Smart Parenting VI. Talking To Children About Sex

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

Almost every corner of society is saturated with sexual language and images. We hear it in the music, and see it on television and in the movies. Sex targets all markets - including the media meant for young children. Billboards, sporting events, even a walk around the mall exposes children to a smorgasbord of sexually related stimuli. Pornography is readily available on the internet (a recent study showed porn sites are the second most visited sites on the web - news was first).

Parents who think their children are not exposed to sex in our society are blind to their surroundings (Morelli, 2005b, 2006b,c). Some parents think if they do not talk about such topics, they do not exist. Others argue that the Church should not discuss sexual issues. Regretfully, these attitudes capitulate to the self-centered, pleasure-focused, power-oriented - and in some quarters pagan -- society in which Christians live today and that eagerly seeks to become the child's well-spring of information on sexuality and human relationships.

If a parent capitulates to the culture, then the culture will assume the teaching authority of the parent. Several decades ago, research psychologists demonstrated that was no real difference between real life and mediated models (cartoons, movies, books) in terms of their effect on a child's perceptions about sexuality and other important moral issues (Bandura, 1986). A parent, by foreclosing (not approaching) on sexual issues, cedes his authority to these models who then become the child's teacher. This applies to the Church as well. If Church leaders foreclose on sexual questions, the child will turn to the culture for instruction.

Do parents want their children to be taught by our morally confused society? Is this what our Lord intended regarding parenthood? Consider these words of Jesus: ""Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:5-6). The moral seriousness of raising children could not be clearer.

Secondly, parenthood is inextricably bound with marriage, and thus with the Church. St. Paul explained the relationship in more detail when he compared the marital relationship to the union of Christ with the Church (Ephesians 5: 32). This is a "profound mystery" wrote St. Paul, but one that clearly equated the sacramental union of marriage in terms of redemptive co-creation that replicates in some measure the work of Christ in the world through the Church. Children, therefore, as the fruit of this union also represent in some concrete way Christ's creative work. Hence the stern moral warning against the abuse and abandonment of the moral instruction of children in the passage cited above.

Not to heed this moral warning of Christ is sinful. Sin can be committed in action. Sin can also be expressed through more subtle means such as counsel, command, consent, provocation, praise, defense, concealment, silence, or neglect.

Neglect is sin

Of all subtle sins, neglect is probably the most insidious and hardest to detect. Neglect is invisible. We see it only when we note that something that should be there is not there. Neglect involves the absence of proper action.

St. Maximus the Confessor taught about neglect:

Some say there would be no evil in the created world unless there were some power outside this world dragging us toward evil. But this so called power is in fact the neglect of the natural energies of our intellect (Philokalia, II).

The implicit instruction is straightforward: in order to stave off neglect we much use the "natural energies of the intellect." If someone were to tell many parents or even our church pastors and arch-pastors they were committing sexual sin, they would be horrified. However, as St. Maximus instructed, neglect leads to evil, therefore neglect is sin.

In terms of responsible parenting, the commandment extends to educate our children in the proper manner - instruction that applies to anyone responsible for the raising of children including the clergy. For parents in particular, the proper instruction of youth is affirmed in the Orthodox wedding service: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in the faith and fear..."

Parents are the leaders of the domestic Church, by which is meant the smaller church of the family that is woven into the larger Body of Christ. Moreover, children are to be educated in the proper manner which is to be always "Christ centered." As parents are the leaders of the domestic Church' (Morelli, 2005b, 2006c), so too they by necessity belong to the local church. Zisioulas, as quoted by McPartlan (2006) stated: "The Church was always understood as the great mystery of the plan of God for the final destiny of the world, a mystery which was celebrated in the Eucharist and of which one became a member of a concrete local community."

Therefore, the presbyters and episcopacy, the leaders of the local Church, are responsible to ensure the domestic Church (family) has the understanding, training, and spiritual and psychological resources necessary to bring about the education of the children making up the Body of Christ.

