Good Housekeeping Marriage Book, The

Frances Bruce Strain


Sex Instruction in the Home

A young woman who has won a place for herself as an artist tells the story of her first nude drawing. She was of scarcely more than kindergarten age when, one day before supper, her fancy produced a sketch of her ten-year-old brother in nature's own attire. Pleased with the result, she took it to the supper table and gave it to him—"A picture I made of you."

Brother looked, glanced swiftly at Mother, and started to pocket the sketch. Mother said, mother-fashion, "Let me see it," and then, after seeing, also started to slip the picture out of sight. Father held out his hand. "Let's have a look." Around the table the drawing passed from hand to hand. No one praised, no one spoke, no one smiled. When one of the younger children started to say something, he was abruptly told to eat his supper. Heavy hung the weight of unexplained guilt over the five-year-old artist. After the meal her mother took her quietly aside and said, "When you draw a picture of a boy, you don't have to draw everything!"

"It was years," the artist confessed, "before I could draw, comfortably, a male nude."

Many of the young men and women among our readers, who are concerned with love and marriage, have undoubtedly become aware of inner handicaps of their own—handicaps of thought and feeling which they recognize as their heritage from a generation of other-mindedness in regard to matters of sex. There were silences that caused wonderings, punishments that were not understood, prohibitions which built up timidities, over a long zigzag trail of unrest and fear through childhood up to maturity.

We hear young people say because of their own experience, "I'll see to it that my children don't go through what I went through." And they do see to it. Mothers of school-age children, of kindergarten and nursery-age children, mothers of babies, even mothers in their first pregnancies, come with their questions in order that they may start right.

At what age do you begin explaining life to children?

How much do you tell?

How much do you explain their own growing-up changes?

How do you keep them from talking to others?

Does telling lead to trying out things with each other?

My little girl doesn't ask questions—how make her healthily curious?

My little boy has a bad habit—how deal with it?

These are representative questions, and they strike deep into the heart of education as we see it today, for sex education is no longer merely a matter of biological instruction. Knowledge of human reproduction is an essential in every instance, of course. It is the basic science back of the whole sexual life. But just as the physical aspects of marriage are for men and women today subordinate to the psychic and intellectual aspects, so in a sex-education program, especially one in the home, biological information is far from being the element of greatest importance. More significant is the guidance and nurture of the emotional life of your children—their emotional natures as a whole, and especially those aspects of their emotional natures which have their roots in the sexual impulse. Frustrations of childhood, failures, hurts, jealousies, misinterpretations of childish love affairs, play episodes for which society has such swift punishment, clandestine sex knowledge—these are the experiences which leave their blight on the later love responses. Life as a whole with its conventions and social codes does not present an open highway to the goal of sexual maturity. But forward-looking parents can, by granting knowledge, understanding, and a sympathetic interpretation of the various phenomena of the sexual life, prevent many of the hazards of the past and provide a better assurance of happiness for their children.

Because the biological aspects of sex teaching are concrete, something one can lay hold of in a tangible way, we shall consider them first.

There is no set age to begin sex education. There is no set place to stop. There is a time to begin, and that time is indicated by any expressed interest on the part of your young son or daughter—a question, a comment, an observation, a wish. The time to stop is when his interest stops. Don't run on ahead of him. Usually interest is stimulated by some incident in the neighborhood or at school—a tank of young guppies, a nest of baby mice in someone's cellar, a new baby home from the hospital, a word in the newspaper. With many very young children, concern about their own origin seems to arise spontaneously. "Where did I come from, Mother?" It is a natural question, yet it has a certain mystical quality, coming as it does from within and reaching back into the unknown.

The greatest number of questions arise between the ages of four and six. After school entrance, questions recede gradually until by the ninth, tenth, or eleventh year children have reached what is called the questionless age. This is not an indifferent age—quite the opposite—but spontaneous questions are less frequent. Possibly they are crowded out by other interests, possibly bits of desultory information satisfy for the moment; and there is always the gradual adoption of reticence which takes place as children grow older.

