Focus on the Family

Teaching Children Healthy Sexuality

by Rob Jackson

Gone are the days when parents can talk superficially about "the birds and bees" and expect their children to turn out OK. Our hyper-sexualized culture now reaches into more than 60 percent of American homes via the Internet1 and two-thirds of homes through cable TV.2 Whether our children are urban or rural, rich or poor, they need intentional parents who model a continuum of healthy behaviors. Behind the sexual choices made by older children and adolescents is the deeper issue of personal character learned at home.

Take, for example, the character modeled by a dad who demonstrates road rage or a mom who tells a "white lie" on the telephone. You might wonder how these examples apply to the development of healthy sexuality in our children. Both examples demonstrate poor judgment and a lack of discipline, two qualities needed in abundance these days if one hopes to navigate the perilous waters of adolescence and sexual temptation.

We need a comprehensive theology of sexuality, chock full of practical applications lived out at home. As adults, many of us have learned in hindsight that poor character is intricately linked to sexual sin. And now as parents, we can appreciate that it's easier to shape character sooner than later in the lives of our children.

The role of family

While each child emerges with a separate and distinct will, we cannot underestimate the profound role of the family. For example, family is where young males can be mentored into responsible men who know how to safeguard sexuality and young females can be fashioned to cherish fidelity.

As a therapist I am routinely saddened by the fact that the vast majority of my clients who struggle with sex addiction, or those who are married to ones who do, were not mentored in any meaningful way at home. Without any intent to blame or shame, it seems to me that many parents throughout the years have simply "raised children" rather than intentionally going about the task of raising adults.

The research on neurological imprinting and how we learn experientially as children is a fascinating study. I believe God wired us to learn by way of imprints. One poet said, "Children live what they learn." Clearly human beings are likely to live what has been modeled to them during the first 18 or 20 years of life at home. Or, they may be prone to living reactively, unknowingly seeking the other extreme opposite of what they experienced. In either case, for better or for worse, what is modeled before children has a serious impact on their lives.

Unless we regard our children's vulnerabilities as a sacred trust, and strategically and prayerfully shelter them from harm, how can we expect them to flourish as adults?

Fred often played and wrestled with his young children. And of course, his kids loved it. But as his wife watched these matches of tickling and horseplay, she began to question the appropriateness of her husband's behaviors. At some point in the play, Fred's pants would invariably fall down as if the kids had somehow tickled him into losing his pants.

Some people would find no harm in the example I've provided, but in the book of Genesis, one of Noah's sons is cursed for mocking his father's nakedness.3 I can't recall a single account in Scripture where unnecessary immodesty is deemed healthy or appropriate.

Consider another challenge that threatens our children's sexuality. Many children grow up seeing one or both parents in dating relationships. Perhaps there was an unintended divorce or maybe it was the case of a young, single parent who, having made a mistake, wanted to raise her child. While such behavior is more and more common, various research studies conclude that children can become "sexualized" as they witness their parents in sexually provocative situations or simply situations for mature adults. This sexualization, a type of covert sexual abuse, can alter or misdirect sexual development in the lives of our children.

And if these relationship challenges aren't enough, weave the added burden of today's fashions for our children. Especially challenging are the fashions for our daughters. It seems logical that if we dress our daughters immodestly when they're young, they will dress immodestly when they're older. Or, if we as their parents wear T-shirts with boorish slogans or profane innuendos, our children will most likely develop similar tastes.

The foundation

Most of us parents are tossed about like tumbleweeds, driven by the winds of work, homemaking, and paying the bills. Even with our distractions, we probably don't intend for our children to display poor character or inappropriate sexual behavior. But perhaps this is the problem: we don't intend. We're not parenting intentionally.

Noted author and speaker, Stephen Covey, has an object lesson that includes large rocks, small rocks, and a container. He asks individuals to strategize how they can get all of the rocks in the one container. As the individuals work to solve the puzzle, they learn that the big rocks have to be placed first, and the smaller ones can then be sprinkled and filtered into the crevices.

What's my point? We need to put in place the larger stones of commitment, character development, respect, modesty, and other Christian precepts and principles before we place the smaller stones of sports, arts, music, and even academics.

