Catholic Activity: Sex Instruction
Newland discusses what she considers to be the best method of explaining the facts of life to children.
When do you start teaching children about sex?"
"What is the right time — and how much and how far should it go?"
"And who should teach it?"
"Maybe teaching it in school is a good thing, when so many parents seem unable to approach the subject at home."
"But maybe it isn't a good thing, because you can't tell what the attitude of the teacher is going to be."
"What about questions? Should they all be answered, or should we put them off and change the subject and wait until there is a better time?"
These are questions that come up in everyday conversations between mothers everywhere, and more and more these past few years when the whole subject of sex seems to preoccupy society as it never did before. The answers — at least the right answers — are probably just about the same as they have always been; except that now, in the midst of the confusion that follows a wholesale rebellion against the moral law, the obsession with sex has assumed fantastic proportions, and attitudes toward it fluctuate between complete license and fearful puritanism.
Because sex is so little understood as part of the nature of man, coming from the hand of God and created in His image and likeness, people either refuse to acknowledge that God has anything to do with it, or else are puzzled that, having created man a complex enough creature as he is, God should have chosen to include something so confounding, even unsavory (to some) as sex. — Which is too bad, because nothing God has done is less than perfect. And the creation of two sexes and their endowment with the power of procreation is as perfect as all the other things He has done.
With that truth in mind, it is not so difficult to approach the problem of sex education for children. We ought to leave the word sex out, and when we speak of education for children, assume that sex is to be included.
When? That is the burning question. And the answer is just as simple and as reasonable as all the other answers: when they begin to learn about themselves as a whole being with an intimate relationship to God. When they begin to walk and talk and discover themselves — that is when. And if you stop to consider when all these things begin to happen, you discover with a bit of a shock that the proper age for starting the sex education of children is a very early one.
The Facts of Life and God's Plan
Now the idea of starting with the subject with the very young is not particularly new. Ever since the advent of child psychologists, parents of young children have been leaping at texts treating sex and all its attendant problems like hounds after the hare. I should not wish to appear to be debunking all the genuinely good work of genuinely good psychologists. But there is an immense amount of blame to be heaped up on the bad psychologists, for even the science of psychology must be ordered to God's plan, and the havoc wrought by those who do not admit any sort of ordering of life, any relating of life to God and His will for man, to holiness and sin, is terrible to ponder. Their assistance in the matter of opening doors and unveiling mysteries and airing the facts of life is no help at all when it results in nothing more than the public contemplation of a lot of exciting pornographic facts.
For example, the attitude that it is quite normal for children to become interested in their bodies, and that parents should not be too perturbed about it, makes sense. But to proceed to the problems that arise from this early interest, and assure parents that their root lies in insecurity, or rejection, or fear of a thousand and one different things, and that their cure lies in security, or love, or confidence coupled with a complete array of biological data and nothing else — that is no answer at all.
People, even when they are children, want to know themselves. And you can't know yourself until you know yourself in relation to God. So when a very small child begins to ask his mother questions about his body and its functions, it is not enough simply to explain the functions. It may satisfy the child momentarily, but he is still cheated; for even with such intimate processes explained, there is an opportunity to give honor and glory to God, and no child's education is good or complete unless the one ties in with the other.
Sensation and Self-Stimulation
Usually the first questions of a young child have to do with his eliminative system, and they are not hard to answer. God designed his body marvelously well, and He planned ways for it to function so that it would remain strong and healthy. Once discovered, however, this interesting body is a matter of constantly recurring curiosity, and sooner or later — in the course of quite innocent explorations of it — he will discover that some explorations are capable of producing very pleasant sensations. Like the untrained animal he is (although an animal with a human soul), he is apt to be quite taken with the whole business, and indulgent too. This, mind you, at the age of two or three or four.
If there are mothers who do not realize it, this is very common and has been the way with children — good children — since children began to appear on this earth. It isn't at all remarkable. In fact, it is the kind of thing one should expect. Children speak a language restricted almost entirely to the senses when they are very small; what is pleasant to them is good. If no one has explained that a thing is not good, how are they to know? And if a mother stumbles onto her small child in the act of indulging in what she considers forbidden pleasure, her last reaction should be shock. She is not thrown for a loss when she discovers that, left to his own devices, he would eat three meals a day of candy, ice cream, and cake. Just as with his greediness for sweets, when she explains that they do not sustain life alone and must be kept in the category of privileges, not necessities — so with his early, innocent physical self-indulgences. It merely needs explaining. With very small children, of course, the answer is no more complicated than seeing that they are securely pantied and given enough other distractions. If the problem arises during the course of training in daily elimination, a very neat solution is a big apron with a big pocket, and a cup or spoon or whatever tucked in the pocket to amuse him. A very little child has practically no power of concentration and is easily coaxed to new pursuits. When it shows up with, say, the three- and four-year-olds, the time has come to start explaining — not just sex, but sex and purity.
