Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic Activity: How to Teach Your Child About Sex



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A question that disturbs many parents is exactly how to tell their children about sex. Now almost everyone recognizes that children should begin to learn about sex in their early days so that when they become adults they will have proper spiritual and emotional attitudes toward this important part of life. It is the parents' obligation to teach their children to acquire the proper reverence for the marriage act and the discipline of mind and heart that is essential for chastity. You can gain a clear concept of your obligations and opportunities as a parent, therefore, if you keep in mind five fundamental principles which have been confirmed in Christian practice over the centuries.


A question that disturbs many parents is exactly how to tell their children about sex. A generation ago the question might have been whether to tell at all. Now almost everyone recognizes that children should begin to learn about sex in their early days so that when they become adults they will have proper spiritual and emotional attitudes toward this important part of life. Judging by the heavy volume of their inquiries at Cana Conferences, however, parents remain concerned about other aspects of sex instruction — when to give it, the atmosphere in which it should be imparted, and so on.

Much of this uncertainty derives from the tremendous amount of attention given this subject by psychologists, sociologists, educators and others in recent years. They have had unprecedented access to printing presses, radio and television transmitters and other means of reaching the public. To the extent that they have taught parents to educate their children about sex, rather than permitting them to learn the "facts of life" on street corners as was common a generation ago, they have performed a distinct service. However, they have contributed all shades of opinion as to how sex instruction should be given. For instance, many have taken a naturalistic view and have sought to divorce it from all religious and moral teaching. These secularists have largely won their way in some public school systems, where children often are taught about the mechanics of sex without regard to moral factors which must govern any consideration of the subject.

In view of the many opinions which have been expressed, it is perhaps understandable that American parents have become confused.

Catholic parents need not be, however, for the Church's position concerning this area of your child's development is unmistakably clear. It is based upon her centuries of experience and her unequaled opportunity to observe where and how sex education best enables children to acquire the proper reverence for the marriage act and the discipline of mind and heart that is essential for chastity. You can gain a clear concept of your obligations and opportunities as a parent, therefore, if you keep in mind five fundamental principles which have been confirmed in Christian practice over the centuries.

First, you have a personal obligation to teach your own children about sex. By God's command you and you alone are the primary educators of your sons and daughters. Certainly you would be failing Him if you abdicated responsibility in a matter of such importance. The human happiness of your own flesh and blood may well be at stake. Some parents mistakenly believe that their duty to mold and form young minds extends to all areas of knowledge except sex. This is a short-sighted view of parenthood. The reason that sex education is your job stems from the fact that you can give it better than anyone else. No matter how poor a teacher you think yourself to be, only you know best the needs of your children, their fears and their stage of development.

If parents shy away from this instruction, it is not because they are ignorant. This is one matter in which you have complete superiority, even over the most precocious child. He cannot ask any question that you cannot answer, which perhaps is more than you can say about your knowledge of other subjects.

Secondly, your children should be taught sex within the context of love, not as a thing apart. It is more important that he have proper attitudes about sex than that he always have precisely correct factual information. Without uttering a word, you as a couple can exert the potent force of example to teach a boy or girl how a husband and wife should act in their everyday relationship. They will learn only from you that sexual adjustment in marriage is really the result of deep spiritual and psychological communion. It is the love relationship in the family that gives the best education for sex training, neither implying that sex is all-important in life nor conveying the impression that it is shameful or embarrassing.

Inevitably your children will wish to know how babies are born or why women differ from men. Whatever you do — if you say nothing, evade the questions, tell a fable, such as that the stork brings children, if you elaborate unduly or without regard to wholesome values, or if you speak truthfully and reverently — you give them attitudes they will carry into maturity. As a conscientious parent, therefore, you obviously must try, by word and example, to teach him about life in a way that will best prepare him for adulthood.

