Teaching Sexual Values
We see two distinct ways that parents may want to pursue the process of teaching their kids sexual values:
Values Simplification. In some cases, parents may want to cast certain sexual behaviors in simplified, stark and black and white terms. Some parents might choose to use this simplification tactic with their children as a practical means to highlight important safety boundaries for their children (e.g., "it's always bad to have unprotected sex!"). Other parents will talk this way because this is the easiest way for them to communicate their own polarized values (e.g., "it's always a bad idea to have sex before marriage", or "being gay is sinful").
Values Exploration. In other cases, parents will want to communicate to children that real sexuality is more complicated and nuanced and "gray" than the polarized categories they have previously picked up from friends and media would suggest. For example, a boy may come home one day and tell parents that a bully insulted him by calling him a "fag". Parents might use this moment as a teaching opportunity to explain the actual nature of homosexuality (e.g., that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality; that homosexual people love one another just as heterosexual people do; that being gay is not a disease state or anything to get worked up about). In so doing, parents help the child to grow beyond his original polarized understanding of homosexuality (that it is bad) towards a more nuanced adult understanding (that it is misunderstood, maligned, and quite threatening to people who don't understand it, but not actually a bad thing at all).
Sexual values are very personal and emotionally-wound things and adults often disagree as to which values their kids should learn. Parents will need to consult their values and moral beliefs in deciding what to teach their children. Our recommendation here is that parents not avoid this process (because it is so emotional), but instead make the time to carefully think through what sort of moral guidance they want to provide their children, and then provide that guidance with as much care, concern and respect as they can muster.
Teaching Emotional Self-Protection
The other aspect of teaching healthy sexuality has to do with helping kids to learn how to protect themselves from dangerous, abusive, invasive or controlling sexual relationships. We talk about the worse aspects of this topic in greater detail below in our section on Sexual Abuse and Assault. However, children also need to learn how to recognize the less dangerous but still painful emotional traps that accompany sexual relationships so that they can learn to avoid them.
A simple but very common mistake many children new to sexual relationships make is to confuse sex with love. This is to say, children are bowled over by the intensity of their early crushes and actual sexual experiences. They mistake the intensity of these powerful but essentially transitory experiences for committed love. In actuality, simply having sex with someone does not necessarily mean that they love you or are committed to you, or vice versa, that you will want to be committed to them. It is also the case that the physical sensations associated with sex are desirable enough that some people will lie to potential partners and say they feel love and want a committed relationship if that is what they need to do in order to gain access to sex. It's helpful for kids to be taught these things early on because knowing this information can help kids to know when they are being taken advantage of, or might inadvertently take advantage of someone else. Many hurt feelings come out of relationships where people have assumed that sex does mean and imply love and caring and later come to find out that their partner does not feel that way at all.
A simple and relatively uncontroversial way to help kids understand when a relationship is emotionally healthy is to teach them the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". The golden rule concerns reciprocity; the idea that partners in a relationship should not take unfair advantage of one another. With few exceptions, healthy romantic love relationships are always characterized by reciprocity between the partners. Relationships which lack reciprocity because one partner has taken unfair advantage of the other may be abusive relationships.