A common question from many parents is ‘when do we talk to our kids about sex?’, as if it’s still a ‘one off’ awkward conversation about the birds and the bees. However our hypersexualised culture forces us to change our thinking. We can either be one step ahead, or let culture frame the way our kids think about sex. Perhaps a better question to ask is ‘what sexualised messages do I need to counteract so that my child will have a positive attitude towards their body, sense of self and relationships?’
There’s a barrage of sexual content facing our kids on a day to day basis. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, children either inadvertently or out of curiosity, learn about sex on almost a daily basis. Advertising, music, clothing, TV, movies and the Internet all offer a version of sex education that most of us would prefer wasn’t the mode of learning. Much of this version of sex is objectifying (portraying people as nothing more than a sex object). Caring parents and educators are beautifully positioned to offer children positive alternative messages that instil in them a value for themselves and respect for others.
Over the past few years in particular, there has been a strong focus to increase protective behaviours in children, and rightly so. Education in this space needs a much stronger priority within homes and schools as a first defence measure against child sexual abuse.
When we look more broadly, international standards of sexuality education incorporate protective behaviours and outline that between the ages of 4-9, important foundational learning related to wellness, safety and autonomy includes:
- Gaining an understanding of private body parts and public / private behaviour
- Awareness of good and bad experiences (listening to their body as a way to stay safe)
- Knowing that some people are not good and may do unkind or violent things to others
- Knowledge of what to do, who to speak with and where to go in order to feel safe
- Awareness of healthy boundaries
- Expressing relationships in a positive way
- Exercising responsibility for self and showing respect towards others.
There’s nothing scary about this kind of learning – it’s the provision of practical information that lays a grounded foundation for life and relationships. There are very few schools who actively implement this kind of robust education in the early years, and many parents are seeking support to know how to approach these topics.
As much as it can be confronting to acknowledge, education needs to extend beyond face-to-face protective behaviours given that some children will inadvertently access explicit online material at a very young age. The Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report released in 2015 states:
Such exposure can have a range of troubling impacts. Navigating the task of keeping children safe and letting them know where to go if they are troubled – either by inappropriate touch or inappropriate online content – has become an essential component of life with the Internet.
Unfortunately Internet pornography has become the dominant sexuality educator of our time. I speak with parents on a consistent basis who believe they have adequately protected their children by diligently installing home filters and doing their best to keep up with the apps and never ending stream of technological influences. BUT many parents still haven’t had a conversation because they’re not sure how to approach it. Despite the best intention of diligent carers, the sheer volume of explicit content available means it’s not a case of if kids will see porn, it’s a matter of when.
Sadly, we also need to have an acute awareness of the growing number of children who have not received crucial information or been raised in an environment conducive to cultivating healthy development and boundaries, have seen pornography, and then act out those inappropriate behaviours on other children. There has been more than a ten-fold increase of children presenting to clinics with problem sexualised behaviours and sexually abusive behaviours over the past ten years, with much of this increase attributed to online pornography. This provides an even greater need for all children to have comprehensive protective behaviours education that includes online safety.
Kids who see porn need to find a way to manage what they encounter. If they have a gentle and safe conversation BEFORE they see explicit content, they have a grounded framework in which to process that information. This is the purpose of the Milly’s Message children’s book for ages 5-10. Reading this with kids enables them to develop a lens that prepares them for the inevitable. They are given context. They have the tools to know what to do – and most importantly, they know that when they approach a safe adult and share what they’ve seen, they won’t be in trouble.
The alternative – not talking to children about porn – leaves kids unprepared. A child can very quickly let feelings overwhelm them. Responses can range from curiosity, disgust, confusion, guilt and arousal. “I hated this but I liked it”. “I don’t want to look at more but I really want to look at more”. “I get a sense that it’s bad for me but I don’t really know why”. Internal conflict without the knowledge of why porn is not safe or helpful for them can quickly lead to shame, a life of secrecy and an unhealthy foundation for future relationships. This is the purpose of the Hamish and the Shadow Secret children’s book for ages 8-12. Whether kids have seen pornography or not, Hamish and the Shadow Secret provides essential information to help them make sense of their current or future experience of seeing images that are often violent and extreme.
With statistics such as this and the potential outcomes from children accessing this content, this support note is just the beginning. We invite you utilise Milly’s Message and Hamish and the Shadow Secret children’s books and read them with your kids, find links on our resources page, and gather more insight from our blogs – Positive Sexuality Messages is a good place to start. Above all, use this information to move you forward to action – now more than ever, our kids need you to brave these tricky conversations.
For additional practical tools to facilitate these conversations and keep kids safe online and off, consider these links: