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:


Helping families thrive with the support of friends like you.



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.

How to Start Early

Human sexuality is the most natural thing in the world – and the most sacred experience that two people can share.

by Rob Jackson

I'm often asked when to begin sex education in the home. As a father of two school-age children, I know that my wife and I have wanted fail-proof advice for such sensitive topics. Like other parents we have our questions and concerns. And because I specialize in the treatment of sexual issues and have seen the pain associated with misinformation and sexual sin, I believe the topic of sexuality is second only to teaching our children about God.

Parents often wonder "how long can I put off" talking about sex. By the close of this article I hope you will be eager to get started. Human sexuality is the most natural thing in the world – and the most sacred experience that two people can share.

Here is a quick sketch of what I hope to convey to you:

  1. Sexuality is at the core of our human existence. Therefore, we have a responsibility to equip our children with a comprehensive view of sexuality.
  2. For sexuality to be taught correctly, it must be taught within the context of a Biblically holistic approach.
  3. If our children are to have a healthy respect and appreciation for the gift of sexuality, parents must both teach and model the precepts and principles that lead to greater sexual health and integrity.
  4. As for timing and when to get started, there's no time like the present.

In the beginning

The more I learn of God, the more I appreciate the book of Genesis. Here a solid foundation of God's design for sexuality is presented as our children learn about the Garden of Eden and how God created both male and female and told them to reproduce themselves.

As parents, we begin sex education by pointing out how God thought of sex in the first place. He created a man and woman who could make babies by loving each other in a special way. God also knew that a man and a woman would grow to desire a special companionship that includes enjoying the differences in each other's bodies. And, although this final point may need to wait until children are able to grasp it, we can teach that God gave the marital relationship as a sign and symbol of the internal love of the Trinity and His love for us.

So, sexuality provides at least three basic lessons that our children can understand. Sexual union exists: (1) to make babies, (2) to nurture a mommy and daddy's love, and (3) to point us back to the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This initial lesson can be unpacked further as our children mature. We can teach, for example, that sex is appealing and that it's perfectly normal – especially for teenagers and adults – to want to be sexual with someone else. We should emphasize that God is the One who made us to desire healthy expressions of what it is to be male or female, and that "there is a time for everything." This emphasis on timing begins with an affirmation of sexual desire and teaches a child that when the time is right, sex will be right.

We'll want to teach a clear message about timing. The right time for sexual behaviors occurs when a man and woman are married. Our younger children only need to hear that God designed sex or sexual intercourse for husbands and wives. As our children mature they will need to learn that all sexual behaviors are more or less foreplay, leading to the act of intercourse, and that these behaviors are also designed for marriage.

We can also point to various cultural messages about sexuality, and develop teachable moments. For example, we can't shelter our children from every lewd poster in the mall or every sensual song played in a restaurant. But we can take these moments to affirm the basic goodness of sexuality because of God's design, and then make a comment about what's wrong with how sexuality is misrepresented in the culture. Our messages need to be tied to God's love for us, and how we express our love for Him through obedience.

Children need to learn early that God's plan is healthy and Satan's plan is harmful. In the early years we can talk rather simply of what is good and bad. We want to teach them what to think about sex. As they mature we shift our approach and begin to teach them how to think.

A biblically holistic approach

Much of sex education – even within faith-based communities – misses a foundational point. Sex between a husband and wife symbolizes the future marriage between Christ and the Church. And as Christians we are "engaged" to Christ (along with the rest of the Church) when we accept His atonement for our sin. We want our children to understand that the Bible begins in Genesis with the marriage of a man and a woman and ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church.

Between Genesis and Revelation, God's Word has numerous lessons about sexuality. For example, we can teach our children the stories of Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, the Ten Virgins, Rahab the prostitute (one of Jesus' biological relatives), and the woman caught in the act of adultery – who Jesus loved and redeemed. We can help our children understand the differences between David who looked lustfully and sinned and Joseph who ran when tempted.

In our teachings we want to be clear that both males and females are equal in the eyes of God, and that both have sinned. This fact also permits us to share the mercy of God who forgives sin even though painful consequences may remain. For example David was forgiven and still called "a man after God's own heart," but the baby he and Bathsheba produced in their adultery died, and one of his sons eventually raped one of his daughters.

We will need to remember that in the early years our children think in concrete terms rather than abstract terms. These lessons of men and women in the Bible teach cause and effect – sex can produce a child, and one person can tempt or seduce another. What we hope to accomplish is the spiritual formation that includes a healthy view of sexuality and a genuine respect for males and females. We want our children to connect sexuality with God's design.

Precepts and principles

No two children are alike – even in the same family. We will want to be sensitive to how our children are developing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We also want sex education to occur in both spontaneous and structured moments.

As our children continue to mature we'll want to help them understand that God really is for us, and that His plans are designed to benefit us. We'll also want them to understand the difference between a precept (a stated do or don't) and a principle (the general application of a truth that requires reason and discernment).