Sex-talk avoidance

Many parents have approached me both as priest and clinician on how to talk to their children about sexual issues. They come because often they are embarrassed about sex, or because they don't know the appropriate ways to talk about sex with a child.

The first step is always to come to a Christian understanding of the sexual relationship in one's own mind. The physical act of procreation should be described in the same terms any other bodily function is described like breathing or blood circulation, free of the crudities and crassness that is so prevalent in popular culture. However, the function itself should be elevated by pointing out that sex is a gift from God that allows mankind to participate in God's act of creation (see: Sex is Holy; Morelli,2005a, 2006b). This is what makes sex sacred and special.

A few simple rules and everyday examples may help. First, when a child asks a question or shows an interest in a sexual topic, ask the child what they think it means. The demeanor of the parent should be no different than towards any other question a child may ask: calm and straightforward. For example, if a child points out (or draws a sex organ), ask the child what they think about it. Younger children usually give more general answers and parents can be simply supportive of their answer. If a young pre-school, nursery-school age child has some understanding of how intercourse takes place the parental response should be given promptly and without shame in the context of Trinitarian love.

The parent can say something like, "Yes, in blessed marriage God makes holy a husband who gives his seed to his wife, and created you. This is beautiful and an act of Godly love." If a child wants more information parents should not hesitate to give it. Most children have more knowledge than most parents envision (Morelli, 2005). An incorrect understanding given by a child can be corrected in terms a child can comprehend.

If children questions more, parents can make use of ordinary objects to illustrate how this is done. A child can be told "You know how we use a spoon to add gravy to a potatoes. God gave daddy part of his body to give mommy his seed to start a new baby growing. This is how God asks mommy and daddy to help Him make children. This is how you were made."

Obviously older children will be given more anatomically accurate names for the sex organs appropriate to the science level they would get in their school. Parents can even use the child's science textbook as a reference and resource.

Parents often ask (usually after it occurs), "What do I do when my child walks in on me while I am undressed, or we are 'making love'?" Parents and teachers know the message conveyed when they walk into a room unexpectedly and the child quickly tries to cover up something they are doing. Most parents and teachers immediately see this as a "yellow flag" indicating the child was doing something wrong. Children get the same message when parents act shamed, embarrassed or angry and fumble to dress. A better approach is to put on a robe or cover up in a normal natural manner, then calmly explain to the child about the sacred specialness of the private parts and behaviors and that out of respect for this specialness and for the parent the child should always knock before entering.

Social issues and Christ's teachings

As children get older and develop they will be exposed to different patterns of behaviors and lifestyles. Among these are pre-marital sex and same sex relationships.

Pre-marital sex

Pre-marital sex is quite prevalent in today's society. According to a recent Washington Post report 46.8% of teens in grades 9-12 were found to have had sexual intercourse at some time during their lives, 33.9% in the past three months" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2007/07/22/GR2007072200479.html). The Washington Post article went on: "Teenagers today live in an MTV-driven culture and are bombarded by sexual messages that say it is normative for them to get involved sexually," said Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council. "We need a message that sexual experimentation as a teenager is unhealthy." What has to be conveyed by Orthodox Christians is what is normative for children baptized into Christ.

The best way of approaching this issue is to discuss the sanctity of sex and its intimate connection with the love the persons of the Holy Trinity have for each other and the love God has initiated and sustained by creating us, and the love of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, in emptying Himself and taking on our nature for our salvation. "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And a death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2: 2-8).

A pastoral example

Over the time I have been blessed to serve in the holy priesthood of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, I have heard many confessions in which the Penitent has confessed fornication (pre-marital sex). In counseling the penitent I have never approached this missing the mark or illness by telling them they broke one of "God's laws." To start this way would be to emphasize the letter of the law.

