privacy of your bedroom; that during that time you don't like to be disturbed and any questions and problems can generally wait until afterward. To treat sex with dignity and love rather than to shroud it in awkward and unspeakable mystery is an excellent way of instilling a child with a healthy attitude toward sex.

The pleasure sex provides can be acknowledged rather than ignored. Young girls and boys can be told about a girl's clitoris just as they are told about a boy's penis, so that when they accidentally discover this tiny but pleasurable organ, they don't feel like freaks. Alix Shulman wrote a lovely dialogue about explaining the difference between boys and girls:

BOY: What's the difference between boys and girls?
MOTHER: Mainly their sex organs. A boy has a penis and a girl has a clitoris.
BOY: What's a clitoris?
MOTHER: It's a tiny sensitive organ on a girl's body about where a penis is on a boy's body. It feels good to touch, like your penis....
BOY: What's it for?
MOTHER: For making love, for pleasure. When people love each other, one of the ways they show it is by caressing one another's bodies, including their sex organs.
BOY: How do girls pee?
MOTHER: There's an opening below the clitoris for peeing. A man uses his penis for peeing, for making love, and for starting babies. Women have three separate places for these.... (and so on...) 2

Children are innocent and curious. They know no guilt until others instill it in them and sometimes it happens without parents even noticing. Sarah walked in on her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter while she was masturbating and the child began to cry hysterically. She hated herself because she did this and didn't want her mother to see and made her mother promise not to tell anyone. Sarah had no idea how her daughter got these negative feelings at such a young age. She could not remember ever telling her child that it was bad to touch herself.

This illustration makes it only too clear how little control we actually have over what a child hears and sees outside the home. Unless given permission and positive messages about sex from their parents, society, religion, schools, friends, and relatives all too quickly instill negative sex messages. Positive and accepting statements about sex, as opposed to the old oppressive messages, might ultimately improve the child's attitude and approach to sex. Landis et al. found that catching a child in the act of masturbation or making threatening statements about the act induces guilt, but has no effect on the frequency of masturbation. The child will continue to masturbate, but will also feel guilty about it. 3 Also, Kinsey's research indicates that a better sexual-orgasmic adjustment to marriage is more probable if the girl has experienced orgasm, by whatever means, prior to marriage. 4   These are good reasons not to discourage a child's masturbation.

Children's sexual exploration is like all other areas of exploration. For the child it is a way of learning about her environment and how to make a place for herself within it. Exploration includes urinating while standing up like a boy, wearing make-up like mother, playing doctor with other boys and girls down the street, and exploring sexual feelings with a girlfriend. Physical and loving relationships between two or more girls or two or more boys is a very common and natural part of the growing up process. It does not mean that the child is heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Each child will have the chance to choose a sexual orientation later on in life. This experimentation is a part of the development process for many children and not a cause for alarm or worry. One should try not to have the child feel abnormal or ashamed about the expression of budding sexual feelings.

Perhaps the most important source of feelings toward sexuality and about a girl's own body comes from messages from her mother. If a mother approaches life positively and freely shares her enthusiasm and love, if she holds aspirations for her daughters which move beyond the confines of traditional roles, then it is likely that the child will develop in a less inhibited, more optimistic, self-sufficient, and independent way.

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1.  Ribble, M. "The Infantile Experience in Relation to Personality Development," Personality and the Behavior Disorders. Hunt, J. McV., Ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1944, pp. 621-51. [Back]

2.  Shulman, Alix. "Organs and Orgasms," Woman in Sexist Society. Gornick, Vivian and Moran, Barbara K., Eds. New York: Signet, New American Library, 1971, p. 293 [Back]

3.  Landis (1940), p. 210. [Back]

4.  Kinsey, Alfred C., Pomeroy, Wardell B. Martin, Clyde E., and Gebhard, Paul H. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. New York: Pocket Book, Simon & Schuster, 1953, p. 172 [Back]


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