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When is the Right Time to Teach Children about Sex?

Updated: Aug 24, 2010

When to teach children about sex?I think that one of the main issues in sex education is timing. I have always wondered when the appropriate time is to teach children about sex and sexuality. Timing is important because it is part of the proactive approach to sex education. It may seem like common sense that children and adolescents receive comprehensive sex education. However, societal taboos on the discussions of sex are big hindrances; and consequently, parents are reluctant to be sex educators. If children are being taught about sex, it is incomplete if what they learn is limited to the process of conception. As Frankham (2006) called it, there is heteronormativity in only teaching children about penis and vaginal sex for procreation.

Whether parents are willing to talk to their children about sex or not, children will receive certain messages regarding sexuality from their parents (Geasler et al., 1995). When I was growing up, my parents never talked about sex. It was a subject that was treated as bad and forbidden for children. Even though they never told me anything about sex, I received the message that it was not to be talked about (at least not with them). I think that the issue of parents being the sex educators is only secondary to children receiving sex education at all. According to Geasler et al., it is uncommon to have parents who talk to their children about sex. Of course, there are numerous issues when it comes to parents being sex educators, such as their level of knowledge, their willingness to be open to the child, etc.

I personally believe that any form of education begins at home. Instruction from the parents is the start of a child’s education. I am not referring to home schooling the child, but I am talking about the parents motivating the child to learn and creating an environment where knowledge is valued and where the child’s curiosity is encouraged. I think that the same attitudes can be applied to sex education.

Schools often times fail to provide the sex education that children need. It has been shown from research that abstinence teachings are not effective (Sharpe, 2003). In fact, more unwanted teen pregnancies and STI transmissions occur when abstinence is the only source of sex education. I know personally that abstinence teachings are a dead end because they create guilt/shame in wanting to know more and reinforce the notion that sex is a forbidden subject. I think that it is a flawed assumption to think that children or adolescents will be encouraged to engage (and indulge) in sex just by telling them about it. I think that comprehensive and honest discussions with youth on sex and related issues will help them make informed and responsible decisions.

I would not be surprised to know that it is the parents who actually become uncomfortable when talking about sex with their children (Geasler et al., 1995). Parents generally like to believe that their children are pure beings (apart from some fundamental Christians who believe that everyone is basically evil/sinful) and should not be tainted by sexual messages (Frankham, 2006). I think the problem here is that there is the belief that knowing about sex will take away a child’s innocence, as sex is considered dirty. The real concern is when to teach children about sex. There needs to be a balance in the timing so that it is not too early for them to comprehend it yet not too late that they have already learned about it in the wrong contexts (such as from peers or the media, which I think can easily mislead the child with incorrect or inappropriate information).

In Frankham’s (2006) study on how parents conveyed sex knowledge to their children, the parents said that they answered their children’s questions honestly and openly as they came up. The author had a criticism to this approach and said that it was too reactive and not proactive. This may be one perspective, but I believe, like with most issues, it depends on the context when considering how to approach the topic of sex. For example, in the case of a very young child, let us say a four-year-old, I think it is only appropriate for the child’s level of understanding to be only reactive and not proactive about sex education.

I personally know what is it like to know about the process of conception at an age when I was not ready for it. I heard a nutshell version of the conception process from my grandmother. My mind was blown away, and I just did not comprehend how that was possible at all: the penis and the vagina and some eggs. That approach may have been directive, but I do not think that it was done responsibly. I did not know that babies were born through the vaginal canal until I was thirteen. I felt embarrassed at the time that I did not know, yet, looking back, I had never any formal sex education up to that point and not until I was fifteen.

From a personal perspective, it is extremely foolish for the parents and the school curriculum to keep children out of the “sex loop.” In addition, I think that sex education should encompass sexuality issues other than just sex-for-reproduction. Children should also learn about different types of genders, sex and gender roles (my opinion is to teach them to challenge traditional gender hegemonies), responsible sexual practices, and sex for pleasure (including self-pleasure). Of course, the timing of those topics is contextual as well.

My main concern is when the right age is to start the basic level of sex education. There may not be a right answer. I think it depends on the child’s level of maturity and the overall environment. This may be an issue that is up to the parents’ discretion. In the ideal scenario, the parents are the first sex educators in the child’s life; and schools must provide comprehensive sex education as well.

 for a more detailed look –> Let’s Talk About Sex: Discussions with Adolescents on Their Sex Education

References:

Frankham, J. (2006). Sexual antimonies and parent/child sex education: Learning from foreclosure. Sexualities, 9(2), 236-254.

Geasler, M. J., Dannison, L. L., & Edlunk, C. J. (1995). Sexuality education of young children: Parental concerns. Family Relations, 44(2), 184-188.

Sharpe, T. (2003, April). Adolescent sexuality. The Family Journal, 11(2), 210-215.


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10 Responses to “When is the Right Time to Teach Children about Sex?”

  1. Hans Rippel says:

    I like the personal touch of your article and how you explored this topic through questions. The latter seems reflective of the field itself, there are at the moment more questions about than answers.
    I remember people asking if sex education should be taught at all and by now it should be much clearer that it is not a question whether we should teach children about their own sexuality and that of others but rather (as you pointed out) when, how much, and by whom it should be taught. I belief we are inherently curious and as such we explore our environment and ourselves. Good education as Mandell Creighton pointed out keeps us asking questions both implicitly and explicitly. Our own sexuality is no exception and parents need to take the initiative. Sex or preferably sexuality education does and should start with the parents.
    The question is do parents know enough themselves? Do they have the knowledge to know when and how much they should tell their children? And if they don’t how can parents be provided with relevant information?
    Some guiding principles need to be put together from what is already known from psychology research to help not only parents but schools as well. The biggest hurdle is probably to bridge science with policymakers so that they may enact proactive large scale societal changes that are informed by current scientific understanding.

    I find most ironic the wide spread perception of children as pure beings and the belief or fear that sex/sexuality education will taint them. The focus of sex eduation on sex for reproduction seem like a disconnet between the parents and children/teenagers. Parents and educators may focus on trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies and/or STIs while children/teenagers want to learn and act not out of fear but rather out of their curiosity to understand who they are, trying to make sense of their own body, their sexual attraction towards others, and ways of expressing their feelings.
    The bottom line is that expressing our sexual desires is about establishing intimacy and experiencing pleasure and on rare occasions we use it for reproduction.

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  4. This must be one of the dilemma that some parents are facing. For me, it would be hard to explain to your child all about sex. I guess we need to consult a counselor for this before we explain to our child what sex is.

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