Because I am an advocate of deeply listening to children so that they are given the opportunity to become incredibly powerful individuals – see ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’ – I was recently asked to elaborate what this means in relation to children’s sexuality before, during and after puberty.
What follows is an edited version of the dialogue with my correspondent’s questions and comments quoted in bold and my answers in italics. The names of the children have been changed.
‘So, my question is this: Are we doing our children any favors if we teach them to suppress their feelings in regards to sex?’
Let me start my answer to your question by asking you a rhetorical question. Do you like, or find it easy, to suppress your feelings in relation to sex?
Teaching (that is, scaring) anyone to suppress any of their feelings is dysfunctional. In my view, the evidence on this point is overwhelming. For example, perpetrators of violence are invariably victims of violence who have been denied the chance to feel their emotional responses – including their fear, anger and sadness – to the violence they have suffered. So instead of recovering from this violence, they become perpetrators. It is a simple fact that all of those people, including parents, who abuse children are simply manifesting the violence, and the emotional suppression, they suffered themselves as children.
Sexual feelings are equally important. They are designed to indicate sexual interest, in some cases to initiate and in some cases, to conduct sexual behavior for very important evolutionary reasons. But, like all other feelings, they need to be felt, listened to and, sometimes, moderated by other feelings and thoughts. But suppressing them never works if you want a functional outcome.
‘I’ve already told them to wait and not lose their virginity until they’re mentally mature enough to deal with relationships. Right now their number one focus should be education. I know I’m tough but I can’t have Kofi father a child at 16, nor have Ama mothering one at 14. I’m not restricting them on who they can love, that’s their decision to make not mine. With all three children around puberty, I am getting lots of questions and being informed how their classmates are already doing it.’
It sounds like you are scared of what will happen if they have sex and, as a result, you are trying to control their behavior.
So, if you first give yourself time to focus on feeling your fear, rather than letting your fear make you control their behavior, how do you think it would work if you had a discussion with each of them about their sexuality and anything that arises in that context, such as masturbation and contraception? How would it work if you had these conversations with them ongoingly as issues arise? If you were able to do this, I think they would trust you as a source of quality information and support, rather than someone who is just trying to control them.
For example, instead of saying what they should and should not do, you could ask them how they feel about the questions they raise? In this way, they might explore more fully how they really feel about a particular boy or girl to whom they are attracted and what they would like to do in response to that, including by talking about it with the boy or girl concerned.
If they decide they would like to have sex, you could ask what thought they have given to birth control and the issue of sexually transmitted diseases. After listening or if asked, you could talk about how they can have sex safely by using contraception. You could provide the condoms necessary to do so.
The point I am getting at here is that we can keep treating young human beings as incapable or, as early as possible, treat them as capable of having a serious discussion about any issue that impacts on them. If we treat them as capable from a very young age, they will quickly grow up being very capable.
While they are trying to behave in accord with the rules of another person, they can never develop the thoughts, feelings and moral processes that enable them to learn for themselves how to behave most functionally and powerfully in the world. Moreover, they can’t even learn from making their own mistakes (because they are not doing what they want). And they can’t learn to really consider another person in making decisions and choices either.
In my view, if we trusted children from a very young age and did not take away their power to make decisions for themselves, then society would have substantially fewer problems and far more empowered,responsible human beings who would behave functionally in the world.
So, starting with doing so as soon as they are able to engage in meaningful dialogue, you could express your view but also ask for, and provide equal weight to, theirs. If they feel that you trust them to make good decisions, whatever those decisions turn out to be, then I believe that you will get good outcomes.
These outcomes may not be quite as you imagined. But, for example, if Kofi and Ama are well-educated about contraception, then there will be no outcomes of the type that scare you into telling them what to do.
Needless to say, I am well aware that this might not be easy for you. But, I have been straightforward in explaining it so that you will consider it.
If children are to grow up to be functional, responsible, moral and powerful human beings, we must listen to them a great deal as they explore issues in their life carefully for themselves. If they ask what we think, then we should tell them honestly. But children (who are not already damaged by poor parenting) can work things out well for themselves if we listen to them well enough for long enough. This applies to everything in their life, not just sex.
Most people want children to grow up to be functional, responsible, moral and powerful. All I am suggesting is that we start to generate this outcome from the day the child begins to meaningfully communicate, and include their sexuality as part of the dialogue, by offering a considerable amount of ‘nisteling’ and trust.
If you find it difficult to offer this nisteling and trust, then it is highly likely that you were never offered these as a child. So, to recover and also improve your parenting, it would be worth considering ‘Putting Feelings First’.
If you would like to read what is needed to parent children to become functional, responsible, moral and powerful, you can do so in ‘My Promise to Children’.
If you are able to do as explained in this article, the child will grow up perceiving and treating you as a trusted ally and friend, not just another adult who tells them what to do.
Biodata: Robert J. Burrowes (Yaw) has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.