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Monday, June 11, 2012

How Do You Talk to Children about Sex? It Begins with Love!

A mother's group I belong to had a question today about how to talk to your children about sex. A nine year old boy asked his mom a series of questions about sexuality. The challenge? How to answer them? Instruction in sexual intimacy always begins with love - parents' love for each other and their mutual love for the child. But in terms of answering specific questions, the best advice I ever heard was to give the least information that satisfies the child. Here's how I would answer the boys' questions:

Q. How are babies born? Like do they cut your stomach open?A. That's two questions so I'll answer them one at a time. First, the baby grows in a special part of a mommy's body called a womb. Remember in the Hail Mary where it says, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus?" That was talking about Jesus growing inside of Mary in her womb which is under her heart. It's a special place perfectly made for a baby to grow and be safe and healthy. When the baby is ready to be born, a mommy's body starts to squeeze the baby out through a special channel called the vagina and the baby comes out between her legs, first the baby's head, then the shoulders and then all the rest. (This is a good time to talk about how happy you were when he was born and how excited you were to find out he was a boy if you didn't know beforehand.)
A. Now your second question. Sometimes the baby can't be born in the natural way and the doctor has to cut through the mom's tummy (not her stomach - that's for food) and into her womb. And then he lifts the baby out. But most of the time babies are born in the natural way.
Q. How does God decide to send you a baby? A. God gave a special gift to married couples, a special of way of loving each other. When they love each other in that special way, sometimes God sends a baby, but not always. Some couples who want a baby very much never have one. God is the one who decides. He knows the reasons for everything He does, but we don't. But we DO know that He loves us and always wants what's best for us, so we need to stay close to Him and pray and listen to Him.
Q. Isn't the baby JUST the mom's? How does the baby get half the dad? A. The mom is the one who carries the baby in her body because God made her with a womb, so it looks like the baby is hers, but she can't make a baby by herself. Both the mom and dad together make the baby with God's help. Each of them has special cells, kind of like seeds, that join together to make a baby. (Depending on the age of the child, you may want to use the terms sperm and egg, but maybe not. You are not, remember, trying to make your child a medical expert.) When that happens the baby starts to grow and will keep getting bigger and bigger for about nine months until the baby is ready to be born. (This might be a good time to show the pictures from the Life Magazine series of the egg and sperm joining and then the pictures of fetal development. A good question to the child to initiate this is, "Would you like to see how the baby grows?" Most children are fascinated by babies.) At this point the child may be satisfied and run off to play. But the next question might be:
Q. How do the cells get together?A. When Mommy and Daddy love each other in a special way our bodies join together and the dad shares his seed with the mom's seed and sometimes a baby is conceived (That's a word that literally means "to take together.")

If the child wants more information about how that happens I think parents need to decide whether he or she is ready to handle the information. Just because a child asks doesn't mean he needs the answer then. I would not, for example, give specific sexual details to children in the latency period. A good answer to a child who asks a question that you aren't sure he's ready to handle is one Christian holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom describes in her book, The Hiding Place. At about age ten she heard the term "sex sin" and asked her father, a clockmaker, what it meant. They were on the train and had reached their destination. He put his heavy suitcase full of clocks and watches in front of her and asked her to carry it off the train. She couldn't even lift it. Then he said, "It would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you."

What a wise father. Parents need to pray for the wisdom and discernment to know when to speak and not to speak about these things to their children, not only the children who ask, but the ones who, perhaps out of shyness, don't ask. Big families and farm families have less of a challenge because teaching about babies is a natural part of their daily activities. What child who helps bathe or change little brothers and sisters doesn't know they're different? What child raised amid cows, goats, and sheep dropping their young doesn't have a graphic illustration of the "birds and bees?" But for many families, it's more challenging. There are good Catholic books out there to help, but there are also inappropriate and dangerous sex education materials even in parochial schools. Some of the programs in use for "sex ed" or "safe touch" violate innocence and make children more vulnerable to abuse and sexual sin, not less. Naive parents who just trust that the right thing is done in their parish religious education programs need to read Thomas Dolan's article Sex Education and Catholic Schools. We are living in a sex-saturated age and parents need to be on guard to make sure their children are protected and prepared with a prudent and holy approach to a subject that should be shrouded in reverence and mystery. Our parents weren't saying sex is "dirty" when they were reluctant to talk about it freely. They were illustrating its sacred mystery. But that needs to be stated explicitly today so children don't get the wrong message from silence or embarrassment.

The boy asked one other question in the dialogue with his mom, one that is not surprising in our world today.
Q. How did Dad's sister have a baby when she wasn't married? A. Can you drive a car? (Boy: No.) Why not? (I'm not old enough and I don't have a driver's license.) Just like there are laws about driving a car made by man, God made laws to protect us. Only married couples are allowed to use the special gift God gave that can make a baby. But sometimes people do things they have no right to do and it causes a lot of problems and a lot of heartache. The best place for a baby to grow up is in a family with a mom and a dad. Children miss out when they only have one parent. That's why God told people to use the gift he gave them in the right way. But not everyone will obey and that's why we have the sacrament of Confession.
As you can see from these questions and answers, you can't address sexuality without discussing the faith. So teaching it to children begins long before the first question with prayer and sacrifice and reading the Church documents. Parents are the proper teachers on sexuality and that responsibility should never be delegated to others except in very unusual circumstances. As the Pontifical Council for the Family stated in The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, "Having given and welcomed life in an atmosphere of love, parents are rich in an educative potential which no one else possesses. In a unique way they know their own children; they know them in their unrepeatable identity and by experience they possess the secrets and resources of true love."

Sexuality instruction begins with the love for the individual child not with some so-called anonymous "expert." Parents, remember that you are the experts on loving your children and you are irreplaceable. So you, not the world, need to be the teachers who share the most intimate subjects with them. As Truth and Meaning states, it is the task of parents to promote their children's "authentic education for love." God never tasks you with a duty without providing the grace to accomplish it. Those hard questions from your children are an invitation to help them grow in wisdom, love, and virtue. Rejoice when they ask and pull out the wedding album. The love of husband and wife for one another is where the teaching of human sexuality begins.

See more:
Familiaris Consortio
Humanae Vitae
Healthy Families: Safe Children (program for parents developed by Diocese of Baker under Bishop Robert Vasa)
Veil of Innocence


  1. Growing up on a farm answers some of these questions. :)


  2. Good parents in today's sick world are real heroes. There are so many assaults on kids' innocence today that were inconceivable when I was a kid. I mean, *I* am not old enough to know some of the things kids are being exposed to in school (and "exposed" is precisely the right word in that context). A mother and a father, married to each other, are the only ones who can protect their kids from the tsunami of sewage that bears straight down on them.