Take, for example, the seventh commandment, "Do not commit adultery." This command is an example of a precept. It clearly states what not to do. So we will want our children to learn this precept and others, and the right time to learn these important life lessons is long before they're tempted.

We will also want our children to be able to connect the dots. For example, the Bible doesn't say, "Thou shalt not view Internet pornography." But various principles are given to us. We are to avoid lust with our eyes, and that principle leads us to conclude that we should avoid Internet pornography or any other form of sexual behavior based in lust.

Far more important than the behaviors, however, is the physicality of being male and female. By principle we can teach our sons that they are to be a type of Christ to their future wives. His kind of sacrificial love is pure and nurturing, never abusive or selfish. We can teach our daughters that they are to be a type of the Church to their future husbands, preserving their purity and preparing well for the day they and their bridegroom become one. By continually teaching the love story that exists between Christ and us, the Church, we can help them to honor sexuality – both theirs and others'.

Teaching sexual health and integrity requires a Christ-centric approach. We want our children to learn early that sexuality is a function of our bodies, minds, and spirits. It is so much a part of us that we cannot separate sexuality from spirituality. These two facets of our makeup are intricately connected. The Apostle Paul began to speak of marriage between a man and a woman and how these symbolize the marriage between Christ and the Church. He also concluded that it was a great mystery.

Our children need to see the mystery of God-ordained sexuality and hold it in awe, just as we do. Our sons as a type of Christ can learn to regard their masculinity and physicality as a sacred trust, and our daughters as a type of the Church can learn to regard their femininity and physicality as an equal and sacred trust. As our children mature we can teach that sexuality between a husband and wife is a private discipleship where "the two become one flesh" and are participating in the divine love of God in that moment more than at any other time.

Timing

I have to chuckle and think that our concern for timing is more about our comfort than our children's. I mean, let's get real. Look at the world they are living in. Everyone else is talking about sex, so we'd better get started now.

Sexuality is a cradle-to-grave reality, and we have only a few short years to nurture our children's moral development. By learning more about childhood development, we can better time our efforts with God's design. For example, a child's sense of modesty can develop as early as eighteen-months. Therefore, this God-given, developmental window is the ideal time to teach and model a balanced, sacred modesty in the home.

If we parents are in touch with our unique experiences, we can better equip our children. Our family has experienced two miscarriages. The first one occurred when our son was eighteen months old, and obviously he was simply too young to comprehend pregnancy and miscarriage. Our second miscarriage occurred when our son was eight and our daughter was five. Weeks before the miscarriage we joyfully explained that our love for each other had produced another baby, and we thanked God for our newest family member. When the miscarriage occurred we went back to our children and reaffirmed that God not only designed sexuality and intercourse which often produces babies, but that in His great wisdom and compassion He knew when some babies were not healthy enough to live here on earth and needed His special care in Heaven.

Obviously, we don't always get to choose our life lessons or their timing, but God equips us relationally with the Bible and His Spirit so that all lessons ultimately reaffirm His perfect nature and great love.

The main thing

The main thing about sex education is to get started. Let's teach the sanctity of sexuality. Our children need to learn that God ordained sexuality to be the means in which they – and everyone else – come into existence for all eternity.

We need to understand our children and the difficult culture in which they live. As parents – and, more important, as older brothers and sisters in Christ – we have the privilege to teach them what we have learned in relationship to God and His plan for the family.


Modeling Healthy Behavior

It has been said that "children learn what they live." This is particularly true when it comes to how we approach sex and the body.

by Rob Jackson

One of the most overlooked aspects of parenting is that children learn more from what we do than from our words. Even before the culture and its legion of challenges reach our children, the culture of our home is apparent. It has been said that "children learn what they live."

This is particularly true when it comes to how we approach sex and the body.

Children are worthy of our honor and sensitivity. The Bible teaches us that we should not "exasperate" or provoke our children (Eph 6:4). As adults, we will do well to consider how we should act in relationship to the children in our lives. They need our understanding. We want to be a shade for the children – especially for our own.

Because our children develop over time, we can be encouraged that change for the better is always possible. Now is a great time to consider several key issues, and make any revisions that will strengthen your family.

Modesty

Little Johnny grew up with a mom who lacked boundaries. As he became older, she often walked in on him in the bathroom. By the time he was sixteen, Johnny's mom began to invite him into the bathroom while she sat naked in a tub.

In one way, this reoccurring activity desensitized Johnny. Nakedness became normal and routine. His boundaries for reasonable modesty were damaged. In another way, this activity led to an unhealthy focus on the naked body where he learned to obsess over the opposite sex. In time, this objectification would lead to a lustful objectification of women. Is it any wonder that John became a sex addict? Sadly, John's story is fairly common. Some parents will cite that their culture is less inhibited, or that nudity in the home is actually healthy. A Biblical worldview, however, directs us to maintain reasonable modesty – even in our families.1

Erica's father was a Sunday School teacher and deacon. He was well respected in the community and was a devoted husband and father. As the youngest child of four, and the only daughter, Erica had the misfortune, however, of showering often with her father and brothers.

