Dear Father: I grew up in a family where my parents never talked about sex or other sensitive topics. I was left to figure things out on my own and learned about sex from kids at school. It was not the best moral education! I am now married with two kids, and my husband and I are doing our best to raise our children with a better moral foundation than we had growing up. My oldest is now 8, and I wonder if it is time to begin to talk to her about sex and other moral issues she will face as she grows up. My husband thinks she is too young for “the talk,” but I fear she might learn inappropriate things from her friends and others before we can instruct her. What is the most appropriate age to teach children about sex?
— Denise R. in Maryland
Dear Denise R.: Thank you for your very important question. Your dedication to fulfilling your primary vocation as a Christian, wife, and mother is inspiring. You and your husband are to be commended for your efforts to educate and form your children in all things, including faith and morals.
As you well know, the Church has always taught that parents are the primary teachers of their children. Thus, you and all parents have both the right and the duty to ensure a proper formation for each child in your families. Because each child is wonderfully unique, parents have to be attentive to the needs and abilities of each child. Of course, one’s extended family and the parish community, as well as the state, ought to aid the parents in their fulfillment of this awesome responsibility. In normal circumstances, this aid does not replace, but supplements, the parents’ primary role as educators.
This should be especially true of formation in the area of sex and sexuality. Parents need to be vigilant that both the “latency period” of children is not violated and age-appropriate education and formation in the virtue of chastity takes place. Unfortunately, most secular schools (and far too many Catholic schools) do not respect the innocence of children and do not believe that humans can and should be chaste.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a very helpful overview for the duties of parents toward their children (see CCC, 2221–2235). More specific guidance in forming your children in chastity can be found in St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (The Family in the Modern World) that you can read at Vatican.va.
These documents stress the importance of children coming to know and to experience love as self-gift. St. John Paul II taught:
Education in love as self-giving is also the indispensable premise for parents called to give their children a clear and delicate sex education. … Sex education, which is the basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers. … In this context, education for chastity is absolutely essential, for it is a virtue that develops a person’s authentic maturity. (Familiaris Consortio, 37)
The Pontifical Council for the Family reminds parents and educators that age-appropriate formation is essential. St. John Paul II calls the earliest stages of development, from kindergarten to the beginning of puberty, “the years of innocence.” In these years, according to the Council for the Family, “[the]period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex” (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, 78).
One should lavish unconditional love on one’s children, teaching them how to pray, the basics of our faith, and the requirements of family life and personal modesty. Children in this stage should be protected from anything that would disturb the natural peace and tranquility associated with sexual innocence.
Young children also learn how to be a man or a woman from the example of their parents. As puberty approaches, parents will need to be very attentive to both the physical and psychological changes occurring in their children.
The Council of the Family recommends that “without showing anxiety, fear, or obsessive concern, parents will not let cowardice or convenience hinder their work. This is naturally an important moment for teaching the value of chastity, which will also be expressed in the way sexual information is given” (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, 88).
“The facts of life,” the purpose and meaning of sexuality, and the importance of the virtues all must be communicated together.
As your children grow they will learn from your example and explicit teaching. In particular you will want to help them discover their personal vocation, which includes their call to holiness (sanctity), their state of life (married or some form of consecration in religious life or Holy Orders), and their particular calling. I find it helpful to reinforce the idea of vocation by never asking a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” but instead, “What do you think God wants you to be when you grow up?”
In reference to your 8-year-old, it is too early for much of “the talk,” as you put it, but you do need to speak to her about modesty and what constitutes an invasion of her person. You also want to emphasize again and again an openness to answer her questions and a desire to know, each day, what is going on in her life. Pray with her daily and encourage her in her growth in holiness and virtue.
Monitor what she does on the computer and television and make it clear to the parents of her friends what is and is not appropriate for your daughter to watch or participate in. If other parents will not cooperate or if they allow unsupervised computer or television, those probably are not the best homes for your daughter to visit. You will also want to monitor what your school teaches (and when) and either be present when these things are discussed or absent your daughter from instruction that does not respect her natural innocence.
In the long run, the more involved you and your husband are in your daughter’s upbringing, the more likely she will be formed well and feel free to discuss everything with you that is on her heart and mind. May God bless you in your endeavor to be good and holy parents for your children.