I take a break for a time, and suddenly I feel like I return with such a grown topic. My guys still seem little to me, but we have to grow together. We still have much playfulness and “little guy” stuff, but we have to face what’s approaching.
As my oldest is entering the pre-teen years, there is suddenly both a greater interest in the topic of sex among the brothers, and an increasing exposure to sexualized things. The feeling of mild panic in my chest has been growing for a few years, and I ponder all the things we have covered and what I wish we had spent more time covering to prepare their hearts and minds for what they will more seriously face in the near future.
With the abundance of technology and media in our lives, things we don’t want to see, or have our kids see, are very easily found by accident. The internet terrifies me for my kids. I want my kids to know what to do, and how to process it when (not if) they encounter what they shouldn’t. I also know the cultural pressures I faced as a female, from all the media distortions, and no doubt men have their own set. Kids are being exposed to these expectations in every grocery store aisle, on billboards, in commercials, and even on the toy aisle. I want my kids to know, not only how to see the precious human in every body (even those in images), but to also, in their words, their eyes, and their actions, invite people to live free of these perceived expectations. I want them to eventually realize the abuse, exploitation, and trafficking that is behind the porn industry, and choose to be protectors. I want them to delight in God and will the best for His people.
With young children, it doesn’t make sense to simply come out and say all these things. There needs to be a foundation. As I consider all the age-appropriate things we’ve addressed in former years, I am noticing how pertinent they are to discussions on internet safety all the way down to navigating the drug store greeting card aisle.
Before I dive into these concepts, in no particular order, I want to say that I’d like this to be a living document and a helpful guide. As I write, I know I’m not recalling every important point. I rely on feedback to make updates that can more thoroughly help others. I am not citing sources, because I am the sorry sort that reads many things and remembers the gist, but little more. Do take this as one voice of many and apply it to your parenting repertoire as your judgment deems fit.
The most obvious, and a frequently-mentioned topic is children’s own bodies. It is important that children feel comfortable with themselves, and not ashamed. Kids are really curious about their own bodies, and about concepts like where babies come from. I make a point to answer these questions simply and directly. If they want to know more, they’ll ask. Practice in private if you have to. It’s important to normalize these things, even in the level of comfort you show. From birth on up, it’s important to use proper terminology for body parts and to give children choices in their appearance. Children need a say in what happens to their bodies in everything from being tickled to whether or not to hug their Aunt. This is important for their personal safety and for their future ability to speak up for themselves against social pressures.
In addition to having dominion over ones own body, I like to teach accountability and responsibility and owning the parts we played in our interactions. I believe in genuine apologies, or at minimum recognizing ones own contributions and what a better alternative would have been. I and only I am responsible for the choices I make. This is very important, because in the future, my kids will see that the victim often gets the blame, or at least a hefty share of it. Nobody ever deserves or “asks to” be touched or treated in any harmful or unwanted way. Ever. The offender chose their own actions. End of story. In a less serious example, when my kids have made a poor choice, we can only work through what we own up to. Truth is gold.
I’ve always had an interest in how the mind works, and as soon as my boys were old enough to engage in basic conversations, I’ve talked with them about the goals of marketing. We’ve examined the nutritional value of cereals and observed which kinds of cereals had cartoons on their boxes – the sugary ones! I’ve pointed out how companies would love to make people think certain thoughts and want what they’re selling, so they can make lots of money! “Now, who do you want in charge of this beautiful brain God gave you?” So, from barely a reading age, my kids have been dutifully ignoring the pictures and going straight for nutrition labels. This segues excellently into an older kid “sex sells” discussion, which is a perfect transition back to the value God places on sex versus it’s commercial value.
In a similar vein of mind things, I liked starting to discuss our amazing brain and the chemicals it makes that help us to feel good about the things God gave us to enjoy, but how some things can make the brain spend too much and get really hungry for more. They’ve been exposed, through our relationship with our church school to talks about drugs and alcohol and addiction. I’ve been able to connect that concept to other hyper-rewarding activities like video games. One way they get to practice self-moderation is by choosing an agreeable amount of time to play on electronics (after completing other responsibilities), setting their own timer, and sticking to it. My youngest, when referring to food, said, “The longer you look at it the more you want it.” That led to a great discussion about what we can choose to gaze at, and what we can leave as a glance.