The whole success of a mother's maiden voyage on the sea of sex instruction for her child lies in being calm and serene, pleasant and never outwardly disturbed. As soon as she shows her alarm, a little one will suspect there is more to this thing than meets the eye, and, along with increased interest, he will note that it makes Mother mad and is not a thing to be caught at again. Because small children will not lie until they have been given a cause to lie — until they have the sense of having done something wrong which calls for a punishment — they are astonishingly candid. Inevitably the small child who is questioned calmly about what he is, in this instance, doing, will answer just as calmly and with complete frankness.
Well, his mother may say, of course she understands that it is all very pleasant, but this is one of the pleasant things we must not do. God designed our bodies with great care and every part of them has a special function. All He asks of us is that we do not abuse their function. To do as God wishes us to do with our bodies is to be pure. Purity is a new word he must learn now, and remember, and it means to do with our bodies only those things God wishes us to do. Sometimes, she may go on, it is not easy to be pure. In fact, it can be very hard. But the harder we try, the more we please God and the more grace He will send to help us to be pure. There is a kind of secret about being pure: whenever he is tempted to indulge in this pleasure which God forbids, he can fold his hands together tightly, like this, and quick as a wink say inside himself, "Please, Blessed Mother, help me to be pure." She will, because she is so pure herself and she loves purity so much. She knows all about little children and how hard things can go for them. She will send all the grace he needs, as soon as he needs it, if only he will ask her. She will watch over him, with God, and she will be pleased when he is successful (though of course just as sad when he is not). But he must never stop trying, and most of all — now that he knows what it is all about — he must never stop praying for the grace to be pure.
Sometimes this is all that is needed to sidetrack a near-habit, but sometimes, too, it is not accomplished so easily. Mothers must be careful always to be patient, always watchful without appearing to be watchful, and always ready to repeat the same counsel over and over again. The little struggle with concupiscence, and that is what it is — as innocent and simple as it is — can be kept a secret between the two of them and Blessed Mother, and as long as she never gives her child the feeling that he angers her with his lack of success, he will never fail to confide in her when she questions him about it. It is not good to question too often, but it is such an important thing that it cannot be completely ignored the way one mother does: "When I'm stuck, and don't know what to do about a thing, I don't do anything." In small children it is certainly not serious sin — it is questionable if any guilt at all could be attached to it. It could, however, lead to serious sin in adolescence, and at that late date it's a bitter struggle trying to beat it. Rather than be discouraged by the immediate lack of success, it is best to keep hugging to oneself the knowledge that Mary, Mediatrix of all Grace, will never abandon a child who needs her help, and the two, mother and child, together with the Mother of God, can with prayer accomplish wonders.
Thumb-sucking is a minor consideration, but it is still one of the great unsolved mysteries. A thousand theories have been advanced and as many recommendations. The last time I was naive enough to ask a pediatrician what to do about a thumb-sucker, he sighed and said: "This year it's in." Some children find comfort in sucking their thumbs, others seem not to need it. Those who suck their thumbs long enough can ruin their bite, which is why dentists are death on thumb-sucking. The remedy seems to be different for each child, with no rule that applies to all. There is only one conclusion unanimously agreed upon: Don't be too determined that a child break his thumb-sucking habit all at once. Occasionally a child who is a dyed-in-the-wool thumbsucker will finally abandon the habit if he is hounded consistently; but he may substitute something far more disturbing, indulging in other sensory pleasures that trespass purity.
So much for a problem that has bothered mothers, guardians of children in orphans' homes and state institutions, shelters and nursery schools. It is good to know that the discovery of these problems does not indicate that a child is a monster. For the Christian parent, it can be a matter of rejoicing to realize that out of even such a trying (though innocent) situation in the earliest years of his life, a child can be set on the path to an understanding of purity and the use of grace to fight the good fight. This will be the bedrock of all his education in the serious business of sex. It must go hand in hand with the knowledge of God.
Explaining About Babies
The next encounter with sex information usually has to do with babies — a subject that is introduced at a far earlier age than it formerly was, but one that cannot be ignored. In families where babies are welcomed as regularly as God sends them, the whole procedure is so normal and natural that children rarely think to isolate the business of Mother giving birth to a new baby and consider it with a curious clinical eye. Usually, in such cases, the first rumor that all is not so simple as it seems comes from the outside. It was that way with our children. They were informed by a neighboring five-year-old that a new baby was on the way. And having told her that they already knew it (they had been told God was sending us another baby), she announced that she hadn't to be told, she could tell! As this puzzled them, she explained straightway, and they came tearing home, their eyes bugging right out of their heads. N. — — said that babies were inside their mommies before they were born — was that true? Yes, it was true. Well! It enchanted the smaller ones for all of fifteen minutes, and then they forgot all about it. The six-year-old, however, apparently mulled it over all day. It was that evening when she was looking out the window at a herd of expectant cows (having seen a cow deliver a newborn the summer before, and the cat having kittens innumerable times) that she said to me:
"They all look like they're going to have babies, too, don't they?"
