Teaching children healthy sexuality: Modelling healthy behaviourWritten by Rob Jackson and Yolanda Brown
What's inside this article
One of the most overlooked aspects of parenting is that children learn more from what we do than from our words. Even before the culture and its legion of challenges reach our children, the culture of our home is apparent. It has been said that "children learn what they live."
This is particularly true when it comes to how we approach sex and the body.
Children are worthy of our honour and sensitivity. The Bible teaches us that we should not "exasperate" or provoke our children (Eph 6:4). As adults, we will do well to consider how we should act in relationship to the children in our lives. They need our understanding. We want to be a shade for the children – especially for our own.
Because our children develop over time, we can be encouraged that change for the better is always possible. Now is a great time to consider several key issues, and make any revisions that will strengthen your family.
Little Johnny grew up with a mom who lacked boundaries. As he became older, she often walked in on him in the bathroom. By the time he was sixteen, Johnny's mom began to invite him into the bathroom while she sat naked in a tub.
In one way, this reoccurring activity desensitized Johnny. Nakedness became normal and routine. His boundaries for reasonable modesty were damaged. In another way, this activity led to an unhealthy focus on the naked body where he learned to obsess over the opposite sex. In time, this objectification would lead to a lustful objectification of women. Is it any wonder that John became a sex addict? Sadly, John's story is fairly common. Some parents will cite that their culture is less inhibited, or that nudity in the home is actually healthy. A Biblical worldview, however, directs us to maintain reasonable modesty – even in our families.1
Erica's father was a Sunday School teacher and deacon. He was well respected in the community and was a devoted husband and father. As the youngest child of four, and the only daughter, Erica had the misfortune, however, of showering often with her father and brothers.
It's hard to imagine how this kind of immodesty can be defended, but it happens all the time. Given the immodesty in our homes, it follows logically that our children are more apt to be immodest in other settings. All too often, immodesty is the primary gateway that leads our children to act out sexually.
We need to evaluate our families' respect for modesty. Is it common for family members to leave the door open while using the restroom? Do you dishonour yourself and others by walking through the house in your underwear? It's often seen as "cute" to allow a young child to run around naked after a bath, but in doing so, we miss a valuable chance to build on their natural modesty, instead, tearing it down. Our children need the safety of healthy boundaries at home.
The secularization of our times has diminished our verbal skills. Slang and profanity are served up frequently in the media and within our local communities. Much of what we hear debases another individual or devalues a moral or ethical approach to life.
My wife, Renee, and I were travelling with our son and daughter who were seven and four at the time. We had left the airport and made a quick stop for breakfast. Three men near started arguing and one of the men began to use profanity. Renee and I looked at other, concerned for what our children might hear. Within moments, the same man's vulgarity increased. He seemed even more offended when I pointed out that we had children within earshot, and that I would appreciate it if he respected their needs and our desires.
Our encounter was a challenge, but it also provided us with an opportunity to help our children learn how to cope with the real world. We explained the meanings of the inappropriate words and linked our counsel with Biblical precepts and principles.
None of us is without fault. Even within our families, most of us regret how we have misused our tongues. We can't expect our children's language to excel ours. We can, however, point out our mistakes to them, help them to understand theirs, and recondition our speech in ways that build character.
Humour is obviously a part of the spoken language, but it merits close attention. Often in humour, we think we are laughing with someone, only to learn that she feels we are laughing at her.
Situational comedies make the point: humour is most often at the expense of the other person. Within our families, where it ought to be safe to be ourselves, the misuse of humour can shred one's self-respect.
Sally sat and cried in my office as she recounted the jokes made by her father and brothers. As a child, she had been overweight, and was teased not only at school, but also at home. When she entered adolescence, her body began to change and she became an attractive young woman. Sadly, however, her father's comments continued about her body, but now he emphasized how she had a great pair of legs.
Sexualized humour can be a type of hidden sexual abuse. It can severely injure a child, leaving him or her with conflicts regarding body image, gender, and personal worth. Sally grew to believe that her only worth was found in maintaining her attractiveness to men. In time, her resentment for her male family members spilled over to men in general, and into her marriage.
Kindness encourages. It has been said that for every negative statement made to another person, it will take seven positive affirmations to heal the relationship. We know that children are more vulnerable than adults are. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the family's humour and become an advocate for those who can't defend themselves.
Anger always finds a voice. Unfortunately, anger is often vented at children who are in no position to set the limits with an angry parent. It's not hard to imagine how a child can grow to resent not only the mistreatment, but the parent as well.
Allison grew up in a home dominated by an angry mom. By the time she was in college she and the rest of the family had learned to minimize these outbursts by saying, "That's just how Mom is." The statement actually originated with their father, who was prone to enabling his wife. Later it would come as a surprise to Allison that she carried her own childhood anger into her adult life.
Anger can be justified, but the expression of appropriate anger can still pose a significant challenge. Children in angry homes aren't typically allowed to express their own frustrations even if they are old enough to know what they want to say. Forced to repress their anger, it sits and waits to strike at other opportunities having little if anything to do with the original wound.
Our homes need to be safe and supportive. Most of us get angry at some point; that's part of negotiating a life together. If anger has been frequently misused in your home, it's not too late to get help and to make amends. As parents, we're blessed by two facts: our children want to love us and they do, and our children are incredibly resilient once their legitimate needs are consistently met.
If unresolved anger remains in our homes, our children may be particularly "love hungry." Starved for affection, they may act out sexually if they find that affirmation or attention can be gained from such experiences. And, over time, sex or love addiction can emerge as one manifestation of how they have come to perceive their worth.
A final thought
Jesus is our guide in all things. In the Scriptures, we find He rarely spoke harshly to anyone. Some of His harder sayings, however, were reserved for those who would harm a child.
Jesus was also one who forgave, and continues to do so today. His nature and interaction with us is redemptive. In any circumstance where we have failed to attend to modesty, misused language or humour, or exploded our anger, we can begin again with our hope in Christ's atonement.
Admittedly, change takes time. Many of the problems addressed in this article have been occurring in our families for generations. If so, it will be important to not only prioritize the acquisition of new parenting skills, but the exploration of our hidden issues that lie beneath the tip of the iceberg.
1. Modesty in the home can be a much-debated topic as norms and standards vary between cultures. As Christians, however, we must realize that morality is not based on cultural norms, but rather on Biblical precepts and principles. In our efforts to follow Christ, we need to be aware that devotion is always a better motivation than mere duty, which can become legalistic.
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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