Every mother has them, those moments when her children take her back to the same raw immodesty that brought them into this world. Mine happened last week at the checkout counter in Wal-Mart.
"Mom, what are these?" my characteristically quiet 10-year-old son bellowed as he pointed to the one purchase I'd hoped would be made discreetly.
"Hey, bud, they're kind of private." I answered softly. "Can I tell you about that in the car?"
He gave me a curious look. "Yeah, but what are they?" he seemed to shout as he picked up the package, turning it over for an answer.
"I'll tell you in the car, honey," I gently took the package from him and placed it back on the conveyer belt. I spoke a bit more insistently this time. A pensive pause followed.
"They look like underwear," he said pointing to the instructional picture on the package. "What are they?"
"They're like diapers," my exasperated 6-year-old daughter said loudly "And she's wearing one right now!"
Voila! An instant lesson in sexuality for my 10-year-old son taught by my 6-year-old daughter. (The sideshow for everyone else at the store was a freebie.)
I had thought these conversations about sexuality could wait a little longer, but we were off and there was no stopping. I found peace in a familiar verse. Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it."
The Hebrew word for "train" is chanak, a military term having to do with training with a bow and arrow. In those days, soldiers were not afforded the luxury of the adjusting mechanisms today's archers enjoy. Instead, they were issued a raw, wooden, individually crafted bow. To use it effectively they had to spend hours and hours adjusting themselves to that particular piece of wood. Sounds a bit like parenting, don't you think?
It gives me comfort as my mind bends toward the subject of training my children to live a vibrant life of sexual purity. There is no "A-B-C" sex-ed. formula. I don't have to worry that my 10-year-old isn't quite ready or that my 6-year-old is very curious. I can adjust myself to their readiness as opportunities and questions arise.
When Should I Start Talking About Sex?
I used to think that I could wait until my children hit puberty before starting any conversation about sexuality. But experts in child development say parents should talk to their children about sexuality long before the kids reach their teen years. In fact, children tend to be most receptive to their parents' sexual values when they are around 8 or 9.
One study evaluated an abstinence curriculum's effect on different age groups. Students in the upper elementary grades were the most likely to make favorable attitude changes about delaying sexual activity while high school students were the least likely to change. When kids turn 13 years old, parents become cruel dictators with archaic ideas about hairstyles, clothing, and social outings. Presenting sexuality at this point just adds it to a long list of "thou shalt nots" to be challenged and questioned. Presenting the subject of sex and values a few years earlier enables you to build a foundation that kids are likely to take to heart.
If you're nervous about approaching the subject of sex with your 8-year-old, relax. At this age and even into the early junior high years, your child may not be terribly interested in the details. The basic fact that sexual contact creates babies and is God's special gift for marriage may be all the information they need for now.
How Often Do I Need to Bring It Up?
The answer is, more often than you think. Despite the uneasiness felt by most pre-teens when parents bring up the subject of sex, most kids this age say they prefer to learn about sex from their parents. In one study of 11- and 12-year-olds, 60 percent of the respondents wanted their parents to bring the subject up more frequently. Remember the insatiable curiosity you had when you were young? Meet the curiosity head-on so that it's not quenched elsewhere. Bringing the subject up often allows you to maintain control of the message.
The truth is that ignorance about sexual issues is simply too dangerous for our children today. Although abstinence is gaining momentum as an option, not all abstinence messages can be trusted. I have a book published by a reputable Christian publisher in which the authors advise parents to teach "safer sex." Some abstinence programs teach that students should refrain from intercourse, but allow for other sexual activities such as mutual masturbation and oral sex.
We hear a lot about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but not much about the human papilloma virus known as HPV which is just as dangerous. As I mention in my book, And the Bride Wore White (Moody), "Condoms, the armor of the safe-sex mentality, provide little protection against most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). HPV is the most common viral STD, causing more than 2.5 million new infections each year. HPV is incurable, uncomfortable, and gross. It causes genital warts and more importantly, it causes more than 90 percent of all cervical cancer. Guess how much protection a condom provides against HPV? None. How safe is that?" In addition, some STD's can be passed on through oral sex, mutual masturbation, and other sexual behaviors that appear "safe."
When parents lay the groundwork for these conversations early, children will feel more comfortable discussing the sometimes explicit details of sexuality as they get older.
What Should I Tell My Kids About Sex?
The most powerful facts you can share with your child are the benefits of waiting to have sex. We tend to downplay God's gift in our efforts to keep our kids pure instead of emphasizing that sex is a good and wonderful gift from God. Throwing scary statistics about teen pregnancy at our kids or trying to convince them that they are bad if they get involved in sexual activity only serves to make the forbidden seem more appealing. Young people don't believe anything bad can happen to them. No matter how high the risks, they believe they are immune.
