Preparing to teach children what it means to be a man or woman best begins before they are born. Each married couple has the opportunity of working on their expectations of what the man will do in the marriage and what the woman will do, and these attitudes toward male and female roles are later taught by precept and example to children.
We, too, discovered that we had our own expectations—sometimes very different ones—and we needed to achieve harmony so we could teach our children with a single voice. This is a never-ending process, of course; for as we mature in marriage, we make new discoveries. As parents we recognized that a teaching method that worked for one child may not work for another, nor will a method that works at one age necessarily work when the child is older. Since we feel strongly that this subject is central to the happiness of the family, we’d like to share a few of the things that have worked for us.
As tiny infants, children discover their bodies—wonderfully wiggly sensitive fingers, then toes, and then the external reproductive organs. Our adult attitudes about their exploratory behavior would not make sense to an infant. We want our children to feel that all parts of their bodies are sacred and are not appropriate playthings.
Offering an appropriate toy, along with maintaining clean diapers, helped teach our youngsters socially acceptable behavior in a way that was comfortable to us as parents and to them as children. Had we punished them when they naturally became curious about their bodies, their very first impressions of sex would have been negative.
When our second child, a boy, was born, our daughter naturally became curious about why he didn’t look like her. We explained that this was how you could tell boys and girls apart, that Heavenly Father made us different for very special reasons, and that both boys and girls were very special.
When our children became a little older, we let them know that their bodies were sacred but tried to avoid making the children feel “wicked” for their curiosity. Instead we focused on teaching them what we had agreed upon as socially appropriate behavior. Just as we should cover our mouths when we cough, so also should we wear clothing in public and should not handle or play with our genitals. We tried to give each child the feeling that his growing maturity meant he had different responsibilities; and, above all, we tried to make each child feel free to confide in us.
Today our children have forgotten these early experiences, prompted by their curiosity, but they do remember various attempts at sexual exploitation by playmates. We have found that when our children were thoroughly familiar with their own bodies, and reasonably familiar with the bodies of their infant brothers and sisters, they had much less curiosity than many of their playmates.
As our toddlers grew older, they developed modesty, which we encouraged. Our school-aged children began to seek privacy in the bathroom and while dressing, and we encouraged these signs of growing up.
Neither one of us really remembers sitting down with our parents to hear a lecture on the birds and bees, nor have we tooled up for a grand presentation to our children. We tried—once—to make a more formal presentation to our eldest daughter, but quickly decided to avoid The Big Talk. We feel that it creates excessive emotional reactions about natural relationships. Now we plan to continue to openly discuss with our children, whenever appropriate, the sexual behavior of human beings.
For example, when newspaper reports of sex crimes provide some teaching moments, we discuss with our children ways to avoid such situations. It’s also important to teach them what to do if, for example, they might be approached by an exhibitionist. The discussion on why some individuals become perverted also includes, for comparison, a clear description of normal sexuality.
We do not hesitate to discuss with our children the problems of unwed parents and couples who “had to get married.” The discussions of how and why this could happen always focuses on planning to prevent similar experiences.
We experienced with close friends a tragedy involving their eldest daughter, who became pregnant out of wedlock. The incident was incomprehensible to anyone who knew this lovely girl. Through our involvement with the family, we learned that her sexual experience was not one of passion or even enjoyment. Considerate and kind to everyone, she simply had never learned to say “No.” We explained to our children who were old enough to understand that the girl’s virtue of kindness to others had become a vice because she didn’t want to make her boyfriend unhappy.
We, like all concerned parents, pray that our children will not find themselves in such situations. We try to teach them how to build bridges in case they ever need to cross them.
We have even suggested possible dialogues to our older girls. One might be: if a boy said, “If you loved me, you would … ,” our suggested retort is: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask!” We hope to provide our children with the capacity for a firm, resolute “No!”
Girls are obviously vulnerable, but the boy who feels sorry for a girl may make poor choices, too, if he hasn’t the ability to say “No,” particularly if he feels he “needs to be needed.”
We are careful to let our children understand that we have confidence in them, but we also warn them to follow no one into sin—peer or adult. We let them know that many men and women in very responsible positions have had problems—and one of the big reasons why was that they thought they never would. They didn’t have their bridges ready to cross if they needed them, so they fell.
Realizing that a boy is usually the aggressor in a relationship, we teach our boys that manners are not confined to opening the door for a date or being polite to parents. Manners are defined to them as never doing anything inappropriate that will make another person uncomfortable, and we have taught them that they are responsible for their behavior. Then, with careful direction and much prayer, we hope they will date girls who behave appropriately and expect the same from them.
It is sometimes difficult to know how best to teach a particular child about matters relating to sexual identity, so we employ many approaches with faith that at least one will impress these important teachings on their minds. In addition to the religious approach, we also use a psychological one.
The Psychological Approach
Since self-control is a major characteristic of maturity, and since teenagers want to be mature, this appeal is a major motivation. “The heart may nominate, but the head must dominate” is our theme in our effort to teach our children the need for developing self-control, with the eventual goal of loving others unselfishly.
The Historical Approach
We take teaching moments as they occur to point out to our children how promiscuity among great nations led to their downfall. Even some communistic nations today do not permit promiscuity, for it damages a nation’s strength. Violators are dealt with most severely, not for religious reasons but simply because such actions weaken the society.
The Biological Approach
A common but immature rationalization is that sex is an individual biological need. We try to anticipate the arguments that our children will encounter and help them plan a rebuttal. We teach them that sexual expression is not an individual necessity, but rather a species necessity—that abstinence is neither harmful nor impossible. We have spent less time with the biological aspects because they fall into the category of The Big Talk. Physiology is taught in school, and our family library includes appropriate books. Attitudes concerning sexual behavior are our most important teaching responsibility as parents.