At adolescence there is a keen revival of interest but more resistance to open family discussion than in the pre-adolescent age. Maturing children are touchy, sensitive, self-conscious, modest, seclusive. They run to cover at too intimate a topic, especially in the hands of adults who are inclined to strike a wrong note; to be preachy and teachy and inquisitive and, in terms of the young adolescents themselves, "too darn sexy!"

No matter what the age, whether pre-school, elementary school, or high school, if questions are asked or interest is shown, explanations are given in accordance with the age, understanding, and general background of the child.

The questions that children ask are as the sands of the sea, yet sifted and analyzed, they reveal a fairly uniform structure on which one may build. It is a foursquare structure of pregnancy, birth, fertilization, and mating, in the order named. They start with a concrete situation—"Where did Mrs. Holmes get her baby?"—and the three others follow in logical sequence. Of course, the pattern varies somewhat.

Well, where did Mrs. Holmes get her baby? You know and I know, yet the thought of getting it all said to this young cherub in a brown snowsuit makes us a bit fluttery. We didn't think that it would. "Oh, the baby. All babies grow inside their mothers." How unbelievably simple! No birds or bees or butterflies, or seeds planted under mothers' hearts. Just "all babies grow inside their mothers." Six words.

Of course you may touch up the story. You will not want to leave it so stark and bare. "They grow in a little place just made for them to grow in. It's in here, the place is, in mothers," and you give a friendly pat against your side. Many children ask where the place is, and many think it is the stomach. Other children have said so. "The place is called the uterus, u-t-e-r-u-s, and is a little sac that stretches as the baby grows." You don't have to say all this. Whether you do or not depends upon your child. Some children, the younger ones, may let you off with a word. Others must have more detail. It's all an individual matter. Anyway, you keep on answering as long as the questions come, and no longer. (Sometimes enthusiasm runs away with us.)

We need not be surprised, once the matter of pregnancy is established, to be confronted with a swift second question, "How does the baby get out of the mother?" Sure enough, how does he? About five years ago I put this question to a class of high-school-senior girls and requested written answers. "They are born"; "they leave the mother through an opening"; "they come from the mother in some way"—these were the best answers. Most of the others read, "I'm uncertain about it"; "it's very hazy in my mind"; "I wish you would explain exactly"; "I've always wondered"; and so on.

An explanation of the process of birth is the second foundation square of the whole structure. Pregnancy is the first. One depends upon the other, so we say: "In every mother there is a passage that leads from the place where the baby is growing. When the baby is ready to live by himself as a separate little person, he is brought down the passage and out through an opening into the world. This coming into the world is called being born. Another word for the same thing is 'birth.' Your birthday is your being-born day."

Many mothers like to adopt a bit of drama that can be done with the hands and arms to illustrate their verbal explanations. The pantomime makes the story simpler and helps relieve self-consciousness. "Suppose the baby grows in here," you say, cupping your hands together with the wrists straight and parallel. "Between my wrists is the passageway leading to the outside. When the baby is ready to be born, the passageway widens and lets the baby through. It's a good deal like swallowing, only the other way around. Your food slips down a passage into your stomach, out of sight. The baby slips down a passage into sight!" There is your story of birth in a nutshell.

Little boys and girls, too, are often troubled at the thought of birth. It seems an impossible feat. So you explain the contraction of the muscles, the size of a newborn baby—"about as big as your Molly Lou doll"—the position of the baby—"all folded up like a little Jack-in-the-box." Most conscientiously you leave an impression of the naturalness of the birth process. Not for worlds would you create any feeling of distress or anxiety. Neither do you, as the mother, seek to appropriate all the laurels. The children do not owe you love and obedience because of "what you went through for them," and "that is the reason I love you so" leaves father a bit out in the cold. No, birth should not be presented as a sacrifice or an ordeal, but as a fulfillment, a joyous fulfillment which mother and father together share.