The crucial element in parenting children intentionally toward health, including sexual integrity, is the attachment or bond fostered by the parent toward the child. Without a doubt, this type of relationship takes time, energy, and the willingness to sacrifice as needed along the way.

We used to hear that quality time was the key to effective relationships. Having worked with families for two decades and having children of my own, I know of no substitute for entering a child's world by spending large quantities of time with him.

In addition to our personal investments of time and attention, we want to emphasize that sexual health is part of an overall approach to wellness. We teach our children the importance of hygiene and how to take baths that clean the body. We must also teach them how to take emotional and spiritual showers for the mind and spirit. In all these efforts, that which we model speaks louder than our words.

Perhaps most important of all, the time we spend and the wellness we encourage in the lives of our children is a grateful response to God who has blessed us to be dads and moms. How we treat our children reveals our understanding of how God values them. They belong to God and are simply on loan to us.

Practical helps

The body, mind, and spirit
A comprehensive approach to wellness seeks to nurture the body, mind, and spirit of a person. Often, sex education is limited to a few comments about the body, how it functions, and the mechanics of sexual behaviors. These important facts are just "the tip of the iceberg." Before we teach these points, we want to ground our children with spiritual truths reflecting the good nature of our God. We want to help them know both what to think and how to think about sexuality. Equally important, we want to help draw out their emotions so that this part of their mind can be cultivated as part of their discernment.

Obviously, a "talk" about sex is not our goal. We want to help craft and maintain a lifestyle for our children leading them naturally into good choices that produce good consequences. More important than good behaviors, we hope to inspire our children to return God's love with a lifestyle that loves Him.

Precepts and principles
It may seem like an obvious point, but the Bible teaches both precepts and principles. The precepts are the stated "dos and don'ts," like the Ten Commandments. Precepts teach us what to think. Here, God is direct and tells us what we are to do and not to do, so that we will be safeguarded. For example, we are not to commit adultery so that we and others are protected from the pain of broken trust.

The Bible, however, does not say "don't do Internet pornography." As adults, we can readily see various teachings in Scripture that are general guidelines. With Scriptures that teach us not to lust, we can connect the dots between the principle of sexual integrity and a real world scenario like avoiding Internet pornography because it injures our character. Because children and even adolescents tend to think in concrete terms rather than abstracts, we work to teach them how to think as we apply principles in teachable moments throughout their lives.

Self-worth versus self-esteem
Today's culture leaves a child to believe that she is only as good as she looks when compared to an airbrushed photo of a teenage diva. Heightened self-consciousness regarding body image is not only foisted upon our girls, but our young boys as well.

We have the power to affirm the immutable worth of our children because of what God the Father sacrificed on their behalf: the life of Jesus Christ. The child's performance and the approval of others will no longer be measuring sticks for the worth of their lives. The performance of Christ on behalf of our child, and the Father's approval of that child who embraces Christ, confirms the worth that must be learned not only intellectually, but also emotionally.

A healthy role-reversal
The Golden Rule teaches us to think of how we would like to be treated if we were the other person. It's staggering to realize that we often fail to apply this wisdom to our parenting efforts as well. Our children desperately need us to stop and assess how we would want to be treated, trained, and equipped if we were children in today's world, knowing what we know as adults.4 If you don't understand the dangers and temptations facing your children at all ages, one of the best gifts you can give your child is a sincere attempt to learn as much as you can about youth culture and the lies so often promulgated by it.

Keys to intentional parenting

Our primary goal as Christian parents is to intentionally prepare our children to "glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."5 Therefore, we are committed to the following core objectives:


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1The UCLA Internet Report – "Surveying the Digital Future," UCLA Center for Communication Policy, January 2003, (April 14, 2004).
2National Cable and Telecommunications Association, "Industry Overview – Statistics and Resources," (April 28, 2004).
3Genesis 9:20-27.
4In The Four Loves, Christian author, C.S. Lewis, notes that he has "been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent." Dallas Willard, author of The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, uses this quote from Lewis: "Parents are seen to treat their children with 'an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.' They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don't, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the younger take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, 'Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ 'Who,' Lewis inquires, 'does not prefer civility to barbarism?'"
5The answer to the first question found in the Westminster Catechism, a basic question and answer format for parents who wish to provide Scriptural training for their children.