Teaching children healthy sexuality: How to start earlyWritten by Rob Jackson and Yolanda Brown
What's inside this article
I'm often asked when to begin sex education in the home. As a father of two school-age children, I know that my wife and I have wanted fail-proof advice for such sensitive topics. Like other parents we have our questions and concerns. And because I specialize in the treatment of sexual issues and have seen the pain associated with misinformation and sexual sin, I believe the topic of sexuality is second only to teaching our children about God.
Parents often wonder "how long can I put off" talking about sex. By the close of this article I hope you will be eager to get started. Human sexuality is the most natural thing in the world – and the most sacred experience that two people can share.
Here is a quick sketch of what I hope to convey to you:
- Sexuality is at the core of our human existence. Therefore, we have a responsibility to equip our children with a comprehensive view of sexuality.
- For sexuality to be taught correctly, it must be taught within the context of a Biblically holistic approach.
- If our children are to have a healthy respect and appreciation for the gift of sexuality, parents must both teach and model the precepts and principles that lead to greater sexual health and integrity.
- As for timing and when to get started, there’s no time like the present.
In the beginning
The more I learn of God, the more I appreciate the book of Genesis. Here a solid foundation of God’s design for sexuality is presented as our children learn about the Garden of Eden and how God created both male and female and told them to reproduce themselves.
As parents, we begin sex education by pointing out how God thought of sex in the first place. He created a man and woman who could make babies by loving each other in a special way. God also knew that a man and a woman would grow to desire a special companionship that includes enjoying the differences in each other’s bodies. And, although this final point may need to wait until children are able to grasp it, we can teach that God gave the marital relationship as a sign and symbol of the internal love of the Trinity and His love for us.
So, sexuality provides at least three basic lessons that our children can understand. Sexual union exists: (1) to make babies, (2) to nurture a mommy and daddy’s love, and (3) to point us back to the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This initial lesson can be unpacked further as our children mature. We can teach, for example, that sex is appealing and that it’s perfectly normal – especially for teenagers and adults – to want to be sexual with someone else. We should emphasize that God is the One who made us to desire healthy expressions of what it is to be male or female, and that "there is a time for everything." This emphasis on timing begins with an affirmation of sexual desire and teaches a child that when the time is right, sex will be right.
We’ll want to teach a clear message about timing. The right time for sexual behaviours occurs when a man and woman are married. Our younger children only need to hear that God designed sex or sexual intercourse for husbands and wives. As our children mature they will need to learn that all sexual behaviours are more or less foreplay, leading to the act of intercourse, and that these behaviours are also designed for marriage.
We can also point to various cultural messages about sexuality, and develop teachable moments. For example, we can't shelter our children from every lewd poster in the mall or every sensual song played in a restaurant. But we can take these moments to affirm the basic goodness of sexuality because of God’s design, and then make a comment about what’s wrong with how sexuality is misrepresented in the culture. Our messages need to be tied to God’s love for us, and how we express our love for Him through obedience.
Children need to learn early that God’s plan is healthy and Satan’s plan is harmful. In the early years we can talk rather simply of what is good and bad. We want to teach them what to think about sex. As they mature we shift our approach and begin to teach them how to think.
A Biblically holistic approach
Much of sex education – even within faith-based communities – misses a foundational point. Sex between a husband and wife symbolizes the future marriage between Christ and the Church. And as Christians we are "engaged" to Christ (along with the rest of the Church) when we accept His atonement for our sin. We want our children to understand that the Bible begins in Genesis with the marriage of a man and a woman and ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church.
Between Genesis and Revelation, God’s Word has numerous lessons about sexuality. For example, we can teach our children the stories of Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, the Ten Virgins, Rahab the prostitute (one of Jesus’ biological relatives), and the woman caught in the act of adultery – who Jesus loved and redeemed. We can help our children understand the differences between David who looked lustfully and sinned and Joseph who ran when tempted.
In our teachings we want to be clear that both males and females are equal in the eyes of God, and that both have sinned. This fact also permits us to share the mercy of God who forgives sin even though painful consequences may remain. For example David was forgiven and still called "a man after God's own heart," but the baby he and Bathsheba produced in their adultery died, and one of his sons eventually raped one of his daughters.
We will need to remember that in the early years our children think in concrete terms rather than abstract terms. These lessons of men and women in the Bible teach cause and effect – sex can produce a child, and one person can tempt or seduce another. What we hope to accomplish is the spiritual formation that includes a healthy view of sexuality and a genuine respect for males and females. We want our children to connect sexuality with God's design.
