The beginnings of sexual awareness
“Daddy, why is the sky blue?” “Mummy, where does the sun go at night?” And then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue – “Mummy, where do babies come from?” This question usually leaves parents squirming with embarrassment and trying to pass the buck to the other parent. Teaching children the facts of life, telling them about the birds and the bees, is something that most parents are not very comfortable with. Actually, this is a very narrow view of sex education. It is not just about having an embarrassing, private talk with your child or giving them a book or their being given a lecture in school complete with diagrams. Sex does not begin and end with intercourse. Intercourse could be said to be the most intimate way in which men and women relate to each other. However, it is merely one aspect of the relationship between men and women. In fact, children are learning about sexuality from the time they can spot the difference between boys and girls. They also get cues from the different ways in which parents relate to sons and daughters and the way in which parents interact with each other. Thus, children whose parents have a bad marriage will find it very difficult to contemplate that sexual intercourse is built on love and mutual respect.
“Where do babies come from?”
Parents can expect the ‘dreaded’ question about the origins of babies around the age of three. The question stems from natural curiosity. Parents should keep in mind that a three-year-old’s level of understanding is quite simplistic. The child is too young to understand the concept of sexuality. The child will probably be satisfied if the mother says that the baby grows in a special place in her body called the uterus or womb and comes out after nine months. The next question is probably going to be – “How did the baby get in?” The only way a child is aware of about how things get in is through eating. Thus, a simple answer explaining that the baby grows from a tiny seed implanted in the uterus should suffice. If children want to know the father’s role in the process, mothers can explain that the father put the seed inside the mother. As for how the babies get out, children can be told that once the baby has grown enough inside the mother it comes out from a special opening called the vagina. It may be a good idea to specify that this opening is different from those for urination and defecation.
Sex education is something that happens in stages. A three-year-old child might be satisfied when he is simply told that the father provides the seed that grows into a baby. However, by the time he is five, he might want to know how exactly it got there. Here again, parents should remember to keep it simple. After all, he is only five. Explain to him that the seed comes out of the father’s penis and is deposited in the uterus where the baby will grow for the next nine months.
Some children don’t bring up the topic at all. Parents of such children assume that their children are particularly innocent. But in all likelihood, parents of these children have made them feel, probably unintentionally, that the question of how babies are made is somehow taboo and not open to discussion. Such parents should keep their ears open for indirect questions, hints and jokes that indicate that the child is curious but afraid to ask a direct question. For instance, a little boy may constantly poke fun at his pregnant mother saying that she is fat or a little girl may ask her mother how their dog had puppies. Parents should realize that their children are diffident about asking them questions directly and seize these opportunities to explain a little bit about human reproduction.
Some parents prefer fiction to fact when discussing sex with their children. A common euphemism used by parents is that a stork or an angel brought the baby. Such stories tend to backfire because the child can see the evidence of the baby growing in his mother’s stomach every day. The child immediately senses that his parents are being evasive about the issue and he is bound to find out the truth sooner or later. Parents are in danger of losing his trust because he is not sure when they might chose to lie or tell him half-truths again. In addition, the question of how babies are made acquires considerable significance highlighted by the parent’s nervous and sheepish approach. He gets the message that the topic is something to be embarrassed about. Another outcome of this approach is that the child may hesitate to discuss things that bother him with his parents in the future because he is not sure of the response he will get.
Adolescents and sex
Parents who have passed the “where do babies come from?” stage usually heave a sigh of relief, thinking that’s the end of that. But the topic of sex is bound to rear its head once again when their children hit puberty. This is the stage in life when girl’s breasts begin to develop, their hips widen and they begin to menstruate. Boys see an increase in body hair, their voices crack, their penises and testicles grow and they begin to have nocturnal emissions or “wet dreams.” Suddenly sons and daughters become impossible to cope with. They are constantly touchy and irritable, they seem to glory in being contrary and love playing the rebel. This is the stage when most parents wish their children were babies again.
Most adolescents become very conscious and sensitive about the way they look and the changes in their bodies. Parents need to help their children adjust to their sexually maturing and changing bodies. This is the stage in life when children need to be informed about sexuality, the sexual act and its consequences. Some teenagers may bring up the topic themselves directly or indirectly. Sometimes parents may have to take the initiative to broach the subject. If as a parent, one is diffident about discussing such a private topic with one’s child, tell him or her the way you feel. This will serve to put both parent and child at ease.
Menstruation marks the onset of puberty in girls. Sometimes girls begin to menstruate before they have been told or are aware of what it means. One can only imagine how a young girl feels when she discovers that she is bleeding and has no idea what is happening. That is why it is essential that mothers discuss menstruation and its implications with their daughters around the time they expect the girls to begin menstruating. The tone that mothers take when talking about menstruation will affect their daughters’ attitudes to it. Some mothers describe it as a curse; some mothers are embarrassed and use ‘code words’ to refer to it, others emphasize that this is a ‘delicate’ period for women. The fact is that menstruation is a normal bodily process and does not in any way prevent a woman from carrying on with her daily routine. While some women do experience cramps, a bloated feeling and tender breasts, these symptoms are rarely severe enough to bring life to a standstill. When a girl is on the threshold of womanhood she should not be feeling scared, embarrassed or resentful. Mothers should give their daughters the impression that menstruation is a rite of passage, a part of growing up and something to be looked forward to.
Once boys have reached the age of puberty, they begin to get erections and nocturnal emissions. It is important that they realize that this is perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Nocturnal emissions or “wet dreams” are the result of the ejaculation of semen during sleep often caused by a dream of a sexual nature. They may also have strong urges to masturbate. All this is perfectly natural. Parents should be careful that they do not give their sons or daughters the feeling that masturbation and erotic dreams are “dirty” or unnatural. The more matter-of-fact parents are about it, the more healthy their children’s attitudes will be towards it.
It’s not just physical
It is important that children are made to understand the emotional aspects of sex. Thus, while most schools usually organize a lecture on the topic, these talks tend to be quite clinical and impersonal and confine themselves to the physicality of sex. Teenagers need to understand that the decision to become sexually active should not be a casual one. A person’s first sexual experience is an event of great personal significance and should happen when he or she is ready for it. Parents should explain to their children that they may be attracted to several people in their lives, some may be mere infatuations while others may develop into long-term relationships. Teenagers should realize that their bodies are their own to do with as they see fit, according to their desires and after exercising sound judgement. However, they should never have sex or engage in any other form of physical contact under pressure from another person, or to please someone else. There is a common misconception among parents that open communication about sexual feelings and the sexual act will have the effect of increasing the likelihood of young people becoming sexually active. On the contrary, parents who discuss sex openly, in a natural manner, are merely equipping their children with the requisite knowledge so that whenever they decide that they are ready to become sexually active, they will be making an informed decision and understand its consequences. Many children go through life with warped ideas about sex merely because their parents were too embarrassed to talk about it. Such children are left to gather information piecemeal from friends, books and the media and the conclusions they draw need not necessarily be the right ones.