I would like to ask you a question about how to talk to a child, such as a six-year-old, about sexual matters.
Children as young as pre-schoolers are sex educated every day. They hear about sex and sexuality through peers, they experience it through exploration of their bodies, they observe it through advertising in the way various products are sold, and they see it in music videos or other forms of media.
In the current social environment in which our children are growing up, parents do not have a choice about whether pre-school, primary and high school children should be informed about sex. The only choice they have is whether they will be participating in the sexual education of their children.
Their participation ensures that their child is appropriately influenced regarding respectful, appropriate and responsible sexual attitudes. This knowledge will also help to protect the child against sexual victimisation
When older children sexually touch younger children, this is not harmless “sex play” or cannot be underplayed. Instead, any form of sexual exposure or touching of a minor is sexual abuse, and sexual abuse has severe short and long-term psychological effects.
With pre-schoolers, it has become the norm that children are sent to day-care centres, creches or after-care centres. At these places, children have different value systems and different degrees of exposure to, experimentation with, and knowledge of sex.
Inevitably they will share their knowledge and re-enact their sexual exposure and experiences with their peers. If they were sexually abused themselves by an older child or an adult, they will often re-enact their abuse on their peers.
With the increase of children’s access to the internet, there is an increase in primary school pupils downloading pornography on their phones and other gadgets and sending it to their friends at a cost. Some of them even make a profit and as a consequence are encouraged to continue distributing pornography.
Sexual norms have changed significantly and during the last two decades there has been an acceptance of pornography, erotic television programmes, teenage sex, cohabitation, divorce, and unsupervised children at home.
According to Dr Joan Campbell, an expert in the field of sex education in Cape Town, the one norm that has gone unchanged is that parents are reluctant to sex-educate their children, which, together with a decay in moral values, contributes significantly to increased molestation and problematic sexual behaviour among young children.
The tone and language used to talk about sex with your children is also important. If children feel that sex is a secret and are told it is not for children’s ears, their genitals are given funny names or they hear strange stories of their conception that do not make any sense, then they will listen to the seemingly biologically sound and perhaps more appealing stories and images of sex that they get from their peers.
Normal sexual behaviour of pre-schoolers:
Four to six-year-old children have increased contact with their peers. At this particular age, they start to socialise with less bodily contact (compared to the previous phase of zero to four years where there is more self-exploration of body parts including their genitals) and exploration becomes more visual.
They have more contact with children of both genders and are exposed to new kinds of sexual behaviours. Sex play among children involves infrequent exploring other children’s genitals, self-exploration, kissing, hugging, peeking at or exposing of genitals. The sexual play is influenced by the social sexualisation of the child.
A child with boundaries for sexual games and nudity will exhibit less sexual games compared to the child without sufficient sexual boundaries and nudity limits. Both sexes share their exploration and information with peers of the same sex. Children at this age question where they come from; want to see pictures of the human body and giggle when they see people kissing. In public, affectionate behaviour between different sexes repulses them; in private, they are fascinated by similar scenes.
Guidelines on how to sex educate your child:
If we expect children to understand complicated tasks and concepts then we need to accept that children are fully capable of understanding the biological process of sex and thus sex education can be seen as just another lesson in human biology.
When teaching sex education, use age appropriate language and pictures that illustrate different parts of the body including genitals. Explain the physiological process of sexual intercourse and the biological process of conception.
Leave out the big words when speaking to a three to four year old. You need to mention to your older child that one can prevent the mother from becoming pregnant through using contraception. Also add that sexual intercourse is not only for making babies or procreation but is also an expression of love and sharing between adults.
Sex education should be clear and direct. It is best not to avoid questions. This will only discourage your child from approaching you for information. Answer the question correctly or if you are unsure or too embarrassed, tell the child you will get back to them later and do so. If not, the child will find out from someone else and usually it will be misinformation.
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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