Rather, I start out questioning the penitents on following the spirit of the law. I ask if they are committed to the other in a blessed marriage. Of course I know the answer, but it focuses them on the essential point of marriage. My inquiry continues in the following vein: Were you committed to this person for life? Were you committed for good and bad times? Did you think that by becoming 'one' with this person you could be creating a life both of you were committed to raise in the fear of God.

Of course I know the answers beforehand. The answer is always "no." But the questions based on the spirit of the law help take the penitent from the focus on sex as an isolated physical act of sex (controlling and manipulating others for self pleasure) to the essence of the way God wants us to use this great gift. My priestly counsel to the penitent is to always ask themselves these same questions in any future relationships they have.

A domestic example

This same theme should permeate parental dialogue with their children. Suppose a news program is on television in earshot of the family pre-teens or teens. The newscaster is reporting on the second, third, or fourth marriage (or living arrangement) of celebrities. Couldn't parents make casual remarks (with kindness and charity) like: "I wonder if their relationship was blessed? I wonder if they are committed to one another the way Christ wants us to be? Let us say a prayer for them." The parents would be conveying the spirit of what a Christ-like relationship should be without preaching or sermonizing (Morelli, 2006).

Same sex relationships and marriage

Parents today are going to be confronted with questions about same sex relationships and marriage. Once again, if parents, pastors or child caretakers think children are not exposed to same sex issues they are gravely mistaken. Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate were two children's books commonly used in some school curriculums in the last two decades. Just last year, in 2006, a book the King & King about a prince interested not in princesses but in a prince was the subject of a lawsuit in a Massachusetts court case after a second grade teacher read it to her class (http://www.citizenlink.org/content/A000004008.cfm).

The comments about sinful neglect apply here as well. To avoid this same sex relationship issue is to give the values of secular society control of educating and influencing your child. Parents, clergy, and religious educators once again should not avoid the issue and should answer their children's questions. After asking what the child thinks same sex marriage means, they can start out with the same information about sexuality mentioned above and, in addition, point out that because it takes a daddy and a mommy, (a male and female),to make children for God, God cannot bless same sex relationships. We have to love them and pray for them that they act the way God wants. Possibly give a non-sexual example. Does God bless someone stealing? If you know someone has stolen what should you do? Parents can lead their child to see they have to pray the person who steals (as well as all people) will do what God wants them to do. Once again, older children can be given more theological terms like, "obey God's will for us."

Using the media to teach

Television recently featured a story about a city's gay-pride parade. What a beautiful opportunity to comment on Our Lord's teaching (once again in a kind, loving tone of voice). Based on the child's understanding discussed above, a parent may comment: "You know we have to love them, because God loves them. Let us pray 'Father forgive them" as Jesus did on the cross, and pray for their healing that they can come to love Jesus and do what he wants them to do. He made us male and female so we can be blessed to make children." Once again, words need not be lengthy, or sermonizing, but pinpoint the center of the problem (Morelli, 2005c, 2006b).

Media in the Orthodox home

It almost seems so obvious to say that parents should monitor what media is in the home and surely not permit anything contrary to the love Christ requires of us: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22: 37,39). Computers should be in public spaces in the home. DVDs, I Pod downloads, radio and television programming should also not violate Christ's proscription. Pornography obviously does not belong in an Orthodox Christian home. Unfortunately, soft-core pornography, DVDs with suggestive dancing and lyrics (even on CDs holding a PG rating) are now commonplace. Parents should pay special attention to this pernicious media onslaught on Christ's love.

How to monitor media

There are four parenting styles relevant to monitoring the media in the home:

  • Authoritarian: This style has high expectations and rigid conformity to parental commands and household rules. Interaction with the child is frequently harsh in tone.
  • Authoritative: This style communicates and explains household rules to the child in a respectful and warm, but firm, tone. Often communicating the consequences of non-compliance is enough to influence behavior (Morelli, 2006a). This is the most effective parenting style (Baumrind, 1991).
  • Permissive: This parenting style is distinguished by few behavioral expectations for the child. Often the parent wants to be the child's friend and is quite nurturing.
  • Neglectful: This style has almost no behavioral expectations. Parents are self-centered and display little emotional reaction. These parents basically pay little or no attention to the child's behavior. This is the least effective style and related to the highest levels of deliquincy (Patterson, 1993).

