Middle Childhood can be thought of as the period between the time a child believes his* home is the entirety of the universe and the time where they begin emerging as adults. Freud in his psychosocial stages presented this as the latency period in that the child is no longer a function of the parental sexual interaction but not yet a self-directed sexual being. I think Freud completely missed the importance of this period of life. Far from being a latent period, it is when the child begins to grasp the meaning of the larger world and his interdependent place in it.
In our society I would describe middle childhood as the elementary school years. Traditionally we thought of middle childhood as the time between which children leave the mother’s full time care and the onset of adolescence. However, two things have changed. One, children as often as not are now leaving mothers cocoon in infancy and second, sexual maturation is coming much sooner. Thus the new definition of middle childhood is presented as simply being the time between 1st and 6th grade even though children’s social and developmental experiences are very different in that time. For an individual child the developmental milestones might vary by as much as 3 or even 4 years depending on genetic factors such as sex and the child’s “biological clock.” Thus I will put the ages of middle childhood from 6-12 with as much as two years variation.
In early childhood the healthy child learns to build strong emotional bonds with adults and learns the world makes sense (cause and effect). In middle childhood the healthy child will learn to build strong bonds to peers while maintaining the attachment and security of adult relationships. Additionally the middle childhood is about finding ones place in a community and internalizing communal behavior. Finally the middle childhood years are about building a foundation of self, apart from adults, even though it is not yet time to act on that foundation. Finally, in middle childhood, the brain begins to work in more sophisticated ways allowing the transition from rules to principled morality. Like independence, this moral development will not truly blossom until adolescence but the foundations are laid in middle childhood.
So how does all this play into our discussion of Sex-Positive Parenting?
As we did in early childhood, let us consider three Sex-positive Parenting goals for this middle childhood.
Your child will build a secure sense of self and be confident in their own personal value
Your child will learn to build intimate peer relationships built on mutual respect
Your child will learn to transcend rules to embrace moral principles
The first thing that may stand out in this list is that none are directly about sexuality. The reason for this is actually supportive of Freud’s latency concept. I am writing assuming that the goals set forth for early childhood will continue to be pursued. This time in a child’s life is when they are not yet cognitively emotionally or physically ready to take on adult sexuality; however sexuality is still part of their life. Thus the goals of early childhood are still goals for parents. So let me review those three goals of early childhood.
Your children will have a positive relationship with their own bodies.
Your child will see human sexuality as positive and a normal part of life.
Your child will equate sexual interaction with positive healthy relationships.
Assuming those are still in the mix, let us look at each of the Sex-Positive Parenting goals for middle childhood, relate them to Sex-Positive Parenting and look at some methods to achieve those goals.
Your child will build a secure sense of self and be confident in their personal value
First you as a parent have the task of providing a framework for your child’s place in his community. Sure when they are in 1st grade that community is pretty small, but by the time they are going off to middle school it will be quite large. How is your child supposed to know who he is in the modern world of loud voices telling him who he should be? How is your child supposed to know he matters when forces around him tend to make him feel insignificant and powerless?
Once upon a time, a child was taught from their first day what their place in society was. If you were the son of a farmer you would be a farmer. If you were a daughter of a merchant, you would marry a merchant and fill your place in society as a merchant’s wife. This was how humans have lived since the beginning of the species. However, in our bold experiment of personal freedom, we have pulled the foundations out from under the last few generations of children. Through both conscientious efforts to promote children’s independence and through selfish self-absorption, the last 30 years or so has seen entire generations left to their own devices to figure out what it means to be them. The problem is that in middle childhood, children do not make self-directed choices. In such a vacuum, other external voices and forces then step in to fill the vacuum that the parent left. The question is not will your child identity be shaped by the parent or by themselves, but rather it is; will your child’s identity be shaped by you or by other people in their environment? Or, perhaps even worse, they will have no firm self-identity at all.
As a parent the surest way to raise a strong self-confident adult is to make sure, as a child, they know who they are as part of your family, and make sure they know who they are within themselves. To do that requires two things: First your child should know what it means to be part of your family and second your child should have a clear understanding of him/herself.
Your family should have clear identifying markers. Things such as ethnic or cultural background, religion and class are naturally part of those markers. However things like the value of words (and education), attachment to the environment, social & political causes are also part. Equally important to model and teach your children are your family standards of human interaction: “this is how we treat people”. More than a few times we told our children “You are part of our family, and our family does not treat people like that.” Even though such statements are inherently negative, they are positively reassuring as to their identity.
