How a child learns to treat the other gender, and how the child feels about his or her own sexuality is an important part of his or her self-image. We prefer to talk about “building healthy sexuality” rather than “teaching sex.” Schools, for better or for worse, teach sex; homes model sexuality. This means not only teaching facts of life, but attitudes as well. To help your child develop a healthy sexuality, you must prepare him or her for the physical changes ahead and for the feelings that accompany these changes. Your child also needs to know how sexuality operates in healthy male-female relationships.
The idea of teaching children about sex creates uneasiness for many parents. They may be uncomfortable talking about sex, and they worry about how they come across. They don’t want to cause anxiety and shame in their children, but they don’t want to promote unbridled freedom either. The most important teaching is done not by lecture or answering questions, but by example. You can always clarify the facts. It’s harder to fix attitudes.
1. Touch is the beginning of sexuality. Parents ask, “When do I begin teaching my child about sex?” “At birth,” is my reply. In most of your interactions, often unknowingly, you give sexual messages to your child. The earliest message is touch. From the moment of birth on your child will know if you are a touching family. Your infant feels good giving and receiving touch. Caressing your baby’s face, massaging her skin, being entranced in an eye-to-eye gaze, and having your baby at breast and in-arms instill early attitudes that the body is good; it’s good to touch and be touched. As a result of this high-touch style of attachment-parenting, the child gets the early sexual message to be comfortable giving and receiving touch. He learns that this is one way that human beings show love for one another. Honoring the need to be touched helps a child feel comfortable about herself or himself as a person. This is the beginning of learning to feel right as a “she” or “he.”
2. Vive la difference. In the past, women tended to babies and men tended to business. One of the richest changes in parenting over the past twenty years is mothers and fathers sharing childcare, not in competition over “who’s better,” but in the growing realization that babies thrive on the differences in the way males and females care for babies.
Mothers and fathers hold, look at, and touch babies differently. Babies pat breasts and rub beards. Babies respond differently to male and female voices. Early on, give your infant the message that both sexes can nurture babies, and these little takers will learn to extract the best from both mother and father.
In the early years, a baby learns that mom treats him differently than dad, and when both are sensitive nurturers baby benefits from this difference. Yes, babies usually prefer mother, but dad can be a close second. If dad is gruff, rough, and distant this is baby’s early impression of dad, which later may translate into what all men are like. When, however, baby is nurtured by both parents, he or she will see nurturing and sensitivity as the way healthy people normally treat one another, regardless of gender. The challenge is to celebrate the differences in gender and still give both genders equal opportunity for nurturing. Remember, dads, you are the first male your child knows, and moms, you are the first female.
How people view their gender reflects their self-esteem and contributes to it. Low self-esteem is likely to carry over into unhealthy sexuality; problems with sexuality are likely to weaken self-esteem. A girl needs to be glad she’s a girl; a boy needs to enjoy being a boy. Convey to your children that you are happy about their gender. Children are more likely to become adults with unhealthy sexual identities if they are confused and dissatisfied with their gender as a child. This is especially true if a child picks up that her parents are disappointed with her gender. Be careful of nicknames that could subtly convey this message. We know a woman who wonders whether her father was disappointed that she was a girl. He called her “Butch,” and he called her younger sister “Chuck.”
3. Being different does not imply less. Growing sexual persons, especially boys, often devalue the other sex because they think they don’t perform certain tasks as well. They ignore the fact that everyone’s skills are different. This who-is-better conflict often surfaces in middle childhood when boys and girls engage in team sports. This natural competitiveness, if not reinforced by caregivers and coaches, is usually self-correcting (providing parents mind their sexist remarks). One day while watching kids in a schoolyard run, I remarked, “Girls sure run funny.” Our fourteen-year-old daughter shot back, “Boys run funny, too.” She was letting me know that my comment was one- sided, sexist, and frankly unnecessary. I apologized. Equal opportunity in school sports has helped foster mutual respect between boys and girls. When we were growing up, boys performed while girls watched and cheered. Now we see our oldest daughter performing as a cheerleader—a highly skilled and competitive sport that keeps her fit and teaches her about teamwork. All those years of soccer, softball, and gymnastics have led her to a love of doing her best. Her squad has made it to national competitions. (And there are boys on many cheer squads.)
It’s important for children to learn that both genders are equally valuable. Sexual equality, used correctly, should not mean sameness, but equal value, equal opportunity. It would be a dull and short-lived world if the sexes were the same. One day a couple and their four-year-old were in my office for discipline counseling. Dad dominated the conversation. Whenever mom offered an opinion, he put her down. It became obvious that the power struggle was between the sexes, not between parent and child. The child was visibly disturbed and was getting bad sexual vibes: men devalue women. It’s important to model respect for the opposite sex for your children, build up each other in your children’s presence, and tell your children what a wonderful mother or father they have. Children who value and respect the other gender are less likely to become adults who harass the other gender.
4. Reinforce the person more than the gender. It’s normal and healthy for parents to encourage gender differences, but traditional views on what constitutes gender-appropriate behaviors no longer hold water. In the past, fathers have tended to reinforce more gender-specific behaviors than mothers. Dads would roughhouse with boys, but play quiet games with girls. Playing more gently with a daughter conveyed to her that she was expected to be sensitive and delicate. Roughhousing with a son would encourage him to be aggressive. What was missing? Neither daughters nor sons learned how to be sensitively assertive, and the stereotypes lived on. While over-emphasis on gender blending can be as unhealthy as the old stereotypes, try to play with the child according to the child’s temperament rather than the child’s gender.