The parenting books and styles I’ve most deeply connected with are the ones that place equal value on children and adults. To be clear, nothing I’ve read has directly said that children are worth less. But some have done a better job of emphasizing respecting children and allowing them to retain as much of their power as possible. Everyone has power. Some people, through size or authority, have a greater perceived or actual power over others. Sometimes, as parents, we get in an authoritarian mode that seeks to dominate the child and exert our power over them to “make” them do or say something. In the short term, this can be effective. However, it misses some great long-term benefits offered by a more authoritative approach. When a child is treated like an intelligent, capable human, able to be reasoned with and to reach wise conclusions, they typically rise to the occasion. Children who feel heard, believe they have a voice, and get to practice their ability to solve their own problems will maintain a greater capacity to respect other humans’ autonomy and to empathize with them. This is critical in a world that encourages us to view other people as objects for our personal enjoyment. Every picture or video of someone, every model, actor, and stranger on the street is a PERSON.
Physical safety is an obvious factor. Slightly more challenging is emotional safety. As a parent, sometimes my fears and other emotions get more tangled up in a situation than they need to be. I yell and demand, and all I get is upset, resentful kids who feel worse about themselves, are less likely to trust me next time, and haven’t learned much more than how to people-please or sneak. If commonly treated like this, they’d be more likely to comply with a “more powerful” person (physically or socially) and less likely to make a well-reasoned decision. My feelings matter; I am half of every parent-child win-win arrangement, and my needs get to be met as well as theirs. However, some goals are better served by me taking the time I need to collect myself before entering a discussion with the boys (or by processing my feelings later with my husband, friend, or journal). If my feelings are truly relevant to the matter, I can phrase them in ways that lower defenses and increase receptivity. If my feelings don’t significantly contribute to the objective, I can then proceed with a more relaxed presence and angle to listen as much as I talk. It’s important to me to reinforce our family values, but it’s equally important to me to be a consistently safe source of support and knowledge for my kids, especially for the tougher scenarios. Besides being another level of protection from real and electronic predators, modeling emotional safety to my kids will teach them how to be a safe space for others, and how to handle the conflict and confrontation of uncomfortable situations.
As soon as a child is able to grab a toy from another child, they are old enough to consciously enter the consent discussion. Before that, the healthy warmth and affection and gentle meeting of needs communicates to the infant the security of being worth protecting and being cared for. As my kids played, conflicts arose, and I spent the time to point out cues of displeasure – crying, frowning, stomping, yelling, “no” words, and of enjoyment – laughing, smiling, inviting. I taught them that other people are in charge of their bodies, and if they say “no, you must listen immediately. You must have their permission to hug, tickle, wrestle, battle or carry them. If they are using a toy, they get to keep using the toy. If you want a turn, tell them and ask them how much longer they are going to play with it. I help them make reasonable negotiations. It takes more time than forced sharing, but it’s a skill they need. Conversely, the one who feels offended needs the practice developing skills to express what is happening and how they feel about it.
I taught them how comforting hugs can be, and how much some people like them, but that they never have to hug someone they aren’t comfortable hugging. They know that it’s great form to always start with good manners, but if they feel threatened they may use any means at their disposal to get to safety. They have a good idea about unhealthy interactions with other people; nobody should make others uncomfortable, nobody should have others keep uncomfortable secrets, adults shouldn’t ask kids for help or give them things without a parent’s permission, nobody should insist on a kid being alone with them, and nobody should bully others. Tricky people do these things. We can be protectors by keeping ourselves safe, and by getting help if we find out someone is in a tricky situation.