Second your children should have a clear understanding of themselves. How often do I hear it said to tell your child they can do anything they put their mind to? Yet, that is a lie. Our daughter has a lot of gifts, but physical coordination was not one of them. When she was in 2nd grade she began to take ballet; it was a disaster. Not only could she not do it, the girls who could do it progressively treated her badly for messing up their routine (which she did). We took her out of ballet and looked for another activity at which she could excel. It is our job as parents to look for our children’s strengths and help them build on them as part of their identity formation process. In that process we help our children see their own potential and limitations. Yes, all children have limits and if we don’t teach them to cope with those limits, the there are those people in the real world who will teach them they are of less value for those limits.
It does no favors to kids to tell them they are wonderful at things they are not. Time will prove you a liar and crush their self-image. The same daughter is highly learning disabled. It was abundantly evident by the time she was 5 that she had a learning disability. I could see this not only because I was an educational professional, but from personal experience of learning to cope with my own learning disability. So, from that point forward I began telling her that she would have to work harder than anyone in the class to get the same grade; however, at the same time I began working with her on comprehension and verbal skills to build on her strengths. I could not let the school build her self-image on what she could not do (which I knew they would) but rather on what she could do. More than once I had a firm talk with her teachers to inform them that we do not care if her grades in things like spelling were low and we were not going to berate her for the fact that memorization of lists of spelling words were nearly impossible for her. On the other hand we found things she could do and promoted them as a foundation for her self-esteem.
Thus I repeat the middle childhood goal that, as a parent, you want to see your child will build a secure sense of self and be confident in their own personal value.
So what does that have to do with being a Sex-Positive Parent?
Let us go back to the two components of this goal: sense of self and personal value.
As a sex-positive parent in a sex-negative world, you are out of step with the larger community in which you live. To raise a sex-positive child, you need to realize that fact and to make that contrast in values part of your family identity. As your child transitions through middle childhood you need to look for teachable moments to highlight how your family’s values and actions are different than the societal norm. This need not, mean criticizing others, but rather ensuring they see the contrasts. If, for instance, you practice household nudity; when you explain that little Johnny needs to wear pajamas at Grandma’s because if he went naked her feelings would be hurt, you are teaching this family identity. Or, when something is sexist or sexually exploitive on TV, you make a point to say “That is not nice to treat her like that”. In middle childhood, the sense of self is very much rooted in sense of family and by strengthening family, you also strengthen self.
Second the sex-positive parent will reinforce their child’s sense of personal empowerment and self-value related to their sexuality and gender. Of course sexual or body based verbal attacks by your children or on your children can’t be tolerated. Fat, ugly, gay are all common attacks heard in grade schools and you cannot tolerate them. One important method of teaching your child their own value is coming down hard on attacks on others. “In our family we treat all people with respect, and we never make fun of a person’s appearance”. At the same time, know that such attacks are common in media and on the playground, you won’t stop them all. What you can do is to give your child positive comments about their appearance, masculinity/femininity/androgyny; but you must back this up with active efforts to help them with things like grooming, dress and behavior. In this manner you can influence them as they seek to achieve their developing vision of themselves.
There is a great deal of concern about the “sexualization” of children’s dress and behavior due to media influences. That has been a complaint from parents for fifty years. There are two things parents need to consider about sexualizatoin of children. One, just because your daughter pretends to be sexy like her favorite star, doesn’t mean she has a clue what that really means. Overreactions by mom and dad may do more harm than good. As long as you keep her safe, it is no different than your son dressing up like his favorite football star. The other thing to consider is such things become an early litmus test of your parental success. Does your child dress or act in a sexualized manner that is inconsistent with the family values you support. If so, the sexualized dress may be only a symptom of a more significant problem with building a healthy self-image deserving of respect.
That does not mean you should try to make your child into a “Mini-Me”? No, that is the exact opposite of helping them develop their own sense of self. Rather you help them work from their abilities and interests to gain a sense of self-efficacy. By doing so, you can help them have a strong sense of self that will withstand the attacks on their worth as a male or female that will come in late middle-childhood and even more viciously attacked in adolescence.
Some parents use force to prevent certain expressions of sexuality; however, be aware that the effectiveness of your power to shape such things is in inverse proportion to how often you use it. Further, it will erode significantly over the time between 1st grade to 6th grade. By the time they exit middle childhood, power won’t work at all. If you haven’t replaced power with the influence of respect by the time your child reaches puberty, then you have lost all control. I’ll write of this much more when I prepare my discussion on adolescence: however I will leave one thing I have told parents for years.
