First let’s agree that sexuality is about who children are and how they express that to the world. Also that children’s sexuality can be positively influenced (or negatively) from the time they are born. Sexuality is not just sexual orientation (who they are attracted) and it is not just about what sexual behaviors they engage in later. Those are a part of sexuality, but just some pieces of the mosaic. Sexuality includes: how we learn and feel about our bodies and what feels physically good, how we learn to be in relationships (romantic and non romantic), how we express and understand our sexual identity (sexual orientation, gender roles and identity), knowing how our bodies work and keeping them healthy, and learning how to use our sexual energy and power.
Most of the ways we express our sexuality as adults can be traced back to experiences and that we learned when we were much younger. People don’t all of a sudden spring their sexuality when they hit puberty. A lot of changes in the brain and the body lead to puberty, which in turn create profound changes that will impact how we express our adult sexuality.
So it’s natural then that we need to pay attention how we shape our children’s sexuality at a very young age. You can either have a positive and empowering impact or you can help them feel ashamed and guilty about their sexuality. Most of the problems we see in adolescent and adult sexual behavior don’t come from young people whose sexuality was nurtured, in an age and developmentally appropriate way. Many problems often stem from a lack of understanding, a lack of access to education and resources on how to stay healthy and access pleasure when it’s appropriate. Difficulties also come from feeling guilty, anxious and/or ashamed about who or what we might like or our bodies.
So if you want your children to grow up to be sexually healthy adults, it starts at birth. A lot of what guides our treatment of children, the expectations we have of them, guesses and assumptions about their personalities, come from that ultrasound that tell us the gender of our babies by looking at the sexual organs between their legs or at the birth when the nurse/doc says “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl”.
Our sexuality often ends up revolving around this one factor that really tells us nothing about who the child really is or will be. A great deal of research shows that adults treat and speak to children differently depending on what gender they think they are.
4 Ways To Positively Influence Your Child’s Sexuality From Birth
- Don’t make assumptions or have expectations about your child’s personality, likes and dislikes, toy or color preferences, the quality of their cry, how tough or gentle they are, how they should wear their hair, the friends they should have just because of the organs between their legs. That does NOT determine ANYTHING about that child. Brain research finds that most people’s brains don’t fall into a “male” or “female” pattern, and in fact there is more overlap than differences between people who identify as male or female. So what this means is that you want to remain as open as possible to who your child is and help nurture them so they become their best selves without being hampered or limited by a gender label. If you want to read more about gender, here is a link.
- Use correct names for all body parts, especially sexual organs. This is very important and foundational to being sexually healthy. When we use nicknames, or don’t even talk about these body parts children very quickly get the message there is something wrong or different about those “parts”. Those negative feelings don’t all of a sudden transform when they are with a partner later on. They remain and often people end up spending a lot of time, energy and money undoing those feelings. Using the correct terms can also serve to protect children from sexual abuse. It makes them feel empowered around these body parts and allows for them to talk about them if they need to explain they are hurt or if someone is hurting them. So use vulva (not vagina), breasts, scrotum (or testicles), penis, buttocks (or butt).
- How you touch your child’s body sends a lot of messages about their worth. Infants and children (and adults) require human touch to thrive and grow. We know when children don’t get enough physical affection in their lives they don’t do as well overall. Touch is one of the ways that infants know if the world is safe and loving.
- Make sure the relationships (romantic and non-romantic) around you and your child are ones that are grounded in respectful communication, mutuality, and expressions of love and caring (and fun). This sets up role models for they can expect for their own relationships later on.