Sex Ed: Timing “The TALK”
The timing of telling your child about intercourse is a strategic decision, not a moral decision. There is no divine rule in this area. We do not know when children in ancient Israel learned about sex in their families. But remember, they lived in a culture dependent on breeding, raising, and consuming animals, a culture in which the fertility cycles, breeding strategies, and births of animals would be daily staples of existence. Also they lived in a culture short on privacy. People lived in tents or small one- or two-room homes. In this culture, as best we understand it, young people married quite early by our standards.
This was also an earthy culture in which God spoke to His people in earthy terms. For example, through the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 23) God talked in a brutal and explicit way about His people’s spiritual unfaithfulness. He compared them to two sisters who act like whores, even to the point of fantasizing that their immoral lovers have penises the size of those of donkeys and semen ejaculations comparable to that of horses! (Read verse 20; many “polite” English translations dodge the explicit meaning of the Hebrew words here, but, yes, the Bible actually talks of donkey penises and horse ejaculations.) And God’s Law, in all its explicitness (rules and stories about incest, adultery, prostitution, and the like), was read aloud every Sabbath for all to hear. So let’s not assume that Victorian ignorance, silence, and embarrassment is godly behavior in talking about sex.
Whether children will be traumatized by hearing about sexual intercourse depends entirely upon how they are told. Lurid, sensationalized, or overly graphic descriptions are not healthy for children, especially young children, and can lead a child to be preoccupied with sex. And this is increasingly a risk for children in today’s media-driven culture. Many teachers report that it is the rule rather than the exception that nine- and ten-year-old students regularly watch R-rated movies on cable television at home. The kids who don’t see such movies themselves are regaled with vivid descriptions from these movies on the playground.
One of the best reasons for parents to be the first to tell their children about sexual union in marriage is to prevent them from getting an initial impression that is distorted or destructive. This is another application of our Principle 3: “First messages are the most potent.” It is far more powerful to form a child’s view of sexuality from scratch than it is to correct the distortions the child will pick up in the world. Trying to build a godly view of sexuality and sexual intercourse after children are exposed to the distortions of the world would be like trying to teach children good nutrition after allowing them to be raised for years on junk food. For this reason we urge parents to tell children about sexual intercourse between ages five and seven, between their kindergarten and second-grade years.
Our next general principle is: Principle 6: Accurate and explicit messages are best.
Err on the side of providing too much information and being too explicit. By explicit, we simply mean being detailed, clear, and direct. We don’t mean being indiscreet or lewd. Avoid using language that is figurative, too technical, or obscure. Typically, little damage is done by giving too much information if the information is true, sensitively described, and offered in a positive spirit. Children absorb the information they are interested in and can understand, and they seem to simply ignore or file away whatever they cannot grasp or are uninterested in. Strike a balance here; if we bore children by drowning them with detail they don’t want, we discourage them from coming to us for information. But asking about sexuality is hard for children, and if we make them feel like they are pulling teeth to get information from us, then they will get the information they want somewhere it is easier to get.
HOW TO TELL THEM
Our teachings as parents should be their first messages. Our teachings should be explicit and direct. And that leads us to our next general principle of sex education in the Christian home:
Principle 7: Positive messages are more potent than negative messages.
As Romans 2:1-16 teaches, God’s Law is written on the hearts of all persons. We trust, on this basis, that in their hearts our children will be able to recognize the truth when it is presented to them. And the truth of the Christian view of sex is a good, positive truth: Sex is a marvelous gift of God. Christians believe that good is more powerful than evil. Because the Christian message about sexuality is fundamentally positive, good, and true, we can trust in the persuasive power of the positive message about the Christian view of sex. In fact, all other messages about sexuality other than those of the Christian faith diminish rather than enhance our understanding of sexuality.
Carolyn Nystrom’s wonderful book, Before I Was Born, (for ages five to eight) is Book 2 in the God’s Design For Sex book series. This is a marvelous introduction to the topic of sexual intercourse. After describing the nature of marriage, she offers the following direct, simple, tactful explanation of intercourse
Friends bring gifts to a wedding. God has a special gift for new husbands and wives too. It is called sex. God’s rules say that only people who are married to each other should have sex. It is God’s way of making families strong.
Because the man and woman are married, their bodies belong to each other. They enjoy holding each other close. When a husband and wife lie close together, he can fit his penis into her vagina. His semen flows inside of her and their bodies feel good all over. Husbands and wives want to be alone during sex so they can think only of each other.
A husband can’t make a baby by himself. A wife can’t make a baby by herself. But God made their bodies so that they fit perfectly together. And together they can make a baby.
We have had the following type of conversation after reading this description to our five- and six year-old children.
CHILD: So that’s sex, is it? When people talk about having sex, they mean the man’s penis being inside the woman’s vagina? That is so gross!
PARENT: You know, I felt just the way you do when I first heard about sex. I think maybe God makes us so that when we’re too young to have sex, it just sounds gross to us. But it really isn’t gross. Someday, when you really love someone and you are physically ready to have sex, then it won’t sound gross anymore. Instead, it will sound wonderful. I remember when your mom and I were dating, I wanted to have sex with her. But even when it sounds lovely, it isn’t the right thing to do until you are married. God wants you to have sex only with your husband (or wife). Since your mom and I weren’t married, we didn’t.
CHILD: Why does God have that rule?
PARENT: Well, like we read in this book, God made sex as a special gift for husbands and wives to share only with each other. You know how you feel about your most special toys—you really don’t like to share them? Well, sex is a little like that; it isn’t meant to be shared with anyone but your husband (or wife). To share it with other people would ruin it. It’s like two radios that two people can use to talk just to each other. If you break the radios into more pieces so that three or six people can all share the pieces, the radios are broken and they don’t work. They were not meant to be shared like that.
PARENT: You know what? I like talking with you about this, and I’m glad that you want to know. Would you please tell me when you have more questions so that I can talk more about it with you? Sex is very beautiful, but a lot of people believe the wrong things about it, so you will hear other kids telling you really dumb and wrong stuff. And television will show you many people who have very wrong ideas about sex. So I want to talk with you about it so that you will know God’s truth about sex.
In the following we present the summary conclusion of a long discussion in the book for parents about how to build the moral understanding of the child about sexual intercourse.
The Three-Strand Cord of Christian Sexual Morality
The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (4:12). The three general sets of reasons behind the traditional moral standard form a three-strand cord of great strength. If sexual intercourse is what Christians claim the Bible teaches it is—a life-uniting event—then obedience makes sense. God’s command is not just an arbitrary standard; it’s a rule that leads us to wholeness and blessing. For we who are married, this rule guides us into experiencing the best that God has for us—unity with the person who is our mate for life. For we who are single, God’s rule guards and protects us from linking our lives with those with whom we do not have life union. The sexual ethic preserves us from acts that would be self-destructive.
If sexual intercourse is what Christians claim, a life-uniting event, then the terrible consequences of illicit sexual intercourse make sense. The emotional devastation of bonds broken by unfaithfulness seems inevitable. The fact that we are relatively unprotected physically from sexually transmitted diseases makes sense when we consider that such disease would generally disappear in a single generation if all persons obeyed the Christian sexual morality. Bad consequences occur because we break God’s creational design.
The three strands intertwine and mutually support each other in an exquisitely beautiful way. Sexual intercourse is a beautiful gift with built-in meaning. Its built-in meaning of union speaks to the deepest longings of our hearts for intimacy with another who loves and accepts us, one who is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” And our union with another, in turn, mirrors and reminds us of our desire for union with God.