Imagine you have a cup labeled influence for each of your children. Throughout their childhood your actions will allow you to fill that cup. Once they hit adolescence you will have to use the contents of that cup of influence to impact their behavior. If you haven’t stored up enough influence during childhood, you will run out of influence when you need it most.
Your child will learn to build intimate peer relationships built on mutual respect
This second goal for the Sex-Positive parent for middle childhood, like the first is not overtly about sexuality; however, it is a critical developmental task upon which all romantic/sexual relationships will be built.
In the elementary school years children learn they are part of a community outside their home. During these years they develop and hone their own path to building and maintaining relationships. This is particularly difficult in that when they start this process it is nearly impossible for them to truly empathize with other people. This is a biological limitation. Even children who have learned social skills like sharing do so because they are told to do so, not because they can put themselves in the other person’s shoes. So, during these years they need to develop the habit of considering other people’s position and feelings. This is very important because just as they are learning “their place” in society, they are also learning what it means to have friends and intimate sharing relationships.
As parents we cannot give our children the temperament we wish they had. Some children are just naturally more socially adept than others. However, we can teach skills that promote healthy and respectful peer relationships. We begin in the early childhood years with things like modeling respect and requiring our children to speak to all other people in a polite and respectful manner. When they are three or four parents need not try to explain why we do this, but by age seven or eight the discussion needs to shift from the requirement to treat others with respect to the more difficult concept of respect itself. Such a shift in emphasis from respectful actions to actual respect will not come in a single talk, but in using many teachable moments and many more examples.
For the outgoing and early maturing child, the parent needs to focus on preventing them from exhibiting controlling or other abusive behaviors on peers. The tendency for the biggest and most mature children to be bossy and expect others to do for him is natural; thus the parent must actively engage to counter that inclination. Early developing boys in particular stand at risk to becoming a controlling person in relationships even from an early age. The same is true for unusually attractive and early developing girls. The lack of understanding that giving respect is key to quality relationships is often lost on such children and as is the fact it is not a trait conducive to a Sex-Positive adult. Thus it is up to the parent to intervene in this critical stage in life to attack such children’s sense of entitlement. A constant focus on the feelings of their peers will characterize Sex-Positive Parenting for such children at this stage.
On the other hand, the child who is slow to physically and/or emotionally mature has a tendency to be withdrawn. Sometimes this is due to a sense of inadequacy and other times their underdeveloped social skills cause them to be shunned by peers. If this is not addressed by the parents, the risk is that the child will not develop the sense that they deserve respect. In these cases the parent needs to intervene and help arrange environments where their child can be socially successful. Some parents my need to go as far as to directly teach their child how to talk to peers through role play and such. Whether it is fear of their own lack of social skills or the negative reaction they get from others for social faux pas’s; a child who does not learn to build quality peer relationships will struggle later with sexual relationships.
Naturally, most children will be somewhere in the middle. Thus both issues will likely be present depending on your children’s relative developmental positions to the children around them. Thus you as a parent need to assess not only your child, but those children with whom he or she spends a great deal of time. Most children will be more advanced than some and less advanced than others in their peer group; so both sets of skills and parenting interventions will be required.
These group social skills can be enhanced by group activities outside of school. Sports, dance, church, Scouts and other such groups give children in middle childhood opportunity to develop these group interpersonal skills. However, be aware that not all of these activities will build your child. Overly aggressive sports coaches or activities in which your child simply can’t succeed will undermine this effort.
Beyond general socialization, children also learn how to have close intimate friends at this age. This is the age of “secret clubs” and coded notes. Parents can help their child develop their intimacy skills by arranging outings for their child and a peer, or overnight stays or simply arranging a friend to come over and play. In the modern US, elementary aged kids have almost no control over their contact with friends. It is largely up to the parent to ensure the time and appropriate circumstances for their child to learn the skills of intimate relationships that in later years will involve sexuality. So the Sex-Positive Parent with a child in elementary school should ask if your child is building close respectful friendships and how you can help in that process.
Your child will learn to transcend rules to embrace moral principles
The third goal for Sex-Positive Parenting in middle childhood is about your child learning both the rules of appropriate sexual contact and the principles behind the rules. Perhaps it is a surprise I said there are rules, but yes, sexual rules of middle childhood are important. Let me propose some:
Your body is your own. No one may touch it anywhere without your permission.
Until you are older, no one should touch the parts of your body covered by your swimsuit unless for medical care.
Similarly, you should never touch those areas of another person until you are older.
Nudity is only OK at home or at times or places specifically approved by Mom or Dad.
You do not share with your friends what you see and know about nudity and sex until you are older.
If someone tries to get you to violate the rules you tell Mom or Dad as soon as possible.