The third important principle is that sex education must be intimately related to our belief in God and the natural law. A child cannot truly understand any fact of life unless he first understands that God is the author of all life. He cannot properly respect the marital act unless he knows that this was the means chosen by God for the creation of human life. And he cannot cultivate the virtue of chastity unless he also learns that by God's law the exercise of the sexual act is reserved only for persons in the married state. If your child is to achieve the proper perspective about sex throughout his life, therefore, he must be reminded continually that sex is God's creation and must be used only in the way that He has ordained. The child who is taught that his newborn sister was given to him by God, or that God has arranged the body of woman in such a way that after marriage she can become a mother, or that Our Lady and St. Joseph, both of whom were virgins, were beloved above all others by the Son of God, is always likely to approach sexual matters with reverence.

The fourth principle is that sex education should be intimate. You are dealing here with a matter of the utmost importance to the salvation of your child's soul as well as to his happiness on earth. Details of sex should not be discussed publicly, but rather treated confidentially between parent and child. Only in this way can the dignity of sex be respected and modesty preserved. Moreover, each child reacts differently when he learns of the fundamental facts about birth and life. Only by discussing these facts with your child individually can you observe his reaction and temper your approach to meet his own needs. Few people who support public sex education mention the repugnance which some children, particularly girls who are endowed with natural modesty, feel at the open discussion of sex. But it is a fact. As many people have been harmed in marriage by brutally disclosed information as by ignorance.

The fifth principle is that knowledge about sex should be acquired gradually throughout life. It starts at the cradle, where the child learns how his mother reacts when he experimentally touches his sex organs. He learns from what she says — and how she says it — when he asks her where babies come from. He learns from the way that his parents prepare him for the coming of puberty; even if they do not prepare him, he develops an attitude from that fact also. He may gain or lose reverence for marriage by what his parents teach him about dating and "going steady." His attitude will be affected by his parents' reaction to births and marriages within the family circle and by the control which they exercise over his choice of reading matter, movies and television programs. Obviously, the old caricature of the father calling in his son for a ten-minute "man-to-man talk" in which the father reveals all he knows about sex is completely out of touch with reality.

Keeping these five principles in mind, you can clearly understand why you must accept the responsibility for your child's sex instruction. As the first principle shows, you give this education inevitably; the only real question is whether you will give it properly or not. You are best equipped to apply the second and third principles of teaching the physical facts of life within the framework of God's law. You can best provide the intimate environment in which this education should be given. And, since you are your child's permanent custodian, you are also in the best position to give him the information and attitudes he should have at various stages of his development. No other individual or agency can apply the five basic principles for instruction about sex as readily and as completely as you.

In fulfilling this responsibility to your children, you should be guided by the words of Pope Pius XII, spoken to a group of Christian mothers in 1941:

"If imparted by the lips of Christian parents, at the proper time, in the proper measure and with proper precautions, the revelation of the mysterious and marvelous laws of life will be received by them (the children) with reverence and gratitude, and will enlighten their minds with far less danger than if they learned them haphazard from some unpleasant shock, from secret conversations, through information received from oversophisticated companions, or from clandestine reading, the more dangerous and pernicious as secrecy inflames the imagination and troubles the senses. Your words, if they are wise and discreet, will prove a safeguard and a warning in the midst of the temptations and the corruption which surround them, `because foreseen an arrow comes slowly. '. . . With the discretion of a mother and a teacher, and thanks to the open-hearted confidence with which you have been able to inspire your children, you will not fail to watch for and to discern the moment in which unspoken questions have occurred to their minds and are troubling their senses. It will then be your duty to your daughters, the father's duty to your sons, carefully and delicately to unveil the truth as far as it appears necessary, to give a prudent, true and Christian answer to those questions and set their minds at rest."

It is a good rule of thumb that fathers instruct the boys and mothers the girls. However, whoever is asked the questions, should give the answers. And prior to the marriage of one of their children, there are many advantages in a mutual discussion of the subject between the child and both parents.

When parents "can't talk about sex." Some parents may find it difficult to discuss matters of sex with their children. Having been reared where such subjects are not mentioned by "nice people," they may tend to maintain this characteristic of secrecy with their children. If you are one of those, reflect that your present attitude probably results directly from the way sex was regarded in your parents' home. If you also treat it in a hush-hush manner, your children may do likewise with their youngsters, and the process of inculcating in the young the idea that sex is always shameful and sinful will continue indefinitely.

