Sexuality Education: What To Tell Your Children (cont.)

Moderator: What are the important concepts parents need to talk about with very young children under age 5?

Huberman: With very young children, this is the beginning of the relationship between parent and child. And, at first, it begins with many nonverbal communications. The way a parent touches an infant, the way children are picked up and hugged, cuddled, responded to when they need something but don't have language to tell us. From these things, our children learn about some of the basics of our sexuality. And, that's learning to trust, a high sense of "I am worthwhile", someone comes to me when I need them, and a sense of mastery over their body and being able to express themselves to other people. In these very early years, some things that parents can do to foster a child's healthy sexual development are giving lots of physical attention to a child. This is not spoiling, this is saying, I love you, I care about you, I'm here for you. And that, in turn, makes the child feel valued, worthwhile and capable. This is the time, also, when children are very young, to start using the proper words for body parts and body functions so that children respect their bodies and know how their bodies function, and they aren't embarrassed as they get older when their peers or their playmates look at them and say, why do you call your breasts that name or why do you call your penis that name? That's not the right name.

It's also extremely important in these early years that parents help their child to understand that their body is their body and they have a right to say no to unwanted touch. And that, if anyone ever touches their body and they don't like it or it doesn't feel good or they know that that's not okay, then they should come to you and tell you and you will protect them. Young children, before they get to school, generally don't have a sense of shame about their body. And, it's important in the early years to teach them about privacy. That it's okay to touch your body yourself, especially around your genitals, but that's done in privacy. Most children in this age group, especially from 0-3 years old, masturbate openly. And they do it because it feels good and they've discovered that. And, this is a time that's very important for parents to share with their children that this is something that you recognize does give them pleasure, but it's something that's private. This is also a time when children begin to learn about bathroom functions and the fact that, generally, these are private too in our culture.

Some questions that young children generally ask are "where do babies come from?", "how does the baby get in or out of its mother?", "why do I have breasts?", "will my brother have breasts?", or, "How come daddy doesn't have them?" They're usually pretty simple questions in the infancy to pre-school years. And, because they're very small children, for a parent who does have some uncomfortableness, this is a wonderful time to go ahead and answer questions easily.

Moderator: What are the important concepts parents need to talk about with children between ages 5 to 10?

Huberman: The school years certainly bring about much more interaction with friends, their peer group, and family members. Language development makes very complex questions possible for children as they learn more and they have the skills to understand more. Children in the school years are very interested, usually, in roles. What do mommies do and daddies do? What do girls do and boys do? And, while they were certainly learning when they were young about roles, this is the time where there is heavy influence from school, from peers, from play groups, from activities that they engage in like scouts or ballet classes, about what actually being female and male means in our culture. It's also a time when children are much more capable of taking care of themselves personally. Taking care of their bodies personally. And so, for a parent, this means reinforcing some of the early lessons about cleanliness, about taking care of your body to make sure that you're healthy, and, again, reinforcing the messages about good touch and bad touch. This is also a time when young children, school age children, are very interested in what's "normal" or "not normal". And so, a lot of their questions will have to do with, "is this okay?" And, it's important for parents, during this time, to reassure their children that their body IS normal, no matter what it looks like, what size it is, so that they can feel, as they move into the teen years and begin to experience the changes of puberty, a sense of pride about their bodies.

Moderator: What age does someone discover their sexuality?

Huberman: That begins, really, in conception where children begin to experience pleasure while in the mother's uterus. There is evidence that children masturbate while in the uterus. So, we certainly don't know if they're experiencing pleasure from that activity, but it certainly offers them some kind of comfort. And, if we look at sexuality as much, much more than a sexual relationship, we can understand that the other parts of our sexuality, our body image, whether we like the way our body looks, our values and beliefs about sexual relationship and about sexual behavior. Our sex roles, how do we see ourselves in terms of our sex roles and our interactions with other people. These are all critical parts of our sexuality. Our sexuality for all of us as human beings is changing constantly. From birth to death, we are sexual beings and it changes all the time as our life and our experiences change and our circumstances change in our lives. And, certainly, the greatest amount of change physically, at least, occurs for children in the years around puberty.

Moderator: What are the important concepts parents need to talk about with adolescents between ages 11 to 19?

Huberman: An interesting thing that's helpful for parents to know is that the age in which bodies start to mature and grow into adult status has been dropping for the last century. So, for girls today, when they begin to experience the physical changes of puberty, the average is now 11-1/2, which means, for many young girls, those changes are occurring, if that's the average, at ages 8 and 9. For boys, it's about one to two years later. That's why when you look at, let's say, a sixth grade class of young people, the girls, many of them appear to be physically mature. And, if they dress, wear make-up and look like adults, the young boys in that class, most of whom will be one to two years behind them in starting puberty, still look like little kids. The danger in that, as the age of puberty for girls has dropped, is that they aren't attractive really to 12-year-old boys, they're attractive because their bodies are physically mature to much older young men or men Because their bodies are mature, however, doesn't mean that socially and emotionally and cognitively, their ability to think about themselves and their situations, is mature as well. That, itself, is a long process as well. And, for most of us, the majority of that certainly isn't complete until well into our 20s.