Editor's Note: We are pleased to offer the first in a series of articles on parenting by Dr. Albert S. Rossi. They originally appeared in Liguorian magazine for the United Nations' 1994 Year of the Family celebration. As a professor at Pace University, a clinical psychologist, author, and the father of two children, Dr. Rossi brings us a wealth of experience and knowledge. He attends Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir's Seminary. We thank Liguorian for granting us permission to reprint the series.
by Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.
Very unexpectedly, when my daughter Beth was six, she said, "Daddy, Becky believes the baby comes out of the mother's mouth. Even I know better than that. The baby is too big to come out of the mother's mouth." At six, she had a very rudimentary notion of baby-making and sexual activity. That was not the time to explain to her the intricacies and intimacies of sex. What she needed was an awareness that her daddy was receptive to this kind of conversation and that he could respond.
The circumstances didn't permit me to respond then, but an appropriate response could have been, "Sweet-heart, little Becky believes that because she's not as grown up as you. Now you know more. Can we talk a little bit about how the baby does come out?" Talking with children about sex means starting a dialogue and gaining the child's permission to continue. The basic message we want to express to our children is that sex is very good and mysterious. It has deep meaning, and it is a natural part of life as God made it.
Lengthy one-way lectures by the parent about sex (or anything else) make both the parent and the child uncomfortable and probably don't communicate much. Instead, talking with children about sex happens more easily and productively in a question-and-answer conversation. Ideally the first question comes from the child. Some children never do ask, so the parent might discreetly try different statements for openers. The parent says something general, then asks a question. Statements and questions change based upon the age, sophistication, and openness of the child. For example, "Johnny's mother just had a baby girl, so Johnny now has a little sister. Do you ever wonder how a mother feels when she is having a baby?" or "Do you ever think about how a baby comes into the world?"
Healthy talk about sex deals with more than baby-making. The discussion includes appreciating the beautiful value of the human body as a temple of God, thinking enough about ourselves to be willing to wait for marriage, and respecting ourselves and others because we are good. The accent must be upon the good, true, and beautiful, not the bad and horrid consequences of illicit sex.
My belief is that the mother (or mother-substitute in a split family) should discuss the menstrual cycle and the mystery of sexual intercourse with her daughter before the age of ten or so. The role of the father in the discussion is to not be present. Following the discussion, Dad should let his daughter know that he is aware that the talk took place. He can tell her that he is proud that his sweetheart is about to become a young woman, that he thinks she is pretty, and that she always will be beautiful in his eyes.
I also believe that the father or father-substitute should have a conversation with his son about the facts of life, without the boy's mother being present. After the discussion, the mother can show that she knows the conversation took place and is proud of her son's development into a young man. When the boy asks his mother questions about sex, she can answer directly and honestly, without unnecessary detail.
To be candid, the discussions with my own two children did not occur in such a textbook and perfect fashion. Life rarely replicates the ideal. We parents do the best we can with what we've got.
In his book Dare to Discipline, Dr. James Dobson says that giving a child information about sex, adult to child, begins when the child is in the crib and ends at puberty. Once a child reaches puberty, the parent takes on a new role. Now conversations about sex deal with issues and values. And they take on a very different tone, more adult to adult. I have found this very freeing, to know this is my new role.
Once while watching TV, my thirteen-year-old son and I saw the teen boy in the movie clearly put his hand on the breast of his teenage girlfriend. Later I said to my son, "Tim, how did you feel when the boy put his hand on her breast?" Tim said, "Embarrassed." I said, "Me too." Not much of a conversation, but sufficient to make the point, and something we can always come back to.
Talking with children about sex is much more than mere words. Children "hear" the behavior of adults. The way parents caress and nurture each other tenderly in front of the children makes an eloquent statement about marital love and, by implication, about marital sexuality.
We parents pray ardently for wisdom and timing. Our hope is in God, who will both fortify us and compensate for our weaknesses and failures. We rely fully on God, for we have no other hope.
Originally published in Liguorian, September 1994, reprinted with permission from Liguorian, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.
© 1999 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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