Moreover, even if the duty is painful it remains a duty. Just as you would consider it your obligation to teach your child how to behave in the presence of guests, or how to eat at table, so too it is your duty to instruct him about sex. If parents failed to teach their children good manners, you would say that they were shirking their obligation. How much more important is it that they not shirk the job of instructing their young ones in the beautiful mysteries of life.

If you are extremely modest by nature, you will develop your ability to discuss sex by answering your child's first questions as easily and casually as possible. Creating an atmosphere which lets him know that he can discuss this subject with you is often the most difficult hurdle of all. Once you get over it, you will develop the confidence to respond in a similarly calm way to questions that follow. Having achieved a rapport with him, you will find yourself able to answer even his most pointed questions with truth and dignity.

If parents are unable to provide direct sex instruction to their children, they should seek a substitute who most closely complies with the principles outlined above. For example, the mother of a fatherless adolescent boy is not qualified to instruct him concerning the physical development of his sex and the intimate problems of male chastity. She might ask a male relative — the boy's uncle, for example — to do so. A priest or a teaching brother is well qualified to instruct the boy, and a nun to instruct a girl: their teaching will strongly emphasize the importance of religious discipline, and it will take place in an atmosphere that upholds the dignity of the subject matter. The sex instruction commonly provided in public schools conforms to none — or at best, one — of the five principles which should be observed.

Early sex experimentation. Since our feelings about sex are intimately related to our attitudes on other subjects — our love and fear of God, our reverence for our body, our recognition of the necessary functions of our organs and the relationship that exists between men and women — your child begins to form attitudes about sex as soon as he becomes aware of his surroundings. If you react in a matter-of-fact way to his early exploration of his genitals — an act of exploration which is necessary for him to discover what his body consists of — you will avoid the common error of calling his attention to his sex organs from his first days and of making him unduly conscious of them.

Bowel and bladder training should also be carried out in a casual, unemotional way. Dr. Odenwald states that a normal child cannot control bowels and bladder before two or three years of age. For this reason, he states, parents should use gentleness, understanding and kindness, so that the child always feels that his elimination is a normal physiological act. "It is important to note the close association of the generative organs and the organs of elimination," he states. "This close association is not only anatomical and physiological but also psychological. Experience with mental patients gives sufficient evidence that patients who have trouble arising from toilet training also have trouble with sex."

Teach your children to use the correct words for their sex organs at the very beginning. You would not use a special, babyish word to describe your child's fingers, his nose or his heart. If you use childish words for the boy's penis or the girl's vulva, you create an impression that the correct words carry a shameful connotation. Of course, the entire sense of shame is in the adult. To the child, one word is the same as another. But many persons who did not know the correct names for their organs until they reached the age of ten or twelve are too embarrassed as adults to use those names even in instructing their own children.

As your child reaches the crawling and walking stages, you should treat any matters relating to his private organs in the same way that you would treat matters concerning his hands or feet. He will accept the fact that he must normally keep his sex organs covered, just as he accepts the fact that food is eaten from a plate, and that fathers wear trousers and mothers wear dresses.

How to answer your child's questions. Parents with the good sense to avoid making their child unduly conscious of his genitals sometimes do not know how to begin instructing him about the facts of life. The advice upon which most experts now agree is that you should not initiate the discussion. Instead, you should wait for him to ask the questions, and then answer them truthfully and within the limits of his understanding. Almost all children ask similar questions at similar stages of their development. Therefore, you can anticipate what questions must next be expected and learn the proper answers.

A basic principle to remember, however, is that inculcation of proper attitudes is more important to your child's proper understanding than is the mere recitation of facts. You want him to feel that sex is a beautiful means conceived by God to propagate the human race and to enable husbands and wives to express their love for each other. If you yourself stand in awe before the beauty of the marital act and the reproductive process, you will be able to give the same reverence and wonderment to your child. When you hold such an attitude, instructing him becomes an opportunity to impart a sense of the love and wisdom of God.

