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Helping children develop a healthy sexuality

By Michelle Richards

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Messages about sexuality are everywhere in our culture, from the magazines lining the shelves at the check-out line at the grocery store to suggestive dances and lyrics in music videos. News reports casually mention the latest politician or celebrity to succumb to an extramarital affair (sometimes with particularly vivid detail), while television commercials promote prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction. Even cartoons for children often feature animated drawings of extremely well-endowed female characters flirting and cajoling the male heroes.

Developing a healthy sexuality is a life-long process of forming attitudes about identity, intimacy, and relationships. It needs to begin at home—and not only to counteract the bombardment of negative messages in our culture. While most Unitarian Universalist parents today are much more comfortable talking about sexuality than in generations past, the question remains: How much, how soon—and what exactly do kids need to know?

Just like other issues of spirituality, ethics, and theology, using teachable moments to introduce or reaffirm your values about sexuality can take pressure off of the parent. Instead of giving “the big talk,” which only makes both parent and teen or pre-teen uncomfortable, using everyday happenings to bring your values into focus can be a more effective tool. For example, when watching a television program about two teens who are contemplating sexual activity, you could explain why you might think they are not ready. For example, you might say, “See how uncomfortable they are just talking about the subject? Usually, if two people are unable to talk with each other about important issues like protection against pregnancy or STDs, then they are clearly not ready for the responsibilities involved in sexual intercourse.”

It’s also helpful to remember that children have different concerns and questions about sexuality at different ages and in different life stages. They also have different abilities to understand these concepts—depending upon where they are in terms of emotional, moral, and social development—along with different attention spans and levels of concern. While young children are merely curious because they heard a word they didn’t understand or they wonder about the miracle that brings new people into the world, preteens and older youth spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not they are “normal.” We can help youth understand that it is “normal” for everyone to be different and unique. Perhaps, the most important message we can give our teens is just that—it is normal to be different.

Giving our children the opportunity to participate in the UUA’s groundbreaking curriculum Our Whole Lives (created in conjunction with the United Church of Christ) is another way we can affirm healthy choices and promote positive messages of sexuality. Although most people are familiar with the program for junior high, the OWL curriculum has age-appropriate materials for children, youth, and adults all throughout the lifespan.

Finally, we parents can feel some reassurance that the actual words we use to teach our children about sexuality are probably less important than the attitude that we communicate about the subject. As renowned sexuality educator Pamela Wilson explains in her book When Sex is the Subject, “It is not so much what we say but how we say it that provides children with healthy messages about sexuality.”

[See “Don’t Just Say No” (UU World, Fall 2005); “Sexuality Education Is a Religious Issue” (UU World, Fall 2006); “Non-UU Youth Learn about Sex through UU Program” (uuworld.org, 7/20/09). See also UU minister Debra Haffner’s books, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children and Beyond the Big Talk: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens.]

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