The two remaining foundation squares, fertilization and mating, take more courage to answer. They strike so closely into the heart of existing relationships. You are fearful, too, that the knowledge will be misused, that it will lead to sex play and experimentation. You don't know how to phrase the answer anyway. There are some things you just can't put into words!

Let's see if one can't, and much more simply than you imagine. Your Philip, or Philippa, who has just learned that babies grow in their mothers, says: "I wonder what makes the babies start. How do they get in their mothers in the first place?"

"Babies are not babies from the very start," you answer. "They have to grow before they are born just as you grow now after you are born. Each baby starts at first from the union of two tiny particles of living matter called cells. One cell is in the father, one is in the mother. These two particles must come together and unite away up in the mother where the baby is to grow. When they do, then the baby begins to take form."

Now for the next step, mating. No, it's not so difficult at all if you have not neglected to build up a foundation for it as you went along. For an understanding of the act of mating, the children must first be familiar with the differences in body structure—that boys have an outer organ, and the girls have a long, slender inner passage. Knowledge of the first they acquired in the come-and-go of daily home association; of the second, when they learned how a baby was born. In a discussion of mating, it takes usually just the merest reference to these structural differences for children to see immediately the mechanics of mating. "Yes, these two parts fit closely together so that the father cells (sperm cells) are able to pass over to the mother and up to the place where the baby is to grow."

To many this will seem a very cold, stark, and inadequate presentation of a deeply psychic experience. In these first explanations of human reproduction, pregnancy, birth, fertilization, and mating, I believe it would be out of place to try to bring about any considerable awareness of either the sensuous or the emotional involvements in the act of procreation. That knowledge comes later. But the feeling which all our first teaching conveys is important. It is especially important in relation to the three major experiences, pregnancy, birth, and mating, about which so much resistance has centered in the past. Our teaching should carry with it a natural acquiescence to Nature's own plan, rather than any outward expression of our own mental philosophy toward it. Most children, given a knowledge of the basic facts of reproduction, usually grant them a ready and happy acceptance.

Those parents who met their children's questions and other expressions of interest as they arose, and also those who were not able to, seek, as junior-high-school days approach, the assurance that their children are ready for that wider experience. "I don't know how much she knows—she doesn't say anything, and she doesn't want me to." Certainly the last thing one does is to probe or question. If you have reason to feel that something must be done, you may go about it in several ways:

1. You may take the initiative by introducing into family conversation some topic of current interest which will promote questions—incubator babies, the Dionne quintuplets, child marriages, the recent thirteen-year-old father.

2. Pets are marvelous biological laboratories—white mice, rabbits, puppies, snakes, turtles. Of course there must be mates and matings.

3. Well-chosen books, not only sex-education books, but simple biologies and Nature books as well, open up thought and discussion.

4. Visits to the zoological gardens, to natural-history museums and art galleries, are valuable teaching experiences.

If the subject is not marred by too much realism or sentiment or moralizing, older children will respond with interest to a discussion of human reproduction. Even when a child is approachable, if your own emotional balance is insecure, it is, perhaps, well to work out these objective and tangible activities with the children, as with a fellow student. The joint interest is a way of achieving in the end greater poise for yourself.

Before we leave the subject of the biological aspects of sex teaching, a word concerning preparation for maturing. In general, experience shows that explanations of the outward phenomena which mark the onset of adolescence—menstruation and seminal emissions—should be made to both boys and girls long before they are likely to occur—at ten, surely, or even earlier if questions arise. Many children become acquainted with them through older children at school and receive not too pleasant impressions. In pre-adolescence the whole matter can be presented so that it is accepted objectively and impersonally. With both boys and girls there is often a feeling of prideful expectancy, and some day you may expect to hear a joyful announcement, "Mother, oh, Mother—it's come!"

