We talk a lot about pleasure-positive sex education – making it accessible and more vulva-centric. But to get to the root of a lot of sexual shame and taboos, we need to go back to the very beginning. How can our childhood and upbringing impact our lifetime experience of sexuality? How can we make childhood sex education better?
Let’s talk about equipping kids with healthy, safe, and happy relationships with their body and sexuality. It turns out taboos are formed, or learned, in childhood; our upbringing, culture and caregivers push their interpretation of sex upon us. So, rather than starting from scratch on our path to find or define our own sexuality, we’ve a script handed to us about how we should behave, nay, perform. We then have a lot of unlearning to do. Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to do this unlearning? If, perhaps, we had blank pages to write our own script. Imagine!
To talk us through the ABC of sex ed for kids, we spoke to Sanderijn van der Doef, a psychologist, sexologist and international bestselling author of really handy books for both children and adults. With thirty years of experience, Sanerdijn has traveled to the world to train educators, and developed the WHO international guidelines for sexuality education.
What is sexuality education for kids?
As adults, unlearning comes with rethinking. There are so many connotations to sex that we have gained through our lived experiences of taboos and the script already written for us, that sometimes adapting the language can unlock a clear path for thinking.
‘I prefer the term sexuality education, instead of sex education.'
Sanderijn explains why. The confusion is always there, people say ‘what sex education for very young children? Why do we have to tell very young children about sex and sexual things? Why do they need sex education at such a young age?’. The word sex is completely different, it just a small part of the very broad concept and term of sexuality. And that's why Sanderijn prefers to talk about sexuality education, instead of sex education.
We asked our community what words come to mind when we say the words sex and sexuality…
Sex brought up thoughts of physical acts, others, and pleasure. Whereas people related sexuality more with themselves as sexual beings, their anatomy, and their energy.
The word sex is often associated with behaviour, the behaviour that adults are doing together, the physical intimacy. And that is not what young children do, it's not part of their life. On the other hand, the word sexuality brings up feelings of self and understanding; not of other people. It’s about an inner and outer self, that surely we should be encouraging children to understand. Why wouldn’t we want to provide them guidance to know and grow themselves as best as possible.
Most people consider adults talking about getting pregnant, how a baby is made, and how it is born as sex education for kids. But that is education about reproduction, and it has nothing to do with sex. We are just telling them that the sperm and the egg are coming together and that a baby can grow out of that and after nine months, it will be born. That is just a very small part of that broad concept of sexuality.
The sex education we come to expect at school as teenagers, is far different from the sexuality education throughout our lifetime. Sex education is more about the physical activities, how-tos and what-not-to-dos. For those that did receive a formal sex education - 28% of people with vulvas did not - safety, consent and health are all part of the curriculum. These sex modules are important, but only cover such a small part of what sexuality really is. Sexuality education is about:
- Emotions and feelings
- How different people look on the outside, but also on the inside
- Gender identity and diversity
- Relationships, with ourselves and our bodies
- More than heterosexuality and putting a penis into a vagina
- Sexual behaviours through a cultural lens of norms
And, so much more. The thing with sexuality education is that it lasts a lifetime; it’s part of who we are - not just what we do. And, of course, that lifetime starts from the very beginning, right?
The difference between saying sex education and sexuality education can change your perspective when it comes to teaching children. Sex education stereotypically, is very partner centric. It's focused on having a sperm and an egg. It's very heteronormative. But sexuality education really does sound like it's about learning to harness and express our own sexual selves, about understanding ourselves as a sexual being.
What social constructs limit our sex(uality) education?
To educate somebody throughout life, and from the beginning, it’s clear that us adults must debunk our own taboos – and scrutinize the social constructs that limit our exploration and beliefs.
Our Learned Experience
As adults, we have very specific views on sexuality. An adult view based on our personal experiences, both positive or negative, plus society’s taboos and conditioning. A child doesn’t have this. We as adults know what the consequences can be of intimate behaviour. This own personal understanding can hinder us when we talk with young children, as each sexual memory can trigger emotions that skew our ability to be objective. Children don’t know those emotions.
For a child, sexuality is not a taboo, it's just something new. The things we may have been taught to raise eyebrows at, or question, are completely new and usual things to children. Social constructs don’t hinder their own experiences, until we tell them so.
Every question that children ask, or behaviour that they do, it's just out of curiosity. Curiosity is a very typical, overall characteristic of sexuality. At a young age, this can transpire through questions like ‘why are these people doing this? Why do I have this feeling when I touch here? Why can I not touch another person in public? As educators, we shouldn’t shut down this curiosity.
Every child grows up in a community and environment that has its own social rules related to sexuality, and it’s important to make it clear what those are. It may be that the values in the family and household are different to ones at school. Rather than hide the difference or norms, or assume they are understood, explaining norms can positively impact how children communicate and interact with their world.
We should prevent passing on the baton of taboo. Once we realise that we shouldn’t be scared to talk with children in a very open way, what kind of words and language should we be using to have these conversations?
We already communicate about sex
Well, here’s the thing – it’s not just in the language, it’s all forms of communication. We can often get caught up in the idea of ‘The Talk’, a one-time chat about sex between caregivers and kids or teens that is often depicted in films or joked about. But to fulfil the needs of sexuality education, we need to start way before this, with both verbal and non-verbal cues.