The practical value of stressing the fact that God is the author of the sexual union will become apparent during his adolescence and for the rest of his life. When he firmly understands that God made the act for use only within marriage, he will have the moral support he will need to resist the inevitable temptations he must face. The child who learns about sex without the necessary religious education to accompany it may reach adolescence merely believing that use of the sexual function before marriage is not customary or "nice." Such a naturalistic belief often falls before the first surge of passion.

At about the age of three or four, most children ask their mothers where they came from. They ask with the same innocent curiosity they might use in asking where the picture in the television set comes from. You would not reply to that question with an elaborate explanation of the marvels of the electronic age. Rather, you might say that it is sent through the air by a broadcasting station and received by the set. Similarly, the answer, "from the mother's body," satisfies the normal small child when he inquires about his birth.

If you answer your child's question calmly and confidently, he may be satisfied temporarily. Before long, however, he may ask how the baby grows in the mother's body and how it emerges. In order to develop an understanding of the proper relationship between God and the act of procreation, it is wise at this and succeeding stages to include references to the Divine plan in your answers.

You might explain to him that God devised a way to insure that babies would be safe and warm, protected by their mother's body, until they were strong enough to live outside. You might call his attention to the way mothers carry newborn babies — close to their hearts, protecting them with both hands and arms. You might explain that God devised a protective means like this to make sure that the baby received warmth and shelter within the mother's body.

Your child may not raise the subject again for months or years. At about five or six years, however, he may become more interested in pregnancy and birth, and may wish to know how long the baby remains inside the mother's body. Like the questions that usually precede it, this one is not directly related to the sexual act but to a biological fact. It is as harmless as his question as to why he has teeth or what happens to his food after he eats it.

At about the age of six or seven, he may wonder how the baby was placed in his mother. You might answer that God gives fathers a way by which they deposit seeds in the mother's body. You should not go beyond this. Sometimes precocious children sense that a mother is embarrassed over this question and ask others to upset her rather than to elicit information. At this age — or any other in which your child asks for information he should not have — you might quietly state that it is not proper for him to know the answer now and that he will receive it later. This is the natural response you would give to other improper questions — to his inquiries about how much money the father earns each week, for example, and similar queries of a personal nature.

At any age you may be called upon to restate simple truths that you thought the child already knew. Children forget, or at least seek new insight into old words. The child who is most glib in his use of terminology may be most innocent about the meaning of those terms.

Overcoming "street corner" knowledge. Your child will not need to know additional details of the reproductive process until he reaches pre-adolescence. But he may often ask questions you thought you had answered completely many times before. He may have forgotten what you told him; more commonly, however, he has acquired some information from playmates which may not coincide with the story of birth as he has learned it from you. When youngsters repeat basic questions, a wise parent will use the opportunity to cite the importance of relying on information received at home and not upon that which other children mention in the streets.

There is no reason to become alarmed if your child reports having conversations about the basic facts of life with others of his age. Such conversations are entirely normal. If you have encouraged him to ask you about this subject and have answered frankly, with reverence and without embarrassment, he will probably report his street — corner discussions to you.

The time to become concerned is when he no longer asks about sex or shows an evident distaste when the subject is introduced. He probably has heard something from his playmates which has shocked him, and perhaps even left him ashamed of the manner of his own conception. If he appears ashamed, he should be told that the marriage act cannot be shameful when viewed as God intended, for it is the beautiful means by which life was given to all mankind, including the saints and the Blessed Mother herself.

When your child is aged seven to ten, you have an unequaled opportunity to reinforce his knowledge by calling his attention to the references to birth in our daily prayers and in the Bible. In this way, you can emphasize the close relationship between Almighty God and the reproductive act. For example, you can discuss the "Hail, Mary" and explain the phrase, "the fruit of thy womb," by pointing out that the womb is the nest in which a mother carries her infant before his birth. The account of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth can be used to explain childbearing. Stories of Christmas can provide the framework for a discussion of how Jesus was born as well as how all babies are delivered from their mother's womb.

