About birds and bees(Sex)
An important conversation to have with your kids. How and when should you talk about sex?
The word ‘sex’ is associated with shame and secrecy. We don’t think of it in positive ways or a broader sense, that includes sexual health and hygiene, consent, body boundaries and personal space, healthy relationships, gender sensitivity, sexual orientation, gender identity and bodily rights.
Please take your time to reflect on the following questions:
1. When did you first learn about sex and how? (accidentally, among peers or from your parents)
2. How did you feel about it? (Confused, amazed, disgusted, worried, anxious)
3. Was the information adequate, clear and age-appropriate?
4. Did you have questions, doubts, thoughts and feelings you wanted to share or clarify with an adult?
5. Did you feel safe or comfortable asking these questions to an adult?
6. Were these questions appropriately answered or were they dismissed?
Children are exposed to pornography and misguided sexual health-related information through their peers and the internet. This early exposure coupled with the lack of age-appropriate information can be problematic. If young boys choose to not engage or participate in discussions or watch pornography with their peers, they may be ridiculed or seen as the odd one out.
Girls, on the other hand, are given limited information about menstrual health and hygiene in a one-off session in school rather than a regular class throughout their schooling that covers all topics on body safety and sexual health and hygiene.
Adolescents are often separated in the class when they’re taught about puberty rather than having an inclusive and open discussion. This further creates silence and elusiveness about a natural human process. The thought of young teens feeling attraction or having romantic relationships is often dismissed or rebuked which leaves them no room to openly discuss the realities that they are faced with, eventually leaving them to venture into it without adequate information.
While schools mandate sex education and body safety classes, their messages are limited to “stranger danger” or naming the parts of the body that no one should touch. These messages may not cover all the nuances of body safety and sexual abuse. For eg, while your child must know how to protect themselves from strangers, it is also crucial for them to know that they can feel uncomfortable around anyone (including family members, relatives or neighbours) and it’s okay to express their feelings to a trusted adult. Teaching them to identify feelings like sadness, confusion, worry, guilt, and shame is important. Knowing what to do in such a situation — run away, say no or “stop, don’t touch me” — can equip them to deal with an uncomfortable and unsafe situation. Provide them with helpline numbers like Child Line (1098) and a list of names and numbers of trusted adults (parents, neighbours, teachers, aunts, cousins, grandparents) they can reach out to if they ever need help/safety.
Consent is an integral component of healthy psycho-social development.
We tend to look at the word “No” from a child’s mouth as stubborn behaviour. However, letting children know that they can say ‘no’ to a hug, kiss or handshake from a family member if they don’t like it, helps them understand boundaries. It tells them that they must ask permission to touch, hug, hold hands or kiss anyone. It is equally important as adults, to be aware of our children’s discomfort with an adult. We should be able to intervene and talk about appropriate behaviour and respect the child’s boundaries.
It is important to discuss what is okay and not okay when teaching children body safety. No one can touch, see or talk about their body parts. Additionally, teach them to differentiate which situations are for their safety and health and which are not — for eg, a doctor administering an injection on the child’s buttocks in front of the parents or parents helping their toddlers while changing clothes or bathing is for their safety. However, if someone is watching a child changing their clothes or going to the toilet or showing the child inappropriate videos or touching the child’s body, it is not for their safety and health.
It is necessary to inculcate the language of feelings in children. Are they feeling uncomfortable, uneasy, angry, scared, or tensed with a particular person, place or situation? Let them know that if they feel this way, that is an unsafe feeling and they must leave that place and inform a trusted adult about the same.
If you provide plenty of examples, the child can have a reference point to relate to, in case such a situation arises in the future.
Here is an age-appropriate guide to starting the conversation about sexual health, boundaries and body safety.
Toddlers, Age 1-3: Through modelling appropriate behaviour, we can explain and demonstrate what parts of the body are covered and should not be touched by others.
Children, Age 4-9: Teach them the names of private parts, explaining that no one can touch, see or talk about these body parts unless it is for their safety for eg while bathing. Ensure that they have a trusted adult to whom they can go if someone violates their body boundaries.
Pre-teens, Age 10-12: Address the topic of puberty. Help them understand what physical and mental changes to expect. Help them prepare for these changes.
Adolescents, Age 13-17: Discuss sexual health, bodily hygiene, body boundaries, healthy relationships and attraction.
Young adults, Age 18+: Elaborating on the topic of safe sex (STD/STI’s, use of contraception, pregnancy etc.), safe and unsafe relationships in a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
As parents, guardians and teachers we can all do better for our children/students by :
1. Reading up and watching videos on sexual health from vetted, sensitive, ethically practising professionals.
2. Demand school committees and safe circles with parents, teachers and students to discuss and formulate systems to file complaints or file reports.
3. Acknowledge that we do not know all the answers to our children’s questions and be open to learning more about them.
4. To actively listen to what children have to say, instead of shying away or dismissing their questions.
5. Build a strong relationship with children so that they feel comfortable sharing both negative experiences and celebrating positive experiences with you. This can be initiated through providing guidance (age appropriately), being empathetic; understanding, acknowledging and respecting that they are separate individuals with their thoughts and feelings.
Imagine a society where each individual is taught to be aware of their space as well as respect the personal space of those around them – where children are well equipped with information and knowledge about their bodies and body boundaries without shame but with love and respect. In that potential and hope, lies the value of imparting sex education to society.
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The author is a counselling psychologist.