We all want kids to be innocent. But sometimes I worry that in our quest for innocence, we inadvertently push ignorance.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot this last month as my girls and I gear up to launch our course, The Whole Story: Not So Scary Talks about Sex, Purity, and Growing Up on Monday. (UPDATE: It’s Live Now!)
We all know that talking to kids about sex is awkward. But in talking to parents about what makes it awkward, I’ve been getting some interesting responses. I talked on Wednesday about this urge to make sure kids don’t know what you’re doing! But there’s also this element of wanting to maintain a child’s innocence as long as possible.
And I just want to explore that idea of “innocence” today.
When we talk about wanting to maintain a child’s innocence, we’re likely aiming to keep them in that stage of life where they don’t know about the ugliness of the world. They don’t know about things like wars and the evils that people can do to each other. And we want them to keep living that carefree, protected life as long as possible.
I do get that. Kids have a right to be kids–by which I mean they don’t need to know all the adult things too early. They have a right to their “innocence”.
But I think there’s another element to it, and ironically I think the church actually makes this worse.
Because our main aim in teaching sex is to teach kids to wait until marriage, we frame kids as sexual beings far too young.
Let me explain. A while ago I wrote a post on what to do if you catch your 8-year-old son touching himself. I was making the point that at that age, when young children touch themselves, it is not sexual. It is simply because it feels good. And so we should not treat it as if they are committing some grave sexual sin. We should not say to them, “that’s only for marriage.” What a way to freak out a child! Imagine a little girl is in the bathtub and she notices that rubbing her vulva with a facecloth feels nice. If you then say, “God made that for marriage,” she won’t know what to make of that. The LAST thing she wants is some man rubbing her there. What are you talking about?!?
The problem, you see, is that we’re attributing sexual thoughts and motivations to children, when they don’t have those at all. Just look at the comments on the masturbation post to see what I mean. People were very upset that I wouldn’t treat this as a sin.
But you see, lust is the sin, and once you’re past puberty, masturbation is normally about lust. When you’re a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old and you figure out that your genitals feel nice, that’s not lust. So we need to treat them differently.
In our quest to teach kids about purity, then, we’ve often started to ascribe these sexual feelings to young children, simply because we want to get our messaging right. No wonder we feel like they’re losing their innocence; it’s we who are putting that on them!
The main message the first time they hear about sex does not need to be, “you should never have sex outside of marriage”
Of course we teach them that God made sex to be something beautiful between two married people. But I think Christians go further than that when we tell 8-10 year olds about sex.
When Rebecca, my oldest, was 10, I took her away on a weekend to talk to her about the facts of life. We had a program with CDs that we were working through, and the main message from that program was that you should choose to stay pure. They told everything, but then they took the kids through a series of exercises to show how dangerous sex was outside of marriage, and to have them pledge not to “do it” with anybody but a spouse.
Now, at this point Rebecca was freaked out enough by the facts about sex. I could have gotten her to pledge to never talk to a boy at all! And so we didn’t do all the exercises it suggested. I just felt that they weren’t age appropriate.
To start talking about how people can misuse sexual feelings before the child even sees sexual feelings as a good thing is to push too much on a child too early.
It makes no sense to ask a child who thinks sex is gross to pledge to be pure. It’s meaningless. And it solidifies this idea that sex is bad.
Waiting until the child starts to develop sexual feelings is far more appropriate.
Indeed, that’s why telling our kids about sex shouldn’t just be “giving them THE talk”. It’s a continuing conversation that changes as they grow.
In our course, The Whole Story, we have two different versions of it–one for girls aged 10-12, which is more information based, and one for girls aged 13-15, which is more emotional and social based, because the girls have matured.
I think one reason so many parents are scared of talking to their kids about sex is because they think that they have to cover all of this other stuff the very first time a child hears how sex works. Because that seems overwhelming, they balk. But it doesn’t have to be like that! You can unwrap sex little by little as they grow, and that’s far less scary.
Look, when we think our main job whenever we teach about sex is to stress not having sex, we attribute sexual feelings to children before they have them.
No wonder we feel like they’ve lost their innocence!
But there’s one more problem, and it stems from this one about oversexualizing children’s motives too early.
Another reason we associate losing one’s innocence with finding out about sex is because, at heart, we see sex as somehow sinful or shameful.
It isn’t only about preserving childhood, this state where they don’t know everything (ignorance or naivety). It’s also that we feel as if teaching them about sex is the equivalent of Adam and Eve eating the apple. Until that moment they were in this glorious state of innocence, but after that–they were sinful, fallen creatures. And we want to keep our children from that “fall”.
I do think that this is a huge reason that so many people are nervous to talk to their kids about sex.
After all, think about how we speak about sex in the wider context! We tell kids “Stay pure until you’re married.” But that implies that once they’re married they’re no longer pure, as if virginity and purity are the same thing.
No, they’re not! Purity is about living your life according to Jesus’ principles, and about claiming his righteousness for our own (sanctification). Many impure people are virgins, and tons of non-virgins are pure (many of us married folk included!). So instead of phrasing it as if purity is linked to whether or not we’ve had sex, even with our spouses, let’s just leave purity on its own. Don’t tell kids “stay pure until you’re married.” Just tell kids, “stay pure.” Because that’s what we all should be doing–married and non-married alike! We should stay pure in every aspect of our lives, not just sexually.
Here’s my daughter Katie (who stars alongside her older sister in the videos teaching girls about sex & puberty) talking about purity on her YouTube channel:
Our children can remain completely innocent and pure and still know about sex.
Let’s not confuse a loss of ignorance with a loss of innocence. Innocence is only lost when sin enters the picture. Finding out about God’s design for our bodies and for sex is not sinful, and learning about how sex works does not mean that one automatically has sexual feelings.
I know it’s hard when your children grow up and you have no idea when to tell them what, or how to tell them that (and I hope our Whole Story course can help you with your daughters!). I certainly had a horrible time opening up to my girls about it, and I’ll be sharing with you about many of my mistakes (and some are awfully funny!) next week. This isn’t easy.
But at the same time, let’s not make it harder on ourselves. Learning about sex will not end your child’s innocence. Yes, it will open up a new world where things aren’t secret anymore. But in many ways, this allows them to stay innocent because, in being more aware of what is happening with their bodies, they won’t worry so much or fret when changes come. They won’t be as inclined to act out inappropriately simply out of curiosity. And perhaps most importantly, they’ll be able to tell you more easily if someone tries to hurt them, because they’ll have words for what’s happening.
Our children deserve to hear the truth–at age appropriate times! And I totally believe that you can do this well, without wrecking their innocence at all. It doesn’t have to be scary!
We’ll talk about that more next week, but for right now, let’s discuss this in the comments.
Do you worry about your kids losing innocence if you tell them about sex? And at what age do you think kids need to know “The Whole Story”? Let’s talk in the comments!
Let The Whole Story help you talk to your daughters about Sex, Puberty, and Growing Up! See it here.
Have a great weekend!