Preparing your child for puberty. While it is usually wise to wait until your child asks about sex before you volunteer information, you should take the initiative in preparing for puberty. At about the age of twelve, girls begin to menstruate. Unless they have been told what to expect, the first flow of blood may cause severe shock. You should make your daughter proud of these physical changes when they come, for she is taking an important step toward womanhood. Considerably before the first menstruation is expected, explain the exact significance of the process. She should know that God has planned her body so that blood is stored each month, ready to carry food to a baby if a new life should begin, and that the blood is discharged after a certain period if no baby has been conceived. Here, too, the emphasis should be on the Divine plan. It should be pointed out that God has forbidden the use of the organs to anyone who is not married.

Mothers must avoid indicating that there is anything terrible or shameful about this biological function. Nor should they stress the pain and sense of depression which some women feel on the days before menstruation. They might calmly explain that while such symptoms sometimes exist, medical science has appropriate drugs to ease them.

Boys attain puberty at about thirteen years. Well before this time, their fathers should tell them that they will soon release semen in their sleep — a manifestation that they are arriving at manhood. Of course, they are not morally responsible for these natural emissions, even if dreams of an exciting nature accompany them. A boy should be advised, however, that he should neither assist nor prevent the discharge of seed.

Moral teaching regarding the touching of his penis in order to obtain pleasure should be explained. Regardless of the means used, any deliberate effort to induce a discharge is a serious sin. However, it is often necessary to clean the penis, and on such occasions no sin is involved if some unintended pleasure results. Any prolonged handling of the organ beyond the time necessary for reasons of health and cleanliness is sinful. Fathers should advise their youngsters of the importance of habits of chaste thought to overcome temptations to commit solitary sins of thought or act.

In instructing your pre-adolescent son, you might make use of one or more of the excellent pamphlets written to supplement your teachings and to give him a spiritual insight into the opportunities, challenges and temptations of his approaching manhood. Such publications may be found in the pamphlet rack in the back of your church or in Catholic bookstores. You should read each pamphlet before giving it to your child, both to familiarize yourself with the contents in order to answer questions based on his reading, and to make certain that it suits his particular needs.

When boys and girls reach puberty, parents should advise them that contacts with the opposite sex might lead to sin. The emotional and physical reaction of males and females differ greatly. A boy has an intense physical drive, and kissing or other contacts may set up a fierce desire for sexual relief; with a girl, on the other hand, a kiss may merely express her companionship. A girl who does not know that a boy may be deeply stimulated by her kissing may make it difficult for him to keep his thoughts pure. Boys should be taught to respect girls because they are God's chosen vessels for the creation of new human lives and should not be despoiled in any way. Boys who learn to respect womanhood in their childhood will translate this training into respect for the girls they know.

Also make sure that your daughter understands the importance of modesty in dress. It is apparent that many girls do not realize what a source of temptation they really are when they dress in an unbecoming way and reveal parts of their body which arouse impure suggestions in boys' minds. Short skirts, low necklines, dresses that reveal every curve, sweaters that are too tight, artificial bosoms — all are age-old devices to stimulate male passion. A girl who resorts to them may cause great harm not only to boys but to herself. Many a young miss, heavily rouged and painted and wearing the most provocative styles, cannot understand why boys seem interested only in her physical attraction and not in her as a person. Her way of dressing advertises her to the world as one who seeks this kind of attention.

Some mothers object to giving their daughters information about the different natures of men and women, because they fear that the girls will lose their innocence thereby. This is an error, for ignorance and innocence are separate things. When the angel appeared to the Blessed Virgin to reveal that she was to give birth to the Messiah, she indicated her knowledge of the ordinary facts of life by asking how could this be so, for "I know not man." Her knowledge did not prevent Mary from being the most innocent of humans. Giving your daughter such information will, in fact, protect her innocence. She will be guided by her knowledge to avoid situations which might be occasions of sin. In this vital matter, it is better for parents to instruct a year too soon rather than a minute too late.

Dating, going steady" and moral aspects of courtship are discussed in detail in the chapter, "Preparing Your Child for Marriage."

Activity Source: Catholic Family Handbook, The by Rev. George A. Kelly, Random House, Inc., New York, 1959