The Spiritual Approach
We have diligently attempted to engrave upon our children’s minds the truth that we love them dearly, and that if we didn’t we wouldn’t care what they did. We further stress that our Heavenly Father loves them even more perfectly. That is why he gave them commandments to follow. Keeping the commandments will bring much joy, while breaking them will bring much sorrow; but neither we nor the Lord can prevent them from breaking commandments—nor can we protect them from the sorrow that follows disobedience.
In sexual matters, we teach them that venereal disease, premarital pregnancy, a shattered reputation, and even a Church court are possible negative consequences for inappropriate behavior; but we hope that even stronger motives are the positive rewards of a clear conscience, a temple marriage, eternal life together, and especially a marriage based on trust between parents. Marital trust, we teach, is the atmosphere in which their own children will be happiest, the atmosphere we want for our grandchildren. This places a high expectation on appropriate behavior for our children.
We try diligently to teach our children what it means to be a child of God, with all of its ramifications. When this truth is embedded in their hearts by the Spirit, there will be less need to tell our girls not to wear short skirts or to tell our boys to button up their shirts. If we can truly teach this most valuable and most difficult truth to our children, they will be more likely not to treat their bodies or the bodies of others in any way displeasing to God.
What we have said so far is in part how we teach our children to understand their roles as male and female. However, even if they understand, they still may not feel happy accepting their gender role. We’ve encountered three obstacles that each child may have to overcome to feel happy that he is a boy and she is a girl.
If sex is a subject to be mocked or snickered at by our children’s friends, then it becomes negative to them, something with which they do not want to be associated. We’re especially careful to correct misunderstandings picked up from their friends, particularly the emotion-laden street names for anatomical parts and physiological functions. We show our own respect by using appropriate terminology, and by being exact in our descriptions. Babies do not grow “in the stomach,” but “in the uterus, fed by the placenta connected by the umbilical cord at the umbilicus.” When any such misunderstandings occur, they become teaching moments about how perfectly Heavenly Father has made our bodies so that they perform their various functions, always keeping in mind the age level of the child.
We avoid any material that does not give proper respect to the subject. We try to keep the reading material in our home of highest professional and doctrinal quality.
Most important in determining how our children accept their gender is the influence of role models, primarily the parents. Does Father enjoy being a father? Does Mother enjoy being a mother? Or do we show dissatisfaction with ourselves in our respective roles?
Parental expectations are very important. We like our sons to learn to cook and to sew on their buttons, but not to the exclusion of masculine activities, companionship, and preferences. Likewise, our daughters use hammers and nails and work on the car, but not to the exclusion of feminine activities and not to the point of preferring all masculine behaviors. We emphasize that all work is honorable and that many activities can be equally enjoyed regardless of sex. It is not unwomanly for a girl to enjoy sports, nor is it unmanly for a boy to be deeply satisfied and moved by music and poetry.
Parental expectations are important in another way. We heard two divorcees discussing their 11-year-old sons, both of whom were doing poorly in school. The first divorcee said that her son acted like a 16-year-old. He did not want to go to school because he preferred working; he would give the money to his mother and wanted to stay up nights discussing what she would do with it. The other divorcee said that her 11-year-old son acted like an eight-year-old, whining, lazy, and demanding.
These mothers were then asked to describe their former husbands. The first divorcee, whose son behaved like a 16-year-old, stated that her husband was a marvelous man, that she loved him dearly, and that if he would stop drinking, she would have him back immediately. The second stated that her husband had never been any good since the day she married him, and under no circumstances did she want to have anything to do with him. Even though these boys had no present models, they were following their mother’s images of their fathers.
We recognize that the fundamentals for proper gender identification occur subtly before the age of three. Ten years later these fundamentals are relearned as an adolescent. The obvious difference in walking, sitting, and gesturing, as well as those in speech and language, are not usually consciously taught. Such nuances of male and female roles are learned by mimicking the parent of the same sex and striving to meet the expectations of the parent of the opposite sex. Where parental behavior, attitude, thinking, and feelings are appropriate, the children will learn to become well adjusted young men and young women under most circumstances.
As understanding does not necessarily bring acceptance, acceptance does not always bring appreciation of being a man or woman. Yet appreciation is vital.
One physician who treats marital incompatibility said that a fine way to teach children to appreciate their roles is for Dad to give Mom a big hug in the kitchen when they both obviously enjoy it. The children can then see that pleasure and affection are involved; the boys get the feeling that it must be great to be a man, and the daughters think it must be great being a woman.
We have tried to avoid phrases like “That’s a man for you” or “women drivers!” and “just a housewife.” These attitudes demean the role and image of a man or a woman. Instead, as husband and wife, we try to show by our actions that we appreciate and enjoy our respective roles. We have tried to be an example of how a man and a woman may complement each other, not compete with each other. We each accentuate the positive aspect of our respective roles and try to eliminate the negative. The mother in the home shares with the girls how fortunate she feels to be in partnership with God in helping him carry out his plan of salvation by bringing spirits into this world and helping to train them that they may return to their Father in heaven. The father in the home emphasizes for the boys the importance of the priesthood that he holds, that it is literally the power God used to create the earth, that he has given us the same power, and that if they live worthily they will have the great strength and power for good the priesthood can bring into their lives.
Attitudes are caught as well as taught. To be better parents we find that we must first become better individuals. We have come to our conclusions by much study, fasting, and prayer and have received personal revelation for our family. Our suggestions may help others, but we realize that each family is different. The Lord will give you personal revelation for your own particular problems if you will have faith in him and live the commandments to the best of your ability.
Dr. Delbert T. Goates is a child psychiatrist at the Primary Children’s Hospital, Salt Lake City, and serves as a counselor in the Salt Lake University First Stake presidency.