For those that think children are too young for sex(uality) education, and kids should be older; we are already doing it. Just not so obviously!
‘I explained to these people that they have to be aware of the fact that even if you don't want to do explicit verbal sexuality education, until a certain age, you are already doing it, but you are doing it in a nonverbal, non-explicit way.’
From the day a child is born, nonverbal sexuality education starts. How? Well, here’s one example…
When changing a diaper, the baby is usually watching our face when we’re doing it, and if the baby is seeing a grimace because the diaper smells bad, perhaps, then the baby is receiving a very small message that we don’t like what comes out of their body. Or even that whatever is in the diaper is negative.
Ever think about the way we discuss body parts with children? Remember the names given to our genitals? Many of us may forget that our parents or caregivers had specific names for these body parts that aren’t the proper word (kinda explains why so many of us get confused by the word vulva now, right?). Think about it. Toddlers especially, when learning new words, play games; point at a body part and shout what it’s called. We’re comfortable pointing out all the body parts to help develop language, but not ‘down there’. Especially for vulvas, penises seem to get a little more airtime. Even when not learning but doing basic things like taking a bath – we often recollect grown-ups telling us to wash ‘between your legs’.
When we asked the Smile Makers community to share the alternative name the vulva had when they were younger, we got quite the variation! Coochie, coo-coo, private part, front bottom, girly parts and vagina – quite a few are problematic. Girly parts implies gender defaults, and vagina isn’t even the right part of the anatomy.
If we do not give a name or teach children to give a name to that important part of their body, then it doesn’t exist. Children don’t know they have these genitals, or pick-up that it’s a hush-hush, shameful topic if it’s never spoken about.
‘Everything that has no name doesn’t exist.’
Both verbal and nonverbal cues are very casual ways that we are teaching children about their genitals that occur in everyday situations. While bathing, dressing, getting out of bed, after swimming lessons…
If we are shy about our communication, children will still learn through the behaviour they see. So, even if we don't talk in an explicit way to them, they already watch and copy our behaviour. They take examples from the relationships we have with ourselves, and others.
Becoming aware of this casual communication lessens the pressure, right? Making it much more of an everyday thing, in the same way that sexuality is completely normal everyday thing. Children pick up on these small cues, and that's when all these taboos and shame start to build – because we’re too afraid to talk about it.
Considering that we are already giving sexuality education unconsciously, we now have the opportunity to take charge and be intentional about it.
Five tips for sex ed with kids
A better awareness can lay the foundations of sexuality for young people. As adults, caregivers, parents, teachers, siblings… what steps can we take to better sex education for kids?
- Make it a discussion or a communication on a daily basis. It must be based on daily experiences and situations. Don't make it an individual talk that once you have talked about it, think ‘okay, I've done it. Now it's over.’. It’s something that comes back and that can come back every day, be aware of that. Sexuality education is an ongoing conversation. And even if you don't talk about it, you are already doing it.
- Don't make it too serious. If there are certain discussions to have, for example about a question the child has, do them during another activity; the focus can be on the other thing, and the sexuality chat does not feel so major. Also, try not sitting in front of them. Looking each other in the eye can, again, feel serious and can make the whole thing feel uncomfortable for you both. Sitting next to each other and doing something like watching a video, sitting in a car while you're driving, while shopping together… anything to make it less serious. It is still a serious topic, but it can be approached in a light-hearted way.
- Try to start as young as possible. You don't have to be afraid of the fact that they are children or think that that a child is too young. Every topic can be discussed in simple, easy words. Things that might seem complicated and very difficult in your eyes, can be explained in short for a child to easily understand.
Be age appropriate. Remember children don’t want to know about the how-tos and nitty gritty of activities, no need to chat condoms and STIs, for example. But being considerate of how we communicate with them even when it doesn’t feel like a conversation, is important.
You’re not going to have a full blown discussion with a child under five about consent, but you can ask for their consent before washing their genitalia.
You’re not going to discuss the ins-and-outs of intimacy with them, but you can refrain from telling them they have to hug or kiss friends or family goodbye.
You’re not going to explain the whole spectrum of sexual orientation to them, but you can hold off on assuming they have heterosexual preferences by asking them if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend at school.
- Don't make the whole explanation too long. If a child asks a question, don’t panic, and think that you now must explain everything to them! No, it's just a question for the child – maybe they want to continue with their play within minutes. The younger the child, the simpler and the shorter your explanation should be.
It all comes down to just making sexuality education a part of the everyday. As adults we tend to overthink and freak out, but if we stay calm, frank and open talking about sexuality will become more normal to us. It’s almost like everything else, the more and more we do it, the less of a thing it becomes.
For more on sexuality communication between children and parents or caregivers, check out Sanderijn’s books for both kids and educators – available in different languages! We recommend ‘Can I Have Babies Too? Sexuality and Relationships Education from Infancy to Age 11’.
As you know, we are sticklers for talking about anatomy in the right way and Sanderijn’s note on using the correct names for our genitals is SO important. Here are some inclusive children’s books that teach us about the body:
- Those are My Eyes, This is My Nose, This is My Vulva, These are My Toes by Lexx Brown James.
- It Isn’t Rude to Be Nude by Rosie Haine