Precepts and principles
No two children are alike – even in the same family. We will want to be sensitive to how our children are developing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We also want sex education to occur in both spontaneous and structured moments.
As our children continue to mature we’ll want to help them understand that God really is for us, and that His plans are designed to benefit us. We’ll also want them to understand the difference between a precept (a stated do or don’t) and a principle (the general application of a truth that requires reason and discernment).
Take, for example, the seventh commandment, "Do not commit adultery." This command is an example of a precept. It clearly states what not to do. So we will want our children to learn this precept and others, and the right time to learn these important life lessons is long before they’re tempted.
We will also want our children to be able to connect the dots. For example, the Bible doesn’t say, "Thou shalt not view Internet pornography." But various principles are given to us. We are to avoid lust with our eyes, and that principle leads us to conclude that we should avoid Internet pornography or any other form of sexual behaviour based in lust.
Far more important than the behaviours, however, is the physicality of being male and female. By principle we can teach our sons that they are to be a type of Christ to their future wives. His kind of sacrificial love is pure and nurturing, never abusive or selfish. We can teach our daughters that they are to be a type of the Church to their future husbands, preserving their purity and preparing well for the day they and their bridegroom become one. By continually teaching the love story that exists between Christ and us, the Church, we can help them to honour sexuality – both theirs and others’.
Teaching sexual health and integrity requires a Christ-centric approach. We want our children to learn early that sexuality is a function of our bodies, minds and spirits. It is so much a part of us that we cannot separate sexuality from spirituality. These two facets of our makeup are intricately connected. The Apostle Paul began to speak of marriage between a man and a woman and how these symbolize the marriage between Christ and the Church. He also concluded that it was a great mystery.
Our children need to see the mystery of God-ordained sexuality and hold it in awe, just as we do. Our sons as a type of Christ can learn to regard their masculinity and physicality as a sacred trust, and our daughters as a type of the Church can learn to regard their femininity and physicality as an equal and sacred trust. As our children mature we can teach that sexuality between a husband and wife is a private discipleship where "the two become one flesh" and are participating in the divine love of God in that moment more than at any other time.
I have to chuckle and think that our concern for timing is more about our comfort than our children’s. I mean, let’s get real. Look at the world they are living in. Everyone else is talking about sex, so we'd better get started now.
Sexuality is a cradle-to-grave reality, and we have only a few short years to nurture our children’s moral development. By learning more about childhood development, we can better time our efforts with God’s design. For example, a child’s sense of modesty can develop as early as eighteen months. Therefore, this God-given, developmental window is the ideal time to teach and model a balanced, sacred modesty in the home.
If we parents are in touch with our unique experiences, we can better equip our children. Our family has experienced two miscarriages. The first one occurred when our son was eighteen months old, and obviously he was simply too young to comprehend pregnancy and miscarriage. Our second miscarriage occurred when our son was eight and our daughter was five. Weeks before the miscarriage we joyfully explained that our love for each other had produced another baby, and we thanked God for our newest family member. When the miscarriage occurred we went back to our children and reaffirmed that God not only designed sexuality and intercourse which often produces babies, but that in His great wisdom and compassion He knew when some babies were not healthy enough to live here on earth and needed His special care in Heaven.
Obviously, we don’t always get to choose our life lessons or their timing, but God equips us relationally with the Bible and His Spirit so that all lessons ultimately reaffirm His perfect nature and great love.
The main thing
The main thing about sex education is to get started. Let’s teach the sanctity of sexuality. Our children need to learn that God ordained sexuality to be the means in which they – and everyone else – come into existence for all eternity.
We need to understand our children and the difficult culture in which they live. As parents – and, more important, as older brothers and sisters in Christ – we have the privilege to teach them what we have learned in relationship to God and His plan for the family.
Read the next article in this series: Modelling healthy behaviour
Further reading: Review Rob Jackson's sex education guidelines and goals for different age groups: Ages 0-4; Ages 5-8; Ages 9-12
Rob Jackson is a licensed counsellor with Focus on the Family in the U.S. where he specializes in calls related to sexuality, marriage and parenting. Jackson has provided counselling services through his private practice since 1991 with an emphasis on helping individuals recover from sex addiction through integrated care that helps people mature and heal spiritually, psychologically and behaviourally.
Yolanda Brown is a licensed counsellor with Focus on the Family in the U.S., specializing in calls related to sexuality, marriage and parenting.
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