Think back to the way most of us learned about sex and we realize that it was a gradual process- bits and pieces we picked up along the way and strung it up until it made some sense. And while it worked quite okay for most of us, parents of this generation are faced with a new challenge with respect to childhood sexuality. Children are exposed to explicit sexual content at very young ages- as young as 8 to 9 years of age- due to the explosion of the internet and social media networks.
According to Psychology Today, exposure to sexually explicit content at very young ages can lead to unhealthy sexual behaviours like sex addiction, violence, high-risk sex and needless to say- lowered self-esteem.
And yet, banning media isn’t even a useful step, let alone being a realistic option. Children devote a good part of their day to media, sometimes up to seven and a half hours a day. The only way out is to adopt a hands-on approach and let children learn about sex, sexuality and relationships from a trusted source: parents.
But, how? After all, it’s not like we can simply start rolling out the details as dinner conversation! Understandably, there’s plenty of tongue-biting, eye-rolling and awkward thumb-twiddling to be expected. No wonder, ‘the talk’ is put off forever.
Dr. Nandita DeSouza, a developmental paediatrician, TEDx Speaker and member of the Sethu Centre for Child Development & Family Guidance talks to us about childhood sexuality and the role of parents in their identification with sexuality.
Hello Dr. Nandita. So glad to have you here. As a developmental and behavioural paediatrician, why do you think childhood sexuality is important to deal with?
Child development fascinates me and in my opinion, sexuality is a very important part of it. Babies are aware of their bodies even before birth and we learn about sexuality from the moment of our birth. Self-help skills, socialisation, self-awareness, body image, self-esteem and sexuality are all intertwined. However because of our own discomfort and lack of knowledge and training, as parents, we shy away from sexuality education, clinging on to the myth of childhood ‘innocence’. Unfortunately, it is the horrific incidents of sexual abuse that have shaken parents out of their complacency and gotten them worried about protecting their children.
There is a lot of emphasis on identifying safe and unsafe touch, which is linked to educating children about their own bodies. How can we incorporate sexuality education with an emphasis on safety?
Sexuality education is much more than just teaching children how to keep themselves safe. It can be a wonderful way to bond with our children and create a relationship of trust. In my own journey as a parent of a son, I have had the most challenging and enjoyable times educating my own child about various aspects of sexuality. Through reading, discussing, doing and working with other families I am very confident that this is something that every parent can and must do. This is one of the goals of the entire team at the Sethu Centre for Child Development & Family Guidance in Goa, where I work, where we believe very strongly that children must be given the knowledge about their own bodies, as well as the skills to take care of themselves and respect others’ space and privacy.
Also Read: Stories For Boys That Dare To Be Different: Upholding Non-Toxic Masculinity One True Story At A Time
We have developed training for neurotypical children as well as those with special needs, their parents, teachers and all caregivers on sexuality education.
What are some typical ways in which parents approach children’s sexuality?
Most parents want to teach their children but do not know how. They wonder about when they should start. They are worried about putting ‘ideas’ in their children’s heads. They do not know what words to use to explain various aspects like puberty and reproduction. These aren’t topics that we can discuss easily and hence we stay silent. With all this confusion and awkwardness, parents are often like ostriches, with their heads buried in the sand of ‘ignorance is bliss’ But lack of information can be dangerous.
Do you think the benefits of this kind of introduction to their own bodies helps with self-esteem and increased body awareness as adolescents? How does that work?
Our bodies are amazing, beautiful and young children are like scientists, fascinated by how their bodies work. Once we teach them about this, we encourage a healthy respect for themselves and help them to accept their own bodies. This has to be done well in advance of puberty where the rapid physical, emotional and mental changes throw everything out of gear. Armed with the knowledge about these changes and what to expect, teenagers are better placed to deal with them, as well as seek help when confused.
You are a veteran in this field with an experience of over 35 years in the field of childhood sexuality, with numerous Childhood Sexuality workshops to your credit. How do you help parents typically? Do you see a change in children and parents after this training/talk?
Childhood sexuality is my passion and I have seen at close hand the dangers of ignorance and fear. My workshops are full of practical and realistic tips on how to initiate the conversation and also keep it going. Participants at the workshop will also get a list of useful resources that they can turn too. Plus I am only an email away!
I work with children with special needs and one of my present missions is to teach them and their parents about sexuality too, as the incidence of abuse is highest in this population.
The biggest change I see in parents is a huge sense of relief that it is very possible and even fun to teach your children.
Prevention is better than cure and early education will prevent later regret.