At this point I should like nothing better than to leave our teaching to do its own good work for the children. But in the minds of parents there is an ever recurring anxiety—the use to which the children will put this new knowledge. Ideas are not, we know, soporific. They tend to translate themselves into action. Will the children talk? And won't they start experimenting? The matter of "talking outside" is rapidly taking care of itself through the general adoption of sex-education teaching by most young parents. Nobody runs around telling what everyone knows. It has become a commonplace. Occasionally one may caution young school-age children not to say much to the other children, but if they do in their enthusiasm or in a casual moment, no great harm is done. Certainly one does not punish for it.

Children who are overweighted either with too much sex knowledge or with fears and cautions are usually the neighborhood offenders. One father recently told me that he didn't dare give his son the usual terms for his reproductive organs because he would go straight out and shout them from the housetops. As a matter of fact, that was just what the boy was doing with the substitute terms. Realizing that a wooden gun is as good as a real one when it frightens everybody, the child used his substitute terms to shock his father and the world at large. In reality, there are no substitute terms. Everyone knows them for what they are, and in addition as confessions of weak courage.

Modern sex teaching is filling the great need of other days in its adoption of correct terms for the functions of the body and its organs as they apply to elimination and reproduction. It is an informal sort of thing which comes along like a little companion of the more important topics. Strange that so much that is visible should go nameless, while hidden things like heart and stomach and lungs should be known! A young five-year-old who adored his pretty nursery-school teacher took constant note of the beauties of her person. Her eyes were so blue and her hair was so wavy and her throat was so smooth, and when she bent over, "you could see her lungs!"

In all this provision for your children's understanding, one thing we counsel against. It is the choice of another person—friend, nurse, minister, doctor—to take your place, unless that person has had special sex-education training and possesses those personal qualifications which fit him for the task. A scientific background is not enough. In the near future we shall have college-trained leaders, not only trained but college-sanctioned and selected. Until that time there is no lay person so well qualified to teach children as their own intelligent fathers and mothers. They are able to establish a valued inner and progressive bond of confidence when their teaching has been happily and wisely carried out. After all, in this age of transition when so much is counted good that once was counted bad, and so much counted bad that was once good, it doesn't matter much what our words are so long as they convey reassurance, dependability, and a sense of the rightness of living with rather than against the best of Nature's plans.

Does sex instruction tend to start misconduct—suggest to children that they undress each other, play "father and mother," and does it impel to too free speech and behavior? No, on the contrary, sex teaching, wisely carried on, has proved itself to be the best of preventives. It has a stabilizing influence and leaves the minds of the children free to turn to other interests. My experience shows a high correlation between sex misconduct and lack of adequate sex instruction.

Usually in childhood, sexual misconduct is not sexual at all in origin. It has any number of causes and any number of guises. Most frequent of the causes are: seeking to know, emotional stress, lack of a good time, sex activity in others, premature sex experience.

Children who do not live in a cloud of mystery, whose mental horizon has been cleared by simple explanations of observable facts—the differences in physical structure of boys and girls, for example—are not likely to be the aggressors or even onlookers in any neighborhood undressing episode. It holds nothing for them.

On the other hand, a child may have a very clear idea of sex differences, may have dressed and undressed freely with sister or brother, and still be active in undressing episodes as an emotional outlet. One such boy was mother-bound. He had been brought up a goody-goody. In order to demonstrate that he was no sissy but a thorough-going he-man of eleven, he headed a gang of girl tormentors.

Sex misconduct as recreation, as something to do, has a long record. In a dull and dispirited world, girls and boys find the thrill of adventure in games, clubs, and play of all kinds, with sex in its most unsavory form as the central theme. A little nine-year-old who had been a frequent offender was asked what in all the world she would like most to do. Promptly she answered, "Go roller-skating." "Which would you rather do, go roller-skating or play 'father and mother?'" With shining eyes she answered, "Oh, go roller-skating!" There was no doubt of this child's sincerity, no doubt of the drab, pinched quality of her meager opportunity for childish fun.