It's hard to imagine how this kind of immodesty can be defended, but it happens all the time. Given the immodesty in our homes, it follows logically that our children are more apt to be immodest in other settings. All too often, immodesty is the primary gateway that leads our children to act out sexually.

We need to evaluate our families' respect for modesty. Is it common for family members to leave the door open while using the restroom? Do you dishonor yourself and others by walking through the house in your underwear? It's often seen as "cute" to allow a young child to run around naked after a bath, but in doing so, we miss a valuable chance to build on their natural modesty, instead, tearing it down. Our children need the safety of healthy boundaries at home.

Language

The secularization of our times has diminished our verbal skills. Slang and profanity are served up frequently in the media and within our local communities. Much of what we hear debases another individual or devalues a moral or ethical approach to life.

My wife, Renee, and I were traveling with our son and daughter who were seven and four at the time. We had left the airport and made a quick stop for breakfast. Three men near started arguing and one of the men began to use profanity. Renee and I looked at other, concerned for what our children might hear. Within moments, the same man's vulgarity increased. He seemed even more offended when I pointed out that we had children within earshot, and that I would appreciate it if he respected their needs and our desires.

Our encounter was a challenge, but it also provided us with an opportunity to help our children learn how to cope with the real world. We explained the meanings of the inappropriate words and linked our counsel with Biblical precepts and principles.

None of us is without fault. Even within our families, most of us regret how we have misused our tongues. We can't expect our children's language to excel ours. We can, however, point out our mistakes to them, help them to understand theirs, and recondition our speech in ways that build character.

Humor

Humor is obviously a part of the spoken language, but it merits close attention. Often in humor, we think we are laughing with someone, only to learn that she feels we are laughing at her.

Situational comedies make the point: humor is most often at the expense of the other person. Within our families, where it ought to be safe to be ourselves, the misuse of humor can shred one's self-respect.

Sally sat and cried in my office as she recounted the jokes made by her father and brothers. As a child, she had been overweight, and was teased not only at school, but also at home. When she entered adolescence, her body began to change and she became an attractive young woman. Sadly, however, her father's comments continued about her body, but now he emphasized how she had a great pair of legs.

Sexualized humor can be a type of hidden sexual abuse. It can severely injure a child, leaving him or her with conflicts regarding body image, gender, and personal worth. Sally grew to believe that her only worth was found in maintaining her attractiveness to men. In time, her resentment for her male family members spilled over to men in general, and into her marriage.

Kindness encourages. It has been said that for every negative statement made to another person, it will take seven positive affirmations to heal the relationship. We know that children are more vulnerable than adults are. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the family's humor and become an advocate for those who can't defend themselves.

Anger

Anger always finds a voice. Unfortunately, anger is often vented at children who are in no position to set the limits with an angry parent. It's not hard to imagine how a child can grow to resent not only the mistreatment, but the parent as well.

Allison grew up in a home dominated by an angry mom. By the time she was in college she and the rest of the family had learned to minimize these outbursts by saying, "That's just how Mom is." The statement actually originated with their father, who was prone to enabling his wife. Later it would come as a surprise to Allison that she carried her own childhood anger into her adult life.

Anger can be justified, but the expression of appropriate anger can still pose a significant challenge. Children in angry homes aren't typically allowed to express their own frustrations even if they are old enough to know what they want to say. Forced to repress their anger, it sits and waits to strike at other opportunities having little if anything to do with the original wound.

Our homes need to be safe and supportive. Most of us get angry at some point; that's part of negotiating a life together. If anger has been frequently misused in your home, it's not too late to get help and to make amends. As parents, we're blessed by two facts: our children want to love us and they do, and our children are incredibly resilient once their legitimate needs are consistently met.

If unresolved anger remains in our homes, our children may be particularly "love hungry." Starved for affection, they may act out sexually if they find that affirmation or attention can be gained from such experiences. And, over time, sex or love addiction can emerge as one manifestation of how they have come to perceive their worth.

A final thought

Jesus is our guide in all things. In the Scriptures, we find he rarely spoke harshly to anyone. Some of his harder sayings, however, were reserved for those who would harm a child.

Jesus was also one who forgave, and continues to do so today. His nature and interaction with us is redemptive. In any circumstance where we have failed to attend to modesty, misused language or humor, or exploded our anger, we can begin again with our hope in Christ's atonement.

Admittedly, change takes time. Many of the problems addressed in this article have been occurring in our families for generations. If so, it will be important to not only prioritize the acquisition of new parenting skills, but the exploration of our hidden issues that lay beneath the tip of the iceberg.


1Modesty in the home can be a much-debated topic as norms and standards vary between cultures. As Christians, however, we must realize that morality is not based on cultural norms, but rather on Biblical precepts and principles. In our efforts to follow Christ, we need to be aware that devotion is always a better motivation than mere duty, which can become legalistic.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources on teaching children healthy sexuality

Popular questions on this topic: