Sex-Positive Parenting of Young Children
Part 1: Before the Child is born.
I first stood in front of a group of parents and taught “Early Sex Education for your Child” in 1990. I was young minister of education in a very conservative Baptist Church, and many of the parents in my audience literal knew nothing that was sex-positive. In many of their lives, sex had always been taught in the negative form. It was there I first began teaching that sex-education begins the day you bring your child home from the hospital. Though I never used the word sex-positive, that was what I was teaching. I was teaching the parents that sexuality was not inherently bad to them first, and then I hoped they in turn could pass that value to their children.
Three years later I took a “secular” job at a residential program for adolescent sex offenders. One of my jobs was to develop a curriculum for sex education for 13-16 year olds who have histories of rape and child molestation. So the first thing I had to do was to learn all there was to know about sex-positive sex education. These adolescent boys knew quite a bit about sex-negative things. Contrary to popular belief, all of these boys had not been abused, the common denominator is they had been taught the way to express manhood and personal power was by use of sexual organs and acts to humiliate and control others. Sometimes they learned it as the victim but other times they learned it as a bystander watching their mother or siblings being raped or otherwise abused. So sex as a loving and positive act was a new and foreign concept.
At the same time I was in a lay-leadership position in a Baptist Church where I taught a couple’s class on Sunday Mornings and a teen group on Sunday Evening [those of you reading my novel have seen this is exactly what the husband in the novel does, much of the novel reflects my own experience]. A year into the couples class, we were using a “Baptist” marriage workbook for young couples; one week it dealt with sexual issues. Due to their questions, and more importantly due to the fact that from Paula and I they got answers, the class asked for more discussion the next week and the next. I ended up bringing my Sex-Positive curriculum to the church because the young married couples simply knew nothing about sexuality but so wanted to learn.
All that to say, sex-positive education has been an important part of my work for many years; even before our first child was born. The understanding of both the importance of sex-positive parenting and the crucial importance of early childhood experiences has only become more important in the 20+ years since those events.
Sex-Positive Parenting first begins with the attitude of the parents. Now, let me head off criticism by saying in this discussion I am going to speak of parents being a mother and father. As a former social worker I know that is not always the case, the most common exception is that it is only a mother; however it will make it too cumbersome to address this any other way. So, do not accuse me of saying single parents, gay parents or poly group parents can’t be successful. If I ever write a book on this they will get their own chapters, but what I say here is the base line. So, Sex-Positive Parenting begins with mom and dad adopting a Sex-Positive attitude prior to the arrival of the child.
So what is “sex-positive” and how is it expressed in adults? That must be understood first.
Sex-Positive is the belief that human sexuality is intrinsically good. Human sexuality is one of the few true pleasures and reliefs available to humankind no matter a person’s social status or life condition. Either alone or with a partner(s), sexual pleasure offers a temporary reprieve from the hardships that life brings upon all of us. To revel in that pleasure, for many, is the only bright spot in a world of misery, pain and oppression. Sex is the opiate available to us all. This, in itself, is a good thing.
But sexuality is more. It is the special beauty of lovers sharing that moment of bliss and that lifetime of union. How much ink has been spilled about the beauty of passionate, sexual love? Why is music, art and literature filled with sexual love? Sexual love is so much more than just rutting; it is two people joining bodily and spiritually to become more than the sum of their two individual selves. The act of conception via sex is simply a physical manifestation of the creation of something new and beautiful in every loving, passionate sexual encounter.
A wonderful sexual experience leaves the participants physically drained, but emotionally filled. A Sex-Positive person does not wince at the sight of two people making love, nor do they simply get off on it, but rather they are cognizant they are witness to something spiritual and valuable in itself.
Yes, the Sex-Positive person knows sex can be misused. The very fact that our sexuality is a gateway to our inner being means it is a target to those who seek to harm people in a deep and personal way. It is also uniquely empowering to the sex offender to force sex upon someone unwilling or unable to resist. To them, forcing someone to accept your sexuality is a form of empowerment akin to that felt in the act of killing. If you imagine how a positive sexual encounter empowers all the participants, then you can imagine how stealing sex gives the same level of empowerment but all to one person, at the expense of the other. When people say rape is about power not sex, they are only half right. Rape is about the theft of the power of sex.
The power of sexuality is also way totalitarian régimes use to control human sexuality as a way to control people. Not just religious regimes like the Taliban, the Ayatollah of Iran, or the Papacy in the Middle Ages, but secularists like Hitler and atheist like Stalin in the USSR or Mao in China have made control of sexual behavior a major issue. They all knew the power of sexuality and bringing it under their heel empowered themselves and disempowered individuals.
