By Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D.
“Mom, do you know what a stripper and a hooker are?,” asks my 7-year-old son as I drive him home from school. My brain freezes. Fortunately, I realize that I’m at risk of blowing a very important moment. When the brain freezes, we all risk saying something that will shut down our children. Kids know by our words and tone of voice when we’re tense, and they won’t go there again. The best antidote to brain freeze is a deep, relaxing breath. I take several and say in my most casual voice, “Yes, I know what a stripper and a hooker are. Do you?”
“Yes,” he replies. “A stripper is a girl who takes off her top and a hooker is when she takes everything off.”
I did a lot of breathing that day.
The story begins at recess when my son’s classmate described a video game that he had played at his 12-year-old neighbor’s house. If you kill a lot of people, you go to a room where a “stripper” takes off her top. By killing more people, you get to see a “hooker” take off all her clothes. This game is called Duke Nukem, available for rental in video stores. It gets worse. A parent recently told me that if you get to the highest level, by killing everyone, you enter a room where naked women are hanging off of meat hooks.
I listen to my son’s thoughts about this game. I tell him that I don’t think this is a good game, and that putting naked ladies together with killing people – like a reward – is wrong. As we talk, I’m trying to put myself in his head. I’m aware that the camaraderie of boys all sharing a secret has been stimulating. He has no context for understanding why naked ladies would be a reward for anything and he’s trying to make sense out of it. If I don’t step in and help, someone else will.
Someone else already has. My son now has a category in his brain where sex and violence are connected, where women’s bodies are viewed as a commodity that violent men are entitled to. Someone has sneaked into my child’s playground and taken away my right to introduce my son to the beautiful intimacies that happen between men and women.
I call the little boy’s mother. She is horrified. She had given explicit instructions to the 12-year-old’s parents that her son is not allowed to play video games at their house. She calls the parents. They are mortified. They have no idea what Duke Nukum is. They are both professional educators.
How We Think and Talk about Sexuality
As parents, we need to take a long, hard look at how we are talking to our kids about sex, because the entire world is talking to them about it. If we don’t find a language to begin this conversation at an early age, someone else will rob us of this right. Where do we start?
First, we stop thinking about sex as a biology lesson. Sex cannot be found in a curriculum or a book, and it certainly can’t be summed up in a “talk.” Sex is a powerful source of human energy and the driving force behind the survival of our species. We see, read and hear about the power of sexual desire every day in music, books, films and magazines. Advertisers use it to sell us everything from toothpaste to video games. But we seldom talk about it with our children.
As a clinical psychologist and lecturer, I find that many parents keep sexual issues separate from the rest of parenting. Society doesn’t have separate categories for “anger education” or “eating education,” but we discuss “sex education” as if it were a course that we can teach, one lesson at a time, until we get to the final lesson called “intercourse.” Keeping sex in a separate box from the rest of human desires doesn’t work.
“Sex education” starts with validating an infant’s right to listen the needs of his own body, by articulating and responding to those needs. By 2 years old, children often assert their autonomy by rejecting our hugs. What better way to teach them that touching must be by mutual consent than by respecting their wishes?
Sex education continues when we understand that our 4-year-old may rub her clitoris as a way of comforting herself, and at the same time we teach her the boundaries that we place around that behavior. By beginning the conversation about sexy feelings at an early age, we become the primary source of information and guidance at a time when our opinion is still more important than their peers’.
The Power of Sexual Energy
Perhaps we get stuck because watching our children express their sexual energy can feel very overwhelming. Recently, my 5-year-old niece asked me to watch as she joyfully performed the most incredible bump and grind dance routine. I was flabbergasted. I knew she had never been exposed to anything like this. Her dance was a pure expression of her little 5-year-old body.
After a deep breath I said, “Boy, you have a lot of energy.” She paused for a moment and responded, “I’m really strong! You try it!” So, we both did a little bump and grind. I’d forgotten how powerful it feels. My job in that moment was not to judge, not to praise, and certainly not to ask her to repeat this performance for an audience, but to simply reflect back what she was feeling. At 5, I want her to know that I understand and respect the power of her feelings so that later on we can talk about controlling and directing that power.
When we think about sexual feelings as a source of energy, they become one of many valuable energy sources, like hunger and anger. We can then discuss ways to effectively direct that energy. As parents, we understand how important it is to talk to our kids about controlling their anger. We understand that the energy of anger is necessary for survival and we teach our children from an early age the appropriate ways to harness this energy. We don’t tell them that anger is bad. We tell them to “use their words.” We send them to karate lessons and competitive sports. We teach them the difference between using this energy to defend themselves and using it to bully. But when it comes to teaching our kids to identify and direct their sexual desire, we are markedly silent.
Our kids do not need our help understanding how babies are made as much as they need our help understanding the power of sexual desire. They need to know that when you’re in control of your sexy feelings and direct that energy in positive ways, you can create the most wonderful experiences a human being can have. But when those feelings control you, just as with anger, you can do and say things that are hurtful and dangerous to yourself and to others. Children need to know that people who touch children in bad ways are people who never learned to control their sexy feelings. They need to know that sexy feelings can be aroused by things that they see or hear or smell. They need reassurance that because they are learning how to be in control of their strong feelings now, they are becoming people who can make smart choices about what they really want or don’t want later on.
Our Values Help Kids Figure It Out
My son intuitively knew that there was something wrong with Duke Nukem and he wanted to hear my opinion. He knew I would listen to his thoughts and honestly tell him mine. Our children want to understand what the different things that they are seeing and hearing mean to us. They want to know what has value and what does not, what is right and what is wrong. They long for our opinion about what is important in this ocean of possibility and stimulation that they are exposed to every day. Helping children understand what has value and giving them guidelines of behavior that support these values is what defines us as parents.
When it comes to issues of sexual feelings and desire, we aren’t always clear about how we feel or what we should teach. When our opinions are not well defined, we tend to ignore the subject or wait too long. Then, children define their values among themselves, using television and other media as their models.
Sharon Maxwell is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Canton, MA. She lectures and gives parenting workshops on talking to children about sex and nurturing daughters through adolescence.
From United Parenting Publications.