Our kids are born sexual. Now what do we do?

My mother says I don’t write enough about positive things in this blog, and she’s right. So I’ve decided to start a book review section where I’ll tell you about books I think help to create a healthy and open sexual environment. This is a great moment to begin, because I just read a fantastic book about kids and sex.

The book is called Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask: The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster, published by Three Rivers Press (2004) and I think the title says a lot, but not enough. For one thing, the book is clearly intended to not only to help parents survive their child’s sexual development, but to help the child survive the parents’ anxiety about his or her sexual development. In that way it teaches parents how to help shape their children’s sexuality in healthy ways. For another thing, it acknowledges the fear that parents often have about dealing with their kids and sex, and yet I think for many parents the issue is the “afraid they’ll ask” not the “never wanted them to know” part. I think a lot of parents want their kids to figure it out without having to talk about “it.” This book helps parents figure out how to talk about “it.”

One reason I like the book so much is that it starts out with an important-but-difficult-to-accept reality: talking to kids about sex isn’t going to make them sexual. Kids are already sexual. They lead into this with a short bit about observing a male fetus on an ultrasound and pointing out that it has an erection: sexual arousal occurs even before birth. Sexual response is biological. It is shaped, structured, and channeled by culture and socialization, but it is at its base a biological reality and it exists in babies just as it exists in adults.

Richardson and Schuster, both doctors with very down-to-earth attitudes (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician/public health specialist both with very impressive resumes), take on subjects like childhood sexual development, kids and sex play, masturbation, the Internet, discussions about abstinence, safer sex practices. And in all these areas their main focus is on open discussion, accurate information, and remaining calm. They explain that their approach to sexual development is based on putting children’s health first and they define health in a very comprehensive way:

Our definition of health includes physical health, by which we mean the absence of sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy, and safety from sexual abuse and violence; and emotional health, by which we mean the ability to take pleasure in sex, the freedom of mind to make choices about love and sex, the possession of a meaningful value system to guide those choices, and the presence of strong self esteem. (p. 9-10)

They do all this with great humor and an sensitivity to the real strain, concern, and fear that parents really feel around these matters. I discovered this book while browsing for parenting section of Books-a-Million with my sister, a mother of two young boys. We were so engaged by the book that we sat on the floor in the aisle and read out loud to each other. We read the section about what to do when your kid walks in on you when you’re having sex. One reason I’m telling you about this book: one real life scenario used as a model by the authors involved a same-sex couple — two men — and the authors presented this without comment on the sexual orientation of the couple. Instead, their focus was on the quality of the reaction that “Jack and Simon” had in the moment:

We still marvel at the composure of Jack and Simon. When their four-year-old boy walked in on them having sex, Jack managed calmly to say, “Oh, you found us doing the special thing that people in love do when they want to make each other feel good; now, which of us do you want to put you back to bed?” (p. 103)

They point out that the most important thing is not to hide, not to ignore it, to try an explanation that is simple and clear, like “When you came in we were having sex. It’s a way that grown ups like us show that they love each othe. Do you understand?” They recommend answering any questions that the child has, and then reminding the child to knock if the door is closed. In other words, they recommend treating it without alarm, as an everyday act, and moving on. (An example of the humor they bring to the book. They end that section with the remark, “You can now tuck your little one into bed, go back to your room, and perform CPR on your partner.”

Another reason I’d encourage you to take a look at this book is because of its strength in addressing questions about kids, sex, and the Internet. First, they point out that if your child or your teen is online in any interactive forum, there is a chance that she will be approached for sex. You can’t prevent this. What you can do is prepare your kid for it when it does happen. Richardson and Schuster recommend telling young Internet users that they’re safe as long as they don’t respond to such requests and don’t give out any personal information about themselves to people they don’t know. Teach them how to block senders of unwanted IMs and to let you know about the incident. (Then, when they do talk to you, don’t freak out, but calmly discuss it with them to get the details, and, I’d presume, to support them for having done the right things!) Second, Richardson and Schuster talk about the near-inevitable event that your child surfs to a porn site or some other site containing explicitly sexual content. They discuss the benefits and drawbacks of web browser filters and again focus on being open with your kids about sex so that they’re willing to talk to you about what they see.

There are lots of good reasons to check out this book. I can’t mention them all now but I’m sure I’ll be referring back to the book in future posts.

I encourage you to check out the website for the book. You can read selections from the book, read more about the authors, and ask questions, too.

It takes guts to talk to kids about sex. In this time of moral panic about kids and sex, though, it is as important as ever that adults step up to the plate early and create a healthy environment for their kids’ developing sexualities. This is truly the best way to protect them from harm.


Filed under book reviews, culture, Education, Family, life, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality, sexuality and age

11 responses to “Our kids are born sexual. Now what do we do?

  1. Doug

    Great posts! I appreciate your blog.
    As a Unitarian Universalist, I teach a comprehensive sexuality program to our middle school youth at my church. I am proud to participate in a program that values sex education and includes it in our church programming for our youth. The curriculum is called Our Whole Lives and was created through a partnership of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church or Christ. This curriculum is based on that fact that we are all born sexual beings.
    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Doug!

    I’d love to know more about your comprehensive sexuality curriculum. Is there a web site for it? Would you be interested in describing it in a guest post? It might be interesting for readers to see what a church-based comprehensive sexuality education program could look like!

  3. Both of my children were participants in the Our Whole Lives program through our local UU congregation and found it valuable (or as much as young teens would say about it). It took a non-hysterical approach to sexuality, of course, with a focus on values and quality relationships.

    I see that the program, commonly known as OWL, is now offered for a number of grade levels, including adults.

    Here’s the link:

  4. Great post!

    ps. thanks for your support for our exotic dancers for cancer event.

  5. You’re very welcome Ryann. How did it go?

  6. Great post, and thanks to the pointer to the book. The memories I have of the one childhood sex talk I had with my mother was her saying something like “sacajawea in a canoe” and handing me some books produced by Kotex with black and white illustrations. I’ll always remember that those first descriptions of a period made me think I would bleed black ink.

    You’re so nice to link to my table.

  7. Sacajawea in a canoe?! Wow! That’s one I hadn’t yet heard.

    Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I also hope you’ll drop in now and again. Your table is an interesting place, and anything you bring from there to here is welcome.

  8. Pingback: Feminism Without Clothes » I Pose For Images That Eroticize Violence Towards Women

  9. Fima Fimovich

    There is huge moral panic in US around kids and sex.
    A lot of people lives are destroyed, and we have very dangerous environment


  10. Hi Elizabeth, wonderful post you have here. Not to mention pack with information on teaching children about sex. I have a 2 year old daughter right now. Honestly, I don’t know how to teach her about sex and I don’t really know when to start. With todays shows on television, there are way too much sex going on. I’m afraid of my daughter mentality if she watch this kind of show in TV without me knowing. Thanks for sharing us the link to Everything You NEVER Wanted Your Kids To Know About Sex.

  11. I’m still having difficulties to talk about sex with my children. Stupid of me. I know my children need the right ecucation about sex but I just don’t know how to explain it to them.