"Yes, they do."
"Is it the same with mommies as it is with cows?"
And there we were, facing up to a subject I had thought to postpone until she was at least a few years older. It was certainly no place to leave the fate of our blessed fifth baby.
"No, dear, not the same. God makes animals strong and hardy, and they have their babies wherever is best — sometimes in barns, or in the pasture, sometimes, as with kitty, in the kitchen woodbox. But with mothers it is different. They have their babies in their rooms, or in hospitals, and they have family or friends or doctors and nurses to help them."
"But how do they come? The same way animal babies come?"
You grope for the right words, and you pray that the Blessed Mother will put them in your mouth.
"God has made a place in mothers through which, when it is time, babies come into the world."
Without any more beating around the bush, she asked: "Where? "
Either you lie — or you don't. This is probably the most crucial moment in your entire relationship with a child you love with all your soul. You want her to grow up to be pure and holy and pleasing in the sight of God, secure in all the knowledge she will need to govern her own actions, secure in her confidence in you. You want, more than anything next to her knowledge of God's love for her, to know that she will come to you every time she steps into a new phase of her ever-increasing experience with sex information — and ask you first, and accept what you will tell her as the right and the good answer. This is a beginning. The whole future of your most intimate relation with her depends on being honest, and reverent, and calm.
So — you tell her where. You explain that everything God does is pure and good and holy, and that if He had thought there were a finer way to have babies come into the world, He would have done it that way. This is His way; and now that she knows, she can understand even better that one's body is meant for holy things, has very holy functions, and it is important to walk carefully in this body of ours, dedicated with every step to giving honor and glory to God. Now, remembering that the Holy Trinity lives in our souls when we are in the state of grace, the whole thing contrives to surround the body with an aura of reverence and respect. How wonderful, God creates a new soul and then uses a mother's body to bring it into the world.
Sometimes they will ask, "How does the baby get there?" And at such an early age as this it is never necessary to tell them more than that God plants a seed within the mother, beneath her heart, and from it grows the baby. It is wise, if you are not sure how deep their curiosity really goes, to ask a child very casually to rephrase a question another way. One of my children startled me by asking, "Mother, can't ladies who aren't married have babies?"
"Why do you ask, dear?"
"Oh, I don't know. I was just thinking that all the ladies I know who aren't married don't have any children."
"Well, children have to have fathers."
"Oh, of course. And if you aren't married, there's no daddy, is there?"
It would have been very easy to offer far more information than she needed or wanted, if she hadn't explained her question so simply.
Other Matters Anatomical
As for other anatomical interests, in large families where older children have to help younger children in and out of the tub, and so forth, it is only normal and natural that in the process they become quite used to the way they are put together. Where there is only one child, or two of the same sex, the simplest way to dispense with the anatomical mysteries is to permit them to help other mothers bathe young babies, ask their normal quota of questions and get the right answers. Enough of this and they will cease to be curious or even very much interested. Always, however, this is most successful with young children. Get them over this hump while they are still small. Little children have no sense of modesty during their earliest years at least, and it is the most reasonable way in the world for everyone to learn about the differences between boys and girls. Of course when a child is old enough to bathe and dress himself, he expects to be left alone to do so: that is only right and proper.
The final item that must be accounted for within the home — or it will be elsewhere (and at what a cost to the whole edifice of a child's purity!) — is the feminine bosom. Today's entertainment and fashion industries have successfully limited the definition of feminine charm to one qualification alone, a physical measurement — a far cry from what God intended. Again, life in the family where children are fed at their mother's breast offers the most natural, most beautiful, most wholesome explanation — without any words at all. It is the fine hand of God showing once more: infinite wisdom in the matter of teaching about sex and life and reproduction. That seeing his mother nurse her babies does form a child's whole vision became quite clear to us when one of our little boys, after seeing a visiting child play dress-up and add to her other paraphernalia a reasonable facsimile of a seductive bosom, commented: "You know, I didn't think that was very nice, going around pretending to be a mother all day."
Little girls are not little for very long, and in no time at all choosing their own clothes poses another problem in modesty, in purity. A child who has grown up secure in the knowledge of the divinely ordained purpose of the body will have a yardstick against which to measure the seemliness of her dress when she is a young woman. Someday she will be fully grown, young and fresh and clean and promising, and out of the wide embroidery of her fancies and dreaming, perhaps she will discover that the way to God for her will be through marriage. What she brings to her marriage, and what a young man brings to his, in the way of virtue and holiness, will be the fruit of all that has been sown many years before in a Christian home, the fruit of wise, patient, intelligent, and reverent understanding of the human body, coupled with its great destiny as the instrument of Divine sowing. This is why sex education in the Christian home is important and good and holy, and why there is no setting so perfect as a Christian home for imparting it.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961