Applying Authoritative Parenting

How should parents exercise vigilance? A good way is to bring up the objectionable content in a discussion with their children when they are, or may be, exposed to it. Ask children how a television program, computer game or involvement, or other media fits with something Jesus has taught. The parent may find a scripture passage or a catechism answer, and ask their children what they think about it versus the program content.

Children may be able to state on their own the reasons why some content is not Christ-like. This will be more meaningful to children than parental preaching. Parental discussion can then follow up by emphasizing such virtues as respect for one's self and others, as well as the true honor due to God. Consider making joint decisions about what behavior is Christ-like.

Use occasions when the media has to be regulated as opportunities for discussion. Make sure your child understands the reasons for the decision. Explain the decision in age appropriate ways as soon as you make it because that is when dialogue can be most effective. If the child is upset or angry, allow him to cool off and discuss it later. Parents, however, should remain steadfast in a firm loving way: such material is not allowed in an Orthodox Christian home. Children who understand the reason for family rule decisions, and participate in the decisions, are more likely to be compliant.

If children oppose the parents and insist on viewing objectionable programming, they can be told with soft but firm tones that we "all follow God's rules in this house" (Morelli, 2006a,b,c,d). Rules should be set and enforced with love rather than rigid, harsh authoritarianism, since authoritarian parenting styles foster anger and rebellion in children (Morelli, 2006a).The parents in a loving way have the final word. Two scripture verses can guide the parents: 1) "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).

Eros demands agape

In Orthodox theology the Old Testament can only be understood in terms of Christ. In the Canticle of Canticles, Solomon, celebrates the initiation of erotic love by perceiving the beautiful: "Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil" (Canticle 4:1). But this leads to stalwart commitment: "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned." (Canticle 8: 6-7).

So too, sexual love (eros) in order to be blessed has to be tied to committed love (agape). St. John tells us: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God ... for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him" (john 1: 7-9). St. Paul said: " ... though [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians (2:6-8). It is in this obedience, wearing the crown of marital martyrdom of husband and wife to one another that sex is blessed. This is what our children should be taught.

REFERENCES

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Baumrind, D. (1991). The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use. Journal of Adolescence. 11, 56-95.

McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology . Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

McPartlan, P. (2006). The Eucharist Makes the Church: Henri de Lubac and John Sisioulas in Dialogue. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2005a, July 19) Sex is Holy: Psycho-Spiritual Reflections in a Secular World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliSexIsHoly.php.

Morelli, G. (2005b, September 17). Smart Parenting I. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2005c, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, April, 03 ). "Sexual Addiction": An Orthodox and Scientific View. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHypersexuality.php.

Morelli, G (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2006d, September 24). Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting4.php.

Patterson,G.R., Reid J.B. & Dishion, T.J. (1992). Antisocial Boys. Eugene, OR.

NOTES

It is important that those dealing with children use the correct scientific terms: sex refers to the biology of the individuals, as well as to the procreative act; gender has social and cultural meaning thus:

  • Sex: What you are biologically, male or female.
  • Sexual Orientation: The sex of the individual the person is sexually attracted to, i.e.:same sex or opposite sex attraction.
  • Sexual Desire or Strength: The degree of attraction, from weak to strong.
  • Gender Identity: The sexual characteristics a person perceives himself as having that are socially defined, irrespective of their biological sex. In most Western countries, a male (male) who perceives himself as male (gender) would not wear a skirt. A female (sex) who perceives herself as female (gender) might wear lipstick.

Date posted: August 28, 2007