Instead of drawing attention to the negative, try talking about the payoff of abstinence. Talk with your children about having babies with great celebration and no regrets caused by bad timing. Talk about the fact that social science repeatedly proves that the most sexually active people are married and that they tend to be more sexually satisfied. Talk about how wonderful it is to give your whole self to someone you have vowed to love and trust for the rest of your life. Give your child a vision of the reward that God provides when we partake of the great gift of sex according to his plan. Talking about the risks is important, but don't let this world's misuse of God's great gift overshadow the beauty of it. The benefits are what will motivate our children to wait.
How Specific Should I Be About My Expectations?
Sexual purity involves far more than just abstaining from sexual intercourse. After I spoke to a group of Christian teens, a young man proudly approached me to report that he and his girlfriend were setting a "good example" of sexual purity by limiting their sexual contact to oral sex. In a world where sexual experimentation is common even among the youngest of teens, it's not enough to say, "Don't have sex." Parents need to be specific about what is and isn't acceptable. That may seem harsh, but young people desperately want to know what's expected of them. One of the most common sex questions among teens is, "How far is too far?" They want someone to tell them what's appropriate. If parents don't do it, their culture will.
As you talk about your standards with your child, expand your definition of purity to include attitude and appearance, not just action. Ephesians 5:3 says that within the church "there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity." Your child needs to understand that dressing modestly is an important part of purity. So is the way they talk to and about the opposite sex.
The Internet is a source of temptation that our generation never had to think about. But for your children, it's probably their easiest access to explicit materials. Consider using a filtering device, then talk with your children about the importance of avoiding online pornography.
Carefully consider the types of movies your children should and shouldn't see. These limits will be much more acceptable to your children if you introduce them early and talk with them about your reasons for setting these limits. If your kids are already in their teens, involve them in the discernment process and create a family agreement that outlines what's expected for everyone in the family. When children understand your reasons for saying no, they're more likely to accept the boundaries you've established.
And by all means, specifically tell your child that any kind of contact with their sexual organs by another person should be reserved for marriage. Everyday they are bombarded with messages that encourage alternative methods of sexual expression. Blatantly establishing expectations is necessary to combat the lies.
What's the Secret to Raising Sexually Pure Kids?
Ultimately, it will be your overall relationship with your children that ingrains your sexual values into their lives. In 1997, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that concluded that the degree of connection teenagers feel with parents and teachers is the single most important determination of whether they will engage in risky sexual activity.
Dads are particularly important in establishing life-long healthy sexual attitudes. Many studies confirm that girls who grow up without fathers are at much greater risk for early sexual activity, adolescent childbearing, divorce, and lack of sexual confidence. Many men who struggle with sexual addiction had either neglectful or abusive fathers.
The type of relationship that will strongly influence your child's healthy sexual decisions doesn't occur easily. It takes hours of focused attention. Spend time with your kids, especially as they approach the age when they seem to prefer their friends to you. Play laser tag. Race go-carts. Go to a good movie. Hang out in the basement during their sleepovers. Stop everything and go buy the ingredients for that awful sounding science recipe they brought home.
Remember that raw, wooden, individually crafted bow? If your target is to enable your child to live a sexually pure life, don't focus so much on the actual bullseye. Instead, invest the time it takes to get truly comfortable with the unique creation God has placed in your hands. Ultimately, quality time is what will enable you to "train up a child in the way he should go." And every child is ready for that.
"Mom, Did You Wait?"
When you talk with your children about sexual purity, their number-one question is likely to be, "Did you wait?" I once feared having to answer that question. After a long period of struggling, I've determined that God's standard of honesty exists even in the darkest closets of my life. And, if it is a closet I've allowed him to clean, there's no good reason to equivocate.
I've watched many wise parents of teenagers bravely share their struggles and past sins. Most of those teenagers then face the issue of sexuality with a special determination. The key is to focus on the heart issues and consequences, not the physical act of sexual sin. Even if your child challenges you by saying, "But you did it," you can look her in the eye and say, "Yes I did, so when I say there are consequences, I know what I'm talking about. I was wrong. I don't want you to face the consequences that I did."
God has the power to bring good out of our bad. Think of it like a vaccination. When we know that a deadly physical sickness like polio exists, we take a tiny amount of it and inject it into the bodies of our precious little babies. The body suddenly recognizes the disease and plans a defensive strategy against it. We need to do the same thing with our spiritual sicknesses. Instead of hiding them as if they do not exist, we can take a tiny bit of the spiritual and emotional sickness that results from past sexual sin and let God "inject" it into our children's spirits so that they begin to build a defensive strategy against the sin that waits to consume them.
Dannah Gresh is the author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity (Moody), a book for teenage girls and their mothers. This spring, Dannah's husband, Bob, will release a new book for teenage guys and their dads.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.