Sex activity often has its origin in a home situation. In these days of apartment dwelling and the crowding together of many families, a child must be very inattentive indeed not to have gathered through conversation and observation much firsthand knowledge of the adult sexual relationship. Children should, of course, be aware of the love of their fathers and mothers for each other as well as for themselves, but love-making in its final forms is baffling and disturbing to their emotional natures, and observation of it often leads to sex misconduct.

The most serious type of sex activity is that caused by a premature sexual experience at the hands of some adult, often an elderly and trusted person. Even if the episode occurred but once, and the offender left, never to be seen again, a psychic injury or trauma frequently (not always) results and manifests itself in obsessive sex behavior.

When premature sexual experience is the motivating factor in sex misconduct, most careful guidance is necessary, lest the future love life be endangered. After relieving the child of feelings of guilt, the conduct of the older offender must be explained in terms of his senility or his mental state. "He is not normal." "He should be in a hospital." It is important that this person's abnormal conduct does not represent in the child's mind the natural sex pattern.

Faith in love-making and faith in love partners must be held intact. Yet there should be no discussion of love and no real sex teaching at this critical time. Sex instruction is a post-convalescent therapy. It should not be used as an immediate or first-aid remedy for fear it may become associated with a most distressing memory. Above all, family conversations and speculations should be abandoned, for children are sensitive to talk they do not even hear. A child who has suffered a premature sexual experience at the hands of an older person needs all that his family can give him of thoughtful consideration and reassurance. Yet he should by no means feel himself a hero. Once the story is told and accredited, it should sink into a friendly silence.

Whatever form sex misconduct takes—whether peeping and undressing, playing "father and mother," using vulgar words, making offensive drawings or writing unsavory verses, urinating in public—punishment in any of its many forms tends to decrease the quick chances of recovery. Humiliation, body-guarding (I never can trust you alone), confinement (lock you up), emotional scenes (you've disgraced your family), threats (I'll send you away)—strike deep into the emotional nature of the child and destroy that integrity of spirit and belief in himself which he needs for his restoration. Persistent probings and grillings will also block progress.

Correction of any type of sex misdemeanor requires insight, forbearance, a vast amount of emotional poise, and an understanding of contributing causes. If lack of wholesome sex knowledge is the cause, then wise sex instruction without reference to past sins is the remedy. If fixations, jealousies, or a too strict moral code at home are responsible (and they often are responsible not only for the more active forms of misconduct, but for masturbation, thumb-sucking, and other bad habits as well), then the cure rests with the willingness of parents to modify their own attitude and exactions. If the cause is a recreational lack, new activities, new scenes and companions, new interests must be supplied to break up the old associations and supply the needed zest for life. If observation of adult relationships has taken place, a careful explanation and interpretation of the act of mating is necessary to lift the relationship into its legitimate and acceptable place.

The most difficult phase of sex education is the interpretation and guidance of sex activities in childhood. Our traditional codes and sanctions have measured their punishments out of all proportion to the offense. In order to meet this type of conduct constructively, one must avoid severe punishment, the awakening of a deep sense of guilt, and set oneself to work out a quiet regimen of rehabilitation. Best of all, one comforts oneself with the knowledge that, except in cases of psychic trauma, studies reveal that there is little relationship between early sex play and later delinquency.

Wise parents of today build a solid foundation for the sexual happiness of their children. No longer do they withhold knowledge of love, mating, and the renewal of life. They equip themselves with a thorough understanding of the emotional nature of their children and of the technique of presenting sex instruction. We of this generation are seeing changes in thought and patterns of sex teaching and ethics. Codes and sanctions are in transition. It is not that in the years to come we shall have more knowledge or more freedom purely for the sake of knowledge and freedom. It is that we and our children and our children's children, who are tomorrow's men and women, shall live with more serenity, more wisdom, and more joyousness in their love relationships because of the foundations which we have built.

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