So, to be a Sex-Positive parent, one must first commit to the proposition that one will impart sexuality as intrinsically good to our children. In the real world all of us, as parents, have some hang-ups about sex to some degree or another. So we cannot wait until we overcome those negative feelings about our own sexual past, especially if sex has been negative in our lives; but, rather we must commit to presenting a sex-positive view of the world to our children. Some parents must work to keep their own demons at bay long enough to raise a generation free from that pain.
The best time to begin living this sex-positive lifestyle is before the first child arrives. The reason for this is simple, the arrival of a child brings a whole host of stressors, and to also try to shift to a sex-positive way of thinking and behaving at that time would be to attempt two very difficult things at once. Thus I revise my statement so say “Sex-Positive Parenting begins before your child is born.”
Part 2- Basic Principles of Positive Parenting
As I taught my early intervention social work staff; child rearing is not rocket science. If you provide unconditional love and a safe, stable environment children will thrive. A parent might have particular goals beyond just thriving in general, such as religious training, cultural affiliation, sex positivity or a myriad of other things. I nearly always actually recommend that approach. To do this the parent simply builds in those other things to their child rearing regime; but love and stability are prerequisites for success in all cases.
When considering the goals of Sex-Positive Parenting of young children, there are three goals you want to have in mind:
1st Your children will have a positive relationship with their own bodies.
2nd Your child will see human sexuality as positive and a normal part of life.
3rd Your child will equate sexual interaction with positive healthy relationships.
So, I have presented two imperatives and three goals. In this section I will address the two imperatives as prerequisites for the three goals.
Unconditional love underlies everything. When you become a parent you lose the right to choose what you want. You have made a commitment for the next eighteen years (or more) that the highest purpose in your life is to meet the needs of that child. As I have taught parenting and I have worked as a social worker there is one fatal mistake I see that destroys more children than any other single thing. That is for the parent to expect their children will give them back something for the sacrifices they make as a parent. The idea that the parent-child relationship is quid-pro-quo is antithetical to good parenting. Yes, you hope to get something out of raising your kid’s right; you get the satisfaction of seeing them succeed. Beyond that, you can expect to get nothing in return until the day you become the elderly dependent and they become your caregiver. That is the nature of unconditional love, you love them and do what is best for them no matter what they do or do not do.
This unconditional love for the child becomes an issue for the sex-positive single parent or those couples who practice open polyamory because the children must never find themselves in competition for love with Mom or Dad’s newest love interest. Kids will understand Mom and Dad have friends, but there should be a clear and obvious difference between family and friends; and, no children do not understand the concept of family being a fluid group of all the people that Mom or Dad care about deeply. It is hard enough for them to share their parents with siblings. For parents to delude themselves into thinking their children will be fine in such an environment is nothing short of selling the child out for the parents desires or ideology.
Two more very common violations of this principle is tying love to the child’s behavior and the practice of using the child as a bargaining chip. The moment a parent’s commitment to their child’s welfare is dependent on the child’s actions, they no longer are practicing unconditional love. The moment a parent uses their child to get something for themselves without regard to the child’s welfare they cease practicing unconditional love. And when either of these things happens, the parent is no longer upholding their duty and all bets are off as to results. Both of these practices are not only common, but they have the effect of teaching the children that love is no more than leverage to get ones way. This inevitably will lead to failed relationships as an adult. On the other hand, the child raised in an atmosphere of unconditional love will grow up to be able to make strong and lasting bonds as they will instinctively know what it is to love and be loved.
One caveat is that unconditional love should not be confused with permissiveness. Just as unconditional love for an adult would not provide drugs for an addict, but rather motivate to push for intervention; unconditional love does not let the child make poor choices or give into selfish or self-destructive desires, but rather acts in the child’s best interest. Unconditional love does not justify a parent allowing their children to eat candy for breakfast just because they want it.
The second component is stability. Children need to know today will be like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today and every day they know they can count on Mom & Dad to protect them and do what is best for them. That is stability. The household rules and routines are predictable and there is a link between their actions and the parental response. The apriori understanding of cause and effect is one of the primary concepts that lead to success in life.
In working with abuse cases, other than major physical trauma, the worst kind of abuse a child can endure is living in a home where they have no idea what actions will get praise or punishment from the adults in their life. The worse-case scenarios fall into two camps: an addicted parent and ever-shifting parental figures. In the first, the parent who is an addict is like two people, one sober and one high. Kids need to know their actions bring consistent reactions. If the parent is high or drunk, the child does not take that into account when they are punished for something that normally gets praise, or praised for something that normally gets punished. Rather they are left thinking something they did caused the difference. Eventually, kids of addicts do learn their actions are not the cause of the consequence; however, that leads to a lifetime of believing that bad consequences of their own actions are not their fault at all. This of course leads to a lifetime of problems.
The other case is one of an ever shifting cast of people acting in-loco-parentis in the home. New adults in the child’s life should not be allowed to presume they are parents. The worst-case scenario here is the abused or dominated single mom who has a series of boyfriends who enforce their own rules and routines on the children. I have worked with any number of families where the mom introduces the young children a new live-in boyfriend every year as their “new father” that must be obeyed. Not only does this tell the kids that they are less important to their mother than the new guy, but the inability to know what is expected of them leads to a host of problems. One of the most common things I had to teach blended families is that the step-parent is never and will never be the child’s parent UNLESS, the child grants that right. This comes back to the children’s need for unconditional love from the person they believe is the legitimate parent.
Again I make the caveat that permissiveness is not what children need. I have worked with a number of parents who utterly abandon their responsibility to provide a consistent and stable structure for life under the guise of “not wanting to inhibit my child’s free will”. This is a high sounding excuse for not having the will or interest in being a parent. Parenting is like being captain of a ship. The ship’s captain sets routines and rules for the welfare and safety of everyone. No one wants an arbitrary or cruel captain, but nor do they want a captain that is asleep at the wheel. Nothing is more frightening to a child than being on their own and a parent that just lets their child do anything they want is in effect abandoning their job as captain of the ship. Yes, your children will need to learn to captain their own ship, but it is the parent’s job to teach seamanship as the child grows so they are prepared to do so when the time comes.
The most common issue with parents looking into adopting a more sex-positive outlook and lifestyle is when they have children who are in middle childhood or their teens. Stability is all so very important. If nudity was verboten in the home for ten years, then one day mom or dad walks around the house naked, the kids will be traumatized. It is not the nudity, but rather the change that is the problem. The same works the other way. If the formally sex-positive parents suddenly join a highly conservative religious group and tell the teenage children the whole family will suddenly adopt a conservative dress code, they will be traumatized (and resentful). Thus, the time to adopt a Sex-Positive domestic lifestyle is before the child arrives. Short of this, the sooner the better it is for your child.
Part 3: The Three Goals of early Sex-Positive Parenting
This is part three of answering a question from a reader “What do you mean by Sex-Positive parenting begins at birth?”
Often “experts” talk only of methods used in child rearing, but they seem to completely forgo any discussion of goals. This is not a mistake, but rather hubris of assuming their goals are the same goals all parents have for their children. In this little series of essays I explicitly state that I propose a Sex-Positive philosophy. In the last installment of this series I listed the two basic needs of children, now I will write of goals.
As I stated before, I propose three goals for Sex-Positive parenting. If I were writing on child rearing in general I would have a good many goals for children dealing with other domains including social skills, ethical values, educational development and so on. But this is a narrower focus so, I will stick to the Sex-Positive issues. As listed before my proposed goals are:
1st Your child will have a positive relationship with his/her own body.
2nd Your child will see human sexuality as positive and a normal part of life.
3rd Your child will equate sexual interaction with positive healthy relationships.
The first goal for children to have a positive relationship with their own bodies seems so very simple and straight forward, yet it might be the most difficult of all the goals. We live in a media culture that begins to bombard children with assaults on their physical adequacy at a very young age. It is the parents’ job to counter this.
Philosophically I am a Cartesian duelist, to me the mind and body (or soul and body) are indeed two different things. This separation between the physical and intellectual/spiritual allows for an easier grasp of cause and effect. In parenting it allows me to see my child's real needs as different from their outward physical sexual development. While this becomes most critical in the years of puberty, this dichotomy assists in goal setting even in early childhood. Thus I conceptualize my child's "real" self as existing separately from his/her body, even while the body and mind have a symbiotic relationship.
First by recognizing my child is more than their body, it allows me to focus their growing self-image away from their physical appearance. This is very important if, like my own kids, the family history would indicate they will be less than an ideal physical specimen. One of the cruelest tricks of nature is that children physically develop at different rates. Even if a boy is genetically destined to be 6’ 3” as an adult, if he spends years as the shortest boy in the class because of a slow biological clock, it will have a profound impact on his social standing throughout his childhood. Conversely if a girl is genetically destined to reach sexual maturity well before her peers, it will also profoundly impact her social standing throughout childhood. Thus, when I say the goal is for the child to have a positive relationship with his or her body, it is founded on the premise that no matter what their body is or becomes, the child has that body as their most precious possession; however, they are not defined by that body.
Children begin exploring their bodies as the very first thing they do as an infant. Part of that exploration is finding out that their genitals feel especially good when they touch them. There is evidence now that children discover that joy before they are even born. It is not uncommon for toddlers, particularly girls, to learn that it is relaxing to do this when they are trying to sleep. In my work I’ve run into a number of parents who were concerned that their two and three year old little girls do this every time they lay down to sleep. Unless they are rubbing themselves raw (which I have seen in a couple of cases) this is far from problematic behavior; rather it is the child learning to use the natural mechanisms of their own body to make them feel good. This is not something the parent promotes or teaches, but rather something the Sex-Positive parent does not inhibit.
What the Sex-Positive parent should do proactively is to encourage their child to have a sense of ownership of their own bodies. Small children, if allowed to, will ask a never ending stream of questions. All parents with specific goals for their children use those questions to shape a world view. All children will develop a world view; the focused parent does not leave that to chance. In this case, the Sex-Positive parent looks for opportunity to work into the conversation the fact that the child’s body is his/her own and that body will be the source of their successes and failures, their pleasures and their pain. If they find ways to make their body feel good without harming themselves or others, that is a good thing. Such an approach also lays the ground work for self-restraint in that some things, like over eating, harm themselves. It also lays the foundation for a moral code based on the sovereignty of all people over their own bodies.
Most importantly the Sex-Positive parent must model a positive relationship with their own body. It is correctly said that values are more caught than taught. Small children believe everything their parents do is right and should be emulated. It is for this reason, I discourage the practice of treating the body as shameful by Mom and Dad insisting on hiding their naked bodies. We hide what we are ashamed of. Kids know this instinctively. If the adults in their life think their genitals must be hidden, then the children will know the genitals are shameful. In our case when our kids were young, they were present when Mom and Dad went naked routinely in the house, at our home pool as well as on some beaches. This issue of family nudity is something that is best addressed before the first child arrives.
Finally, it is not just actions that shape your children’s body image. Words are very powerful. It only takes a few cases of Mom saying “I’m so fat and ugly” to teach a lifelong lesson to a girl that being skinny is to be pretty. It takes only a few derogatory comments about other people’s bodily appearance to teach a small child to look down on those who do not fit the standard of beauty (including themselves). Parents who want Sex-Positive children must weigh their every word to be sure they are teaching lessons they want their child to learn.
The second goal of the Sex-Positive parent is that their children will see human sexuality as positive and a normal part of life. Sexuality and the process of sexual pleasure are intimately linked to our humanity. Why is literature, art and music filled with erotic themes? Because our sexual identity has a unique place in our lives. Yet, sexuality is so often presented in ways that makes that very sexuality seem dirty and shameful. Beginning with St. Augustine’s war on sexuality, through Freud’s pseudo-science that made sexuality pathological to the modern anti-sex feminists that view heterosexual sex as inherently violent and abusive, there are legions of people who want to convince your child that sex is bad. I recall a news story on how a public school suspended a 6 year old boy for kissing a girl on the cheek, even though she said she wanted him to. The school wants it put in his permanent record that the six year old is guilty of sexual harassment. This is indicative of the ongoing effort to pathologicalize and criminalize even the most innocuous sexual expression.
The only effective counter to the sex-negative alliance of religion, psychology and politics is you the parent. Only through your words and actions will your children come to see sex as loving and joyous and healthy. When I write of sex, I present it as the entire courting ritual, from holding hands in the car, to kissing in the park, to snuggling on the couch, to nude caresses. The actual act of sexual penetration is just the last movement of the symphony. This is a Sex-Positive vision that you can permanently ingrain in your children by the time they are five years old.
