A 15-year-old girl once asked her mother in all earnestness, “Mummy, does kissing make a girl pregnant?” “My God! Tell me who kissed you?” was the mother’s shaken response. That obviously was the end of the child’s sex education, because she will never ask her mother a question on that subject again!
In another incident, my colleague, recently widowed, moved to Bengaluru with her teenaged daughter. Since she was grieving for her husband, she did not pay close attention to the girl, who had joined a new school. One day, she happened to check her daughter’s school bag and to her consternation, found condoms in it.
Yet another incident: One day my friend’s son, then around seven years old, asked her, “Amma, do you know the meaning of sex?” She was taken aback. “No; tell me, what is it?” she asked. To her utter bewilderment, he answered, “It is making love to a girl without clothes on.” He went on to tell her that older children who travelled by van to school with him had told him that. My worried friend talked to me about it. I told her, “If you are not going to discuss sex with your children, the dogs in the streets will.”
Parents have primary responsibility in educating children about sex and sexuality. They cannot leave the task to schools. Educational institutions are not best equipped for this, nor are they the best places for a child to learn about sexuality, a sensitive subject that is of intense concern particularly to teenagers. Sex education can be given effectively only on a one-to-one basis, after having an understanding of the requirement, the awareness level, and the sensitivity of the individual child.
This article is intended to provide some pointers on sex education - who should impart it, when to open the subject, how to start and what to say.
Who should impart sex education?
Parents are the most suitable persons to impart sex education. It is advisable, though not essential, that sex education be given by an elder of the same gender. In the Indian scenario, the mother is usually the parent who is closest to the child, even if she is a working woman. As such, mothers will find it easier to broach the topic rather than fathers. Sometimes, grandparents, an uncle or aunt, a doctor or a counsellor could talk to the teenager about sex if both parents find it uncomfortable to do so. The most important consideration is the level of rapport and trust the child has in the adult concerned and the openness of communication between them.
How to begin?
For the previous generation, talking about sex was taboo. So, most parents of teens today would not have received any formal sex education. This is a stumbling block to them taking on the responsibility with their children. Another difficulty is the lack of awareness about sensitive vocabulary for parts of the body and other issues related to sex. It is, therefore, essential that parents discuss sex education with each other or with a trusted adult friend, so that the initial hesitation and embarrassment is reduced. If the child notices discomfort in the body language of the parent, she will not feel free to ask questions and clarify her doubts.
Free and frank communication between children and parents should be fostered – allowing the child to talk, laugh and joke about any subject and share feelings freely without inhibition. The ambience in the home should encourage the child to discuss even things that are heard outside the safety of the house. Check what the child knows and clarify issues that she seems confused about, before proceeding deeper into the subject.
When to begin and what to say
There is no minimum age for the commencement of sex education. However, how to approach the topic and what to say will depend on the age group of the children.
Young children’s curiosity about ‘private parts’ or about how babies are born needs to be handled sensitively, instead of shutting them up or preventing them from talking about these issues. They need to be educated on ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ to protect them against molestation. They need to be made aware of the different parts of the body and the subject of modesty.
Preteens need to be told about the physical changes that are about to occur in their bodies. There are many ways to approach the subject in an indirect way. A preteen could be introduced to sex education by discussing the anatomy of a frog, for instance.
Girls must be informed about the menstrual cycle and the precautions that they need to take. They need to be given information on the consequences of having sex, including pregnancy. Ignorance of these issues could prove dangerous, as a gullible child can be exploited.
Similarly, boys cannot be left to learn things on their own. An uninformed boy may consider the first ejaculation as something ‘wrong’ which has happened only to him, and carry a life-long sense of guilt and anxiety over it.
Parents also need to teach children early on in life about the importance of marriage, long- lasting relationships and the joys of belonging. This will lay a foundation for the child to resist temptation in later years when they will be exposed to peer pressure.
Dealing with issues regarding sex education:
- Sex education should not be restricted to describing anatomy or the sex act. It should include talking to the child about love, romance, marriage, commitment, family values, the importance of long-term commitment and fidelity, the joys of having a permanent partner in life, and the need for sensitivity to one’s partner.
- Sex should be portrayed as a positive act of joy, togetherness, commitment and love. As a child attains puberty, he becomes a sexual being with sexual urges, a desire to explore and establish his identity. Teenagers should be educated about the fact that the main sex organ is the brain and everything emanates from our thoughts.
- Due to easy access to the Internet, there are ample opportunities today for adolescents to be exposed to pornography. It is a natural phase, so long it does not become an addiction. The need to access pornography will fade once curiosity is satisfied.
Sex education, both at home and in school, are important to prevent and protect the child from sexual abuse and exploitation by trusted adults.
Allow the child to speak on any topic without being judgmental. Ask the child whether she ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ particular adults around her and give importance to these opinions. Keep an eye on adults who have opportunities to be alone with the child.
Educate the child about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’, and tell her to inform you immediately if she experiences a ‘bad touch’ or an adult exposes himself to her. Remember, the child does not have the vocabulary or courage to express sexual abuse. Ask questions like, “Did he touch you wrongly?”
Watch for sudden change in the child’s behaviour, like fear of the dark or being alone, social withdrawal, reluctance to visit a particular house, hostile attitude against a particular person, temper tantrums, etc. If these symptoms are seen, he needs counselling.
Teenagers should be educated on the process of maturing in both sexes, pregnancy, homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, and other issues related to sex. They should be warned about unwanted pregnancies and the lifelong scars it will leave.
And finally, when children ask delicate questions which may be embarrassing to adults, do not evade giving an answer. Your answer is vital to the child’s health.
The author is a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist.