When I first began working with independent school parents decades ago, I bumped into a startling paradox.
While no doubt among the savviest, most educated people I’d ever known, when it came to the education of young children around sexuality, most were as clueless as, well, everybody else. It led me to realize that, across the board, American adults share a unique kind of cultural disability around this topic that simply can’t be accounted for by the likely absence of age-appropriate education when we were young.
It’s as if we’ve been collectively — and profoundly — separated from our own good common sense around this one particular topic and we don’t know how to get it back.
The “Sexual Double Standard” in Education
Listen to the comments I still hear from adults everywhere I go, especially about educating young children, both in school and at home:
They’re too young! They’re just not ready.
But what if they tell other children?
But won’t they lose their innocence?
Don’t you have to wait until they ask? But what if they keep on asking more questions?
That’s definitely too much too soon.
What if we don’t phrase it exactly in the right way, or we say it at the wrong time? We don’t want to put ideas in their heads, do we?
But what if my child isn’t ready even if other kids are?
Besides, if they know about it, they’ll want to try it.
As I hear it, the underlying assumptions are these:
We just can’t trust sexual knowledge in the minds of young children.
Sexual knowledge — in an intrinsic way — is potentially harmful or even dangerous for them.
And, therefore, our job as adults is to shield them from it.
What gives? Putting new ideas in children’s heads is exactly what parents and schools are charged to do. Why the sexual double standard around these particular ideas? No doubt the roots of this phenomenon lie deep within U.S. religious, social, political, and cultural history. But what’s most remarkable to me is the phenomenon’s staying power — even in today’s media-saturated world, where children confront new ideas about sex at every turn.
And, truthfully, this educational double standard has got to go. We know from decades of research that children and adolescents raised by adults who educate and converse with them about sexuality grow up in healthier ways than their peers. For example, while common nonsense might hold that “knowing leads to doing” or some other unwanted effect, just the opposite is true: Kids with this kind of guidance and support significantly postpone involvement in sexual behaviors as they mature.
Keeping them in the dark, in other words, is the real danger here.
More Knowledge = Better Decision-Making
It’s common sense that young people who have sound knowledge and lots of practice communicating and thinking critically about any topic make more cautious, deliberate, and responsible decisions. In other words, a good education doesn’t speed kids up; it slows them down.
Why would sexuality education be any different?
Our practice in independent schools, too, often mirrors these misplaced anxieties. Either in deference to parents in general, or in some cases to a handful of vocal ones, the majority of American schools, including our schools, are three to seven years late teaching even the basics of human reproduction. And, of course, many teachers and administrators are themselves unsure about what is truly age appropriate for younger children and what is not, and about what sexuality education might actually look like in the early grades.
I received a fresh and wonderful example of exactly how it looks on a recent morning, when our lower school science resource teacher stopped in to chat with me about her first grade class. Students are studying bones and skeletons this month, and that day a student asked if males and females had the exact same bones inside them.
The teacher replied, “Well, almost, but not completely, since there’s something female bodies can do that male bodies can’t.”
Another student volunteered the information that women grow babies inside and men don’t, and that prompted another to wonder and ask how babies get out of a mother’s body.
The teacher explained that babies grow in the mother’s uterus and there is a passageway to the outside called the vagina. And then they went back to discussing bones and skeletons.
By leaning in to the child’s question as she would any other, she gave the message that studying reproduction is just like studying any other area of knowledge, and, most important, that adults are a trusted source of information about this subject, too.
The really good news is that independent school people, including the vast majority of our parents, are quick studies. Most simply need opportunities they’ve not yet had to step outside of, examine, and ultimately challenge wrongheaded but comfortable and, if we’re honest, self-serving assumptions. After all, from generation to generation, and school year to school year, these assumptions give us permission and cover to avoid talking to children about subjects that are uncomfortable for us.
What Children Ages 4, 5, and 6 Are Really Asking
What’s equally important is learning how to look at the world first through the eyes of young children, rather than projecting an adult understanding of what they may be thinking or wondering about. Ironically, when viewed through their developmental lens, the conversations we need to be having at home and at school with young children about “sex” really aren’t directly about sex at all.
Between the ages of 4 and 6, many children spontaneously ask a predictable sequence of questions about their origins and — quite literally — their place in the world. What prompts each of the questions and their sequence and timing is not external events, such as a pregnancy or birth in the family, as it sometimes seems. The questions grow out of the internal timetable of young children’s advancing intellectual skills.
Questions about this topic, in fact, mirror the exact observations and questions that occupy children’s minds about everything at a given stage.
When 4-year-olds ask, “Where did I come from?” the prompt is their overall fascination with the concept of location and a rudimentary understanding of time.
When 5-year-olds get around to asking, “How did I get out of there?” it’s because they’re newly obsessed with movement through time and space.
And 6-year-olds want to know “How did I get in there in the first place?” because they can for the very first time comprehend that they didn’t always exist and that every effect has a cause.
Bottom line: The kind of readiness young children need to learn about their origins — or, really, about any other topic related to sexuality — is primarily cognitive readiness, not emotional readiness, as many adults, out of their own anxieties, project it to be.
Once all of us — families and schools — accept and agree to apply this trusted educational principle to sexuality education, we’ll know almost intuitively how to proceed, since we’ll be back in touch with our good common sense about how children learn best.