Families are a fantastic model to teach kids about the unity God wants to experience with us, and designed for us to experience with each other. Moms and babies are two people connected physically, and later with a strong emotional bond – dads too! I teach my kids that their mom and dad are two people who became friends and liked each other very much, and learned everything about each other and grew in love together. We had the same “big deal” things important to us and both want to love God more than anything or anyone else. We chose to be together as a team forever. We are two individuals, but we operate as one unit in purpose and direction. This reminds us of God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and how God wants to be close to each of us like that. When we go to church, we see that everybody has a different job to do, but we are all working together, again, for one purpose and direction.
As the kids get older and ask more questions, this naturally leads to describing sex as an amazing gift to bond mom and dad together really close, to enjoy each other, and even to sometimes bring another person into the world to share their love with (just like God did when he made us!). If we were to bond like that outside of marriage, it could hurt our hearts when the bond gets pulled apart. It could result in harder situations for kids and parents who don’t all have each other. It could even result in difficult health challenges. It’s such a meaningful gift to start loving your future spouse, even now, so much that you save the bond for only them. This discussion can begin a more long-term thinking process and increase the value they see in others, as well as seeing outside of themselves to the role they play in the bigger picture of humanity.
Another outward-looking angle I like to take is the idea that we have so we can give. If we are strong, well, and secure, we can look out for others. We can meet needs. We can show respect and compassion to all people. We can speak up against a wrongdoing. We can learn how things were and are, and what we can do for the “could be”. I have even recently suggested we can “protect” others who don’t even know it. See, if an image or a person grabs our attention visually or mentally, we can “protect” them from being treated like an object. We aren’t responsible for what we see, or even what we think or feel about what we see. But we are in charge of what we do from that point on. We can consciously choose thoughts and actions that honor them as a person of great value. We can discourage objectifying speech and behaviors we witness. God is love, and love means willing the good of others in thought AND action.
Society is formatted for near-instant gratification. Our kids are growing consumers and well-entertained. This can lead to dangerous self-absorption and entitlement, addiction, and overstimulation. Certain amounts of boredom can actually be healthy for the brain, in terms of generating creativity. Learning to wait has benefits like building patience and impulse control, saving money, and learning appreciation for hard work. When the conversation turns to sex and pornography, chasing instant gratification can lead to sexual addiction and heartache. Focusing on building strong relationships is rewarding, meaningful, and healthy.
I always say that kids are great scientists. From birth, it seems most of what they do is experiment. They soon learn that many of these experiments are not appreciated by the adults in their lives. How we respond to kids doing what is completely developmentally appropriate can make a big difference to their self-esteem, their ability to make decisions, and how they handle life’s many failures. I try (and often fail) to treat mistakes like learning opportunities. I believe in the value of re-dos – literally reenacting the situation that just now devolved into sadness and frustration, but with the addition of more helpful words and behaviors I can help provide. I need to keep the attitude that my kids are going to make mistakes. Even the ones I made myself and warned them about. Failure is an important tool in success.
Regularly discussing and practicing all these topics normalizes the concept of sex. Normalizing sex is important to safety, development, healthy future relationships, and for providing opportunities to discuss questions or issues the kids encounter. Shame is the enemy to all these things. When talking about internet safety, I remind my kids that sex and curiosity aren’t inappropriate, but that there is much content on the internet that very much is inappropriate, and even harmful. I feel like we have had much success keeping a lifelong, age-appropriate dialogue going, in an emotionally-safe environment, and nabbing random opportunities to engage with them about what can be some uncomfortable topics. As a mom, I feel a sense of relief every time God leads me to an opportunity to talk about something important and heavy on my heart.
As you can see, there is so much ground to cover that superficially seems to have little to do with sex. Yet, as the kids age, it turns out most of “the talk” has been had, and there are merely points to connect and short new lines to draw. As a Christian mom who wishes there was such thing as “porn-proofing”, I know that if I can fully delight in God, I can teach my kids a genuine delight in and reliance on God. That in turn will go a long way to minimizing the desirability of the many self-oriented pleasures that can be had, as well as maximizing strength, grace, and resilience. I pray that the spiritual growth I continue to experience, coupled with the wisdom of God and friends, and the practical application of these topics, will provide my sons a solid foundation on which they can build good decisions, and weather the not-so-good ones.