Take cues from your child first as a person, second as a member of a gender. If growing children become comfortable with themselves as people, they are much more likely to be comfortable with their sexuality. I used to fall into the gender trap in my practice. In my office I would automatically greet a little boy with a hearty “give me five,” but welcome a little girl with a gracious hug. I now find it more appropriate to take cues from the child and make an on-the- spot decision about whether a hand-hit or a hug would be more appropriate. With my children and with my patients, I see the importance of fostering sensitive behavior in boys and encouraging assertiveness in both sexes. Tenderness and assertiveness in both sexes is a better way to have balance.
5. Foster healthy gender identity. By age two-and-a-half children become aware of gender differences. They begin to identify “girls” and “boys.” Girls become aware that girls have long hair and sometimes wear dresses; boys have shorter hair and wear pants. And they become aware that their genitals look different and they “pee” differently. (Four-year-old brothers have been known to taunt younger sisters: “I’ve got a penis and you don’t.”) How you approach the differences in external genitalia can help play down the who’s better problem. Instead of perpetuating the idea that boys have penises and girls don’t, use your comment to equalize the situation, “Girls have a vulva, boys have a penis.” A little girl may tend to feel inferior because she doesn’t have such an “interesting” piece of equipment, and a little boy may feel anxious that he could lose what he has. A wise bit of teaching here can leave both genders feeling good about themselves.
From birth boys are generally more aggressive and rougher than girls during play, though sometimes the reverse is true. How much of this difference in behavior stems from the X and Y chromosomes and how much from cultural programming is open to question. Gender behaviors are a combination of genetics and environment. Some boys dive headlong into traditionally male activities (trucks, combat), some girls into female ones (dolls, cooking). Many children show very individual and less gender-oriented preferences. Boys can be equally imaginative playing house as girls can be, and girls can be just as rough-and- tumble in pretend adventure as the boys. Girls have more interesting choices when it comes to clothing, and here is where parents see a child’s personal taste defy all modeling cues from her mother. The daughter whose mother is always in jeans may insist on dresses only, to her mother’s amazement; the daughter whose mother prefers dresses fights tooth and nail to stay out of one, even at the tender age of three. This, of course, may have nothing to do with whether she plays creatively with dolls for hours on end or chooses to practice gravity-defying stunts most of the day. Also, gender behavior may depend on what activities parents allow. A six-year-old boy and his friend were fighting one another. Grandmother advised, “Leave them alone. Boys will be boys.” The mother disagreed, “I will not allow my child to be an ill-mannered maniac just because of his sex.”
6. Model healthy gender roles. Children develop healthy gender identity when they have healthy gender models at home. Try to model the following attitudes for your children:
- Mom and dad are loving caregivers.
- Mom and dad are fair disciplinarians.
- Mom and dad respect one another.
- Mom and dad convey that they like their gender and their chosen roles.
A new father grieving about not having had enough time with his father, confided to us: “He seldom held us. All I remember was seeing his back and briefcase as he left for work.” Some fathers do have demanding jobs that keep them too busy. If this kind of father enjoys his work, though, he will communicate to his children that he is fulfilled in what he does “for a living,” and he will be more likely to also enjoy the time he does have at home being a dad. Children benefit from seeing their parents happily and gainfully “employed” because they take pleasure in providing adequately for their family. It’s important to give a very clear message that family is more important than a “job.” One very sad pitfall in the area of work is that dad can be perceived as the more valuable parent because his worth can be measured in dollars, compared to mom who works for “nothing.” Women can be lured back into the marketplace, against their inner wisdom, for this same shallow rationale.
Not only do babies learn from how mom and dad care for them, they also witness how mom and dad care for each other. It is not only healthy, but important, to show affection to your mate in front of your child. If the child sees hugs and kisses and perceives sensitivity between mates, this little sponge learns that it’s good for people to show affection for one another. The result is a child who enjoys giving and getting kisses and hugs from the people he loves. When children see one parent always putting down the other, being insensitive to, or even physically abusing the other, they store these action pictures in their attitude file. They either decide that this is the wrong way for daddy to treat mommy (or vice versa), or they accept that strife instead of sensitivity is the normal pattern between the sexes. Either viewpoint plants unhealthy sexual attitudes and expectations in the child. How mates treat each other strongly influences the child’s later choice of a mate.
7. Discipline affects sexuality. How a child is disciplined affects, for better or worse, his or her future attitudes toward sex. Children who receive attachment parenting learn to love and trust because they have been loved and trusted. A child who, as an infant, spends hours in arms and at breast, learns to be comfortable touching and being touched. That child learns intimacy. The little person who grows up in a home where mother and father respect each other and their children are likely to view sexual roles as healthy and satisfying.
The child who grows up with harsh, abusive correction may take on the abusive characteristics of the parents or unconsciously look for those qualities in a mate. The child whose expressivity is squelched by over-controlling parents, may have difficulty expressing adult sexuality or may use sex as a tool to control or be controlled by others. The child who never learned “no” may not be able to delay sexual gratification and is more likely to take what he wants without considering the cost. The most important quality of parenting—sensitivity— greatly affects sexuality. One of our goals in discipline is to help a child learn to consider how his actions will affect other people. After all, satisfying sex is basically mutual caring—the ability and desire to satisfy both one’s own and another’s needs.