Sex Education: How Early Should it Start?
It’s started: Henry wants to know where babies come from. “How did I get in your stomach?” he asks one night. “Well, you weren’t in my stomach,” I say, hoping to distract him with technicalities. “You were in my uterus.” “Yes, but how did I get in there?” He will not be deterred, I can see. And yet I find myself really wanting to deter him.
The thing is, I’m surprised by my reaction to his questioning. We’ve always been forthright with Henry. We don’t give body parts cutesy names. He knows all the official terms. But there I am, boiling water for pasta, and he’s looking at me with those big blue eyes, and he’s only five; does he really need to know the mechanics of how he got in there?
“Your Dad and I, we, uh, we gave each other a special hug,” I tell him. He’s never going to be happy with that, I think. I need a back-up plan. How can I set off the smoke alarm?
He raises one eyebrow. “A special hug?”
“Yes. A special hug that grown-ups do when they’re in love.”
He sits with this for a minute. “And can I see this special hug?” he asks.
I explained to him that “special hugs” (a term I still can’t believe I used with a straight face) were private moments between people in love, and that seemed to mollify him for the time being. And frankly, I think I did an okay job; I don’t think he needs specific instructions on how babies are made, just yet. But the details are going to come up, and they’re going to come up soon. He’s already surfing the Internet, after all. True, he’s only looking for Legos, but the day will arrive when I turn my back for a moment and he finds some kind of Lego fetish website. And then I’ll have some in-depth explaining to do about how and when that “special hug” can be employed. And I don’t know if I’m ready for it.
Theoretically, I’m all for full disclosure, sexuality-wise, when it comes to my kid’s questions. But in practice it’s hard to be as blunt as I think might be helpful. That’s why, frankly, I’d be all for the topic coming up in school. As you probably know, in a recent attack ad John McCain accused Barack Obama—inaccurately—of passing legislation that would require sex education for kindergartners. “Wrong on education. Wrong for your family,” intoned the McCain ad. The Obama campaign called out the McCain camp for mischaracterizing his involvement—in fact he had nothing to do with the legislation; he merely supported it. But the controversy leaves me wondering why people think sex education for young children is such a bad idea.
I don’t mean sex education in the junior-high sense; you don’t teach someone “The Mill on the Floss” before they know how to read. I mean teaching them how their bodies work, and what it means to be a boy or a girl. Or teaching them what parts of their bodies are private and what parts can be showed to the viewing public. (Henry, for instance, is a little confused on the whole private-parts issue. He likes to yell at me for, say, adjusting his shirt-collar, insisting, “You touched my NECK and that’s a PRIVATE PART.” I’ve tried to explain his mistake, but he just rolls his eyes.) We can say that parents should be teaching their children these basic lessons, but the reality is that people are uncomfortable with sexuality, and they just… don’t. Not to mention, 90% of sexual abuse cases occur either within the home or by someone close to the family. And even if children are safe, even if they’re taught these things at home, this is important stuff that should be reinforced at school. The best weapon against sexual abuse, after all, is education. Pedophiles target children who don’t recognize inappropriate behavior.
Young children have questions about their bodies. Shouldn’t school be a place where their questions are explored?
As always, your thoughts and opinions are welcome. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, trying to come up with a less inane explanation than The Special Hug, when the topic comes up again next week.
Published September 19, 2008. Last updated August 29, 2018.