By Janet Rosenzweig Ph.D
This is the second installment in which Dr. Janet Rosenzweig discusses the importance of explaining and openly discussing sex with children, long before they become teenagers. In this age when the Internet makes information (good and bad) readily available and kids begin having sex at an earlier age, we feel grandparents also play an important role, whether your grandkids live in your house or not. At the very least, you’ll be armed to advise your children on how to bring up the discussion of sex with your grandkids. This discussion focuses on the years six through puberty.[The ages six through puberty are] called “the latency stage” by Freud (because a child’s sexuality is now latent until adolescence), and the golden age of childhood by others [because] the years between elementary school and entering puberty are wonderful years and a gift that helps prepare children for adolescence. Most of us remember fun-filled events, family outings, and innocent questions during this period of our lives and will enjoy seeing our children grow in the same ways before morphing into defiant, door slamming teenagers. During this time, the family unit is still the most important social influence on your child, presenting a huge advantage for you as a parent. This is the time to fill your child with your values and opinions on everything that’s important to you. From manners to hygiene, if you think it’s important information, pass it to your child now because by adolescence, your child’s frame of reference will shift to her peer group and you will suddenly seem idiotic in her eyes. But even if your son or daughter ignores some of the messages you send him or her during the preteen years, he or she won’t forget them. So don’t waste this opportunity before the hormones start kicking in.
School-aged kids speak, and in some way look, like shorter versions of adults. They’re not, though, and this is a fact that can be quite deceiving. They have a lot of internal work to do in terms of integrating their personality. As you will recall from before, the child’s id was frustrated by the superego (conscience) developed as a preschooler, and now a child takes a few years to integrate all of these forces into his ego, or balanced sense of self. As the child strives to achieve his own balance, he will have a deep sense of right and wrong (by his standards) and you’re sure to hear cries of “that’s not fair!” when given boundaries or if he feels he is not allowed to participate in the same areas as his peers. I’ve even seen school-aged siblings split a candy bar with a ruler to make sure things are equal and democratic!
What You Should Know
So many big developmental tasks have been completed by this stage in your child’s life—they can walk and talk, they have developed relationships, they have balanced their id-based desires with a sense of right and wrong, things are integrated and emotionally stable, and it’s a great time for your child to learn. Then, just when your child has mastered childhood, it’s gone, and now she has to master being a teenager! This time from around age six to puberty is your opportunity to ensure that your child has the best possible information about bodies, puberty, sexual response, reproduction, and sexual health before it starts happening full force. You can help ensure a smooth transition into puberty by ensuring that your child knows in advance what will happen to her body.
Make a clear and conscious decision about the messages you want your child to hear about the sexualization of young children. Girls especially are pressured into appearing sexual at young ages, exposed by the media to baby bikinis and padded bras for eight-year-olds. Boys may need help understanding what is really conveyed by the tough-guy looks. A common problem among latency aged, pre-sexual kids is that they may know that a certain type of look is equated with being attractive without understanding that it has a sexual connotation. When a nine-year-old girl chooses a Halloween costume with a decidedly “hooker-ish” look, a parent needs to supplement their “no” with an explanation about that decision beyond “because I said so.” Explaining to kids that certain kinds of clothes carry a certain kind of message (one that is not always appropriate for their age) is a good place to start. Using a uniform as an example (“When you wear shin guards, I know you’re getting ready to play soccer”) explains to a child that a particular look is seen by some people as a uniform to “kiss” or “flirt” or some other term in that will make a nine-year-old think, “Yuck.”
This age group of children can be an especially important time to monitor all media contact they have. Exposure to explicit sexual acts can be very frightening for this age group—young boys may be exposed to porn-sized penises and young girls frightened y the sight of female bodies invaded by them, and both can be the stuff of nightmares before your child has an the knowledge of what loving sexual contact actually is. Media messages as damaging as those explicit images are everywhere—messages about sexual violence, sexual dominance, trading sex for rewards, and others frighten kids even more if they do not have your (their parent’s) values as a basis for knowing that these messages do not always reflect the truth.
You can prepare for this stage in your child’s development by reviewing the material in chapter 4 and by practicing how to explain anatomy and physiology in your own language with your spouse or a trusted friend. There are many good books that explain the reproductive aspects of sexuality, but I have yet to see one that does a good job explaining arousal; you’ll most likely have to do so on your own. If your school district, religious institution, or youth group offers sexuality education, take the time to read the curriculum and then follow up with your child regarding these courses with questions and answers at home.
Half of all prepubescent girls in the United States will be menstruating by age twelve; this means they may be facing a rather grown-up physical issue while still emotionally in the latency phase. The best way to prepare for this is to establish, early on, a good, strong base of information about what her body’s doing and why, so she can feel safe about her blossoming sexuality.
What’s Going on in the Family?
Parents love the latency stage and can understand why it’s referred to as the golden age of childhood. Kids are now old enough to understand, to have great conversations, and they still like you—their parent! Enjoy it and use this time to infuse all of your values into your children, and to provide accurate knowledge about male and female bodies. Once adolescence hits, you’ll have to work much harder get your child’s attention on such topics.
With no more toddlers in the house, things seem a lot calmer. Now your children can learn responsibilities, such as taking on age-appropriate chores and finding out that privileges must be earned. Lines of communication with you are as strong as they will ever be until your child reaches late adolescence.
For single parents, this may be one of the easier times in the rearing of your child. If a child meets someone you’re dating, go easy on the public displays of affection and really reinforce the fact that this person is your friend. If the “friend” part is a lie and you consider this other person just a sex partner, then there really is no reason to introduce them to the kids.
The Bottom Line for Sexual Health and Safety
This is a most valuable time for parents. You have your kid’s attention and can and must fill your children with your values now. Children should end this phase of their development and enter adolescence with general knowledge about sexual and reproductive anatomy and physiology of both males and females, and a deep respect for the feelings of others. The knowledge will spare them the agony of thinking something is wrong with their bodies as they enter puberty and the integrity you teach will spare others unnecessary teasing. They should know your rules for adolescent health and safety. In fact, your pediatrician should now begin asking you to leave during the post-exam discussion time during annual checkups to have private time with your child in order to discuss the sensitive topics recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics: sexuality mental health and substance abuse.
Reprinted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Since 1978, Dr. Rosenzweig has helped families, communities and organizations prevent sexual abuse by adopting sex-wise policies and practices. She is currently Vice President, Research and Programs for Prevent Child Abuse – America, and a Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.