Now I don’t suggest you put them on the wall or even lay them out to your kids like that, but rather you should know the rules and when opportunity or need comes up you present them. Certainly when you are teaching your child about sexuality it is a good time to present some of these rules.
This is a good place to put in a word about “The Talk”. In my first series about early childhood I said that sex education begins at birth. That is true, however, at some point you need to address sexual biology in a more direct fashion. This will depend on your child, but usually I would say you should buy a book (or books) on sexuality for your kids at about 5 or 6 years old, thus the very beginning of middle childhood. There are a few books in particular I would recommend. It’s not there aren’t many others, but these were in print when our kids were small.
The first How Babies Are Made by Steven Schepp & Andrew Andry was first published in 1968. Thus it is unsurprisingly the least explicit. It happened to be a book my mother read to me and we used with both of our kids. In fact, our daughter liked it so much it was her favorite book for a full year. She carried it around all the time and “read” it to her little brother and to her stuffed animals.
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley. This is a great book for middle childhood, perhaps age 9-11. It is very well done and deals with more than just how babies are made, but sexuality in general. Topics include body image and masturbation. It’s good enough that some groups on the Christian Right attack it for being “kiddie porn” and Planned Parenthood at one time gave it out for free.
Playbook for Kid's about Sex by Joani Blank & Marcia Quackenbush is the most progressive of the books we have on the shelf. It goes into details about sexual arousal and feeling sexy that the others don’t. What I really like is that it is intended to be interactive with a page for kids to draw their own genitals and asks the kids to ask their parent about things like how they masturbated when they were young and a page to draw what they imagined their own sexual partner would look like when they grow up. Significantly in the 30 are so pages, 6 pages are given to sexual orientation with a strong message that gay couples are as normal as hetero couples. I would say this book would be best for kids right when they start to show signs they are on the cusp of puberty, especially if your family is openly poly.
These books are not a substitute for ongoing discussion about sexuality, but they are a great help. The best way to teach both the mechanics of sex and the social/emotional parts of sex is during middle childhood look for teachable moments. Part of this means watching TV with your kids because if you have not watched the content of TV geared for pre-teens lately, you’ll be surprised at how sexualized the content is. That sexualized content gives you the opening to support responsible, respectful and mutually rewarding sexual practices. On the other hand it gives you opportunity to point out sexual practices that are not those things. Your household sexual rules then could be tested against what is shown on the screen and give you a platform to say things that are not acceptable when your child is 11 may well be acceptable when he is 16. Additionally, you will find teachable moments all along these years, when your child tells you things from school or something they saw. It is normal for them to test your willingness to talk about sex toward the end of this period by saying something outrageous or overtly sexual. Be ready for it and don’t clam up out of embarrassment.
When first presented, give reasons for your house rules, but do not expect your 6 year old to understand why it is OK to swim naked in your home pool with the family but not OK to take off their swim suit at their friend’s house. They just need to know that is the rule. However, as they progress to the pre-teen years, you need to start explaining why nudity with the family or when the family goes to a certain beach is OK even though they are not allowed to tell their friends at church that you and your family go to the nude beach.
The same is true for “no touch” rules. You will have to explain why it is OK for 17 year old big sister to have her boyfriend spend the night in her bed, while 12 year old Bobby is told he can’t get naked or shut the door when his girlfriend is over. The transition from rules to principles is very important, because teenagers are brilliant at rationalizing and skirting rules. By the time the child exits middle childhood and enters into adolescence won’t be enough to say “don’t touch someone unless they want you to touch them”. Before they begin puberty, they should have at least an intellectual understanding of not touching others until you are sure they want to touched as a principle of respect, and a recognition that each person has an inalienable right to their own bodies. It is true that many males will be in their late teens before their brain actually conceptualize how the other person feels, but that does not mean they cannot act from moral principles they were taught in middle childhood.
This goal merges and extends the first two goals; that your child will have a firm sense of self and that self-image demands to give full respect to intimate partners and to expect such respect in return. It is upon that foundation that you hope your child will superimpose their soon to be budding sexuality.
In summary your goal as a Sex-Positive Parent is that before your child begins to deal with the challenges of pubescent hormones, they will have an intellectual understanding of human sexuality. In middle childhood sex is still a concept devoid of true understanding, but if you have done well, they know it as a wonderful and positive part of “grown-up” life; however, as with all adult pleasures it comes with responsibilities to use it in a way that benefits themselves and those with whom they become sexual one day.
*I use masculine pronouns (he, him, his) for readability sake. Please don’t read into that some anti-female bias