For this reason, Paula and I decided before the kids were born that we wanted them to understand the whole progression before they began school. First we showed affection on a regular basis. We made an effort to ensure snuggling, kissing and generally showing physical affection by Mom and Dad was part of the world they entered. This is actually very practical since young children need nearly constant supervision, if parents do not engage in these kinds of intimacies with the kids present; they often stop doing them all together. A strong and sexualized relationship between Mom and Dad is the foundation to Sex-Positive parenting. Building on the idea that children know that we hide what we are ashamed of doing, I think the common practice of relegating naked physical affection to a place behind closed (and often locked) doors is a serious mistake. Contrary to what Freudians (and many other psychologists say) , witnessing positive sexual love is not harmful to young children. There is not one bit of empirical evidence to support their claim. In our case it was extremely rare when our kids were preschoolers that we shut the bedroom door while we made love. All the way through rearing our two children (who are now grown), the door stayed at least ajar and often fully open while Paula and I had sex. We never, ever locked the kids out of our bedroom.
If our kids are to see sex as positive and wholesome, how can we do that if we act as if it is dirty or shameful? Remember the goal is baseline beliefs that are built in early childhood. Young children do not see sex the way adults or even adolescents do. To young children it is just another “adult” thing, and in a stable home it is a “Mommy & Daddy” thing. For that reason, I’ll add a caveat, I would not recommend casual playmates at the house until the kids are older; however, if you have a stable and loving polyamorus relationship that is another matter. In our case the kids knew full well that when she took them to a sleep over at their best friend's house, Mommy stayed and slept in the same bed with their friend's mother and father. And on occasion, Dianne (their friend's mother would sleep over in the bed with Mommy and Daddy. Though to be candid, back then, we shut the door when the three of us had sex, at the request of Dianne. She was concerned her kids would say something to her mother who babysat them regularly. Otherwise we would not have objected to the kids seeing us engaged sexually with mom's best friend.
I recommend parents do the same thing as we did with our children. Go about your sexual life in a way that builds your marriage and your sexual desire for one another. In our case we had nude photos of Mom in the bedroom and semi-nudes in the hallway. Mom wore sexy clothing out with the kids and Mom and Dad were very physically affectionate. Since the kids had seen those things since they were infants, it was normal to them. As long as the kids can remember, mom’s sex toys have sat on the end table or on the floor by the bed (which is still true to this very day). One Christmas Santa brought mom a new dildo and harness and it was under the tree just like everything else. When the kids would walk in on us having sex, we did not cover up or hide what we were doing, but rather just stopped active thrusting and addressed what they needed. We took only the smallest level of effort to reduce the chance of them finding us having sex in other rooms; but, we never initiated penetrative sex in their presence. Thus, our children did indeed grow up to see sex as normal and positive.
The flipside is that we were very careful what kind of negative sexual images the kids saw. Much of what is on television is sexualized but sex-negative. Violent, exploitive or unrealistic sexual images will muddle the Sex-Positive message you are trying to send. While I am quite sure that seeing real people have real and loving sex is not harmful to children, I am also convinced that nearly all sex in the commercial porn industry and all too much of what is on the net is indeed harmful. This is not as much a problem with young children, but it is a huge issue in middle childhood and adolescence.
The third and final goal is that children will equate sexual interaction with positive healthy relationships. Now I have already laid the ground work for this in the first two goals, so this will be short.
When I worked full-time with adolescent sexual offenders one of the important things I learned was how children can be taught to link sexuality with other events or emotions. Many pedophiles learned to associate positive child-adult relationships with sex. Thus when a pedophile touches a three or four year old sexually, they truly do not believe they are harming that child. To them they are showing appropriate affection. This is especially true with a pedophile that had an important and comforting relationship with the person who was sexually abusing them as a small child. The other extreme is the violent rapist who learns that aggressive violence is part of sex. I had clients who got an erection every time they saw a fist fight on television and they could not orgasm without fantasizing about hurting someone. You might assume such a young man was sexually abused, but you would be wrong. The two most violent rapist I worked with were not the victims of rape until after they went into custody for rape (rape in custody is also a predictor of violence but that is another discussion); rather, they both had a mother who had men in the house whom she allowed to repeatedly beat and rape her in front of her son. These two young men learned all about sex, but their lesson was that sex and violence are inseparably linked. The flip side of this is I have studied the biographies of the most prominent and aggressive sex-negative women’s activists, they too inevitably have lives shaped by sexual violence. To them, heterosexual sex and rape are one and the same thing because it has been so in their own lives. Thus, both girls and boys can learn to instinctively link sex and violence. You do not want your children to do this!
As Sex-Positive parents we need to ensure that our children link sexuality with love, security, affection and other positive feelings. Why do you think part one of this series was on the need for love and security before I moved to issues of expressing sexuality?
Thus the combination principle is:
Sex-Positive parents start from the day their child comes home to create a
linkage in the child’s mind between the love & security Mom & Dad provide
with their sexual love for one another.