Children are often exposed to sex and overt sexuality quite early in life, whether it is in the form of popular songs, such as “Sheila ki javani”, or more direct and harmful ways, such as exposure to pornography and sexual abuse. While children do not have the maturity to understand what sex and sexuality are, they do experience some discomfort and/or curiosity when exposed to it. Depending upon how the situation is handled by the parents, they also have some feelings attached to the topic. Children and teenagers often have many questions, which they might try to ask, directly or indirectly, and if snubbed or evaded by parents, they may reach out to other sources for answers. The other sources, usually other friends or the internet, may further misinform or glorify sex and sexuality. The two real fears that most parents have regarding their child’s exposure to sex and sexuality are: 1) Will my child end up experimenting with sex too early? 2) Will my child fall prey or be lured into sexually exploitative or abusive situations? The only way to address these fears is by not evading questions around sex and sexuality, but by addressing them as and when they arise. The aim is also to help children and teenagers build their own ability to make informed and healthy choices around sex and sexuality.
Sex education is not that one interaction that you have when your son is turning 15, and you tell him about the birds and the bees. Sex education is also not just a program that your child’s school is undertaking. Sex education is education about an important aspect of life that you need to impart to your child, as you would education regarding healthy habits, eating right, etc. Sex education implies imparting information regarding ensuring ones safety and responsible behaviour in a manner that is age appropriate for your child. Sex education includes imparting knowledge and skills that would enable a child to engage in safe, satisfactory relationships – a skill for a lifetime. Sex education also means teaching children that they have a right to privacy and respect for their body and personal space, no matter their age, and so do others.
Sex education works best when it is integrated into your overall approach towards raising and educating your child about various facts of life. With very young children, as they start speaking and start naming different body parts around the age of 2, you can help them name their private parts, including genitals, in language that is easily understood and widely used, e.g., “sussu”, “bum”, “bottom”. As you start teaching them about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, such as not to hit or push, you can also start talking about body parts that are private. The idea is not to label any body part as something to hide or be ashamed of, but to simply say that genitals are private and that the child can touch his or hers in an appropriate setting, such as while bathing, but not at other places/situations. You can also tell the child that as parents you may touch a particular body part, e.g., their bottom, in order to clean them after they have been to the “potty” or while bathing, but that at other times you will respect their privacy. Similarly, they should expect that others, whether adults or other children, should respect their privacy and not touch their private parts ever. They should, likewise, respect the privacy of other children and adults and not touch anyone else’s private parts. You can also tell them that if any touch, whether it is a shove or push, makes them feel uncomfortable, they can ask the person to stop and come to you or a teacher and report. In fact, you need to allow them to even ask a relative not to kiss them, if they do not want to be kissed. This helps the child feel empowered to listen to their instincts and know that you respect their private space.
All this information has to be imparted in parts, slowly, not all at once. And, it has to be repeated several times just as you would remind your child, again and again, to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The idea is not to make it a big deal but to handle such information in a calm, gentle, matter of fact manner. If they forget or test you, for example, by touching another child, remind them that it is important to respect the other child’s privacy, and do not scold them. While it is important to inculcate this sense in children, it is also important to recognize that some behaviour is absolutely natural and to accept it for what it is. For example, it is absolutely normal for little children to be curious of, and touch their own body parts, including genitalia.
As children grow older, there are many opportunities to teach them biology. The best times are when a child asks a question or shows curiosity, for example, when a relative is pregnant. You can teach even 4 and 5 year olds about the life cycle of birds and mammals. At this age, the curiosity is regarding where a baby comes from. And, you can limit your information to explaining that babies are usually born or hatched from an egg that the mother lays. As they grow older, between 10 to 12 years of age, you can provide a bit more detailed information about the human anatomy. It is always better to prepare girls for menstruation before it happens rather than talking about it afterwards. It is then an event to look forward to, and not something to suddenly deal with, dread or endure. However, as in all aspects of development, some children biologically mature earlier than others. Hence, it is important to assess the readiness of your child and then have this conversation. When talking to children and teenagers about sex and/or sexuality, it is always important to remember that our own attitudes and feelings about the topic get communicated to the child very easily. The best way to approach the topic is to keep it as matter of fact as possible so that the teenager, who will soon become an adult, can embrace their own sexuality free of your baggage.
Another aspect that determines how early one needs to have a conversation around sex and sexuality with an adolescent is their exposure to the internet. In some countries 9 year olds are now being taught about the dangers of using the internet. With 10 and 12 year olds having facebook accounts and access to the internet, it becomes important to talk to children about safety while using the internet. Then again, in India, children barely out of school are engaging in sex and so high school would definitely be a time to talk about sex, legal age for consent, contraceptives, implications of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS. However, as mentioned earlier, if your child has matured early, or has close friends who have matured early, you may want to have this conversation earlier. It is also a time to talk about relationships and reiterate your message regarding respecting their own bodies, and not getting coerced or pressurized into engaging in sexual activity of any kind. Teenagers also need to be encouraged to demonstrate an attitude of respect towards others in this context.
Most importantly, keeping channels of communication open and demonstrating your comfort with talking about sex and sexuality with your child, allows the child, no matter what age, to come to you when in doubt. That is the time when you can influence your child’s decision making. That is also the time when you can intervene actively if you think your child might be in harm’s way.