talking to children about human sexuality

Dear blogging nana,

I have two children, 6 and 3.  Here’s the problem:  I have no idea how to talk to them about human reproduction.  What do you suggest.

puzzled mom

Dear pm,

You are not alone.  And I am no expert in this department.  I did a bit better than my mom who unintentionally communicated to me that sex was bad before I understood what it actually was.  And I was too embarrassed to very effectively communicate with my own children.

But, as usual, nevertheless, I have some thoughts!  to wit:

-Take some time with some close friends to practice and laugh about the subject.  This will reduce the embarrassment that most of us carry.  Do that a lot.

-Clarify what values you carry connected to human sexuality.  Do you believe that sexuality should be limited to committed relationships?  Do you think having good sex is important to having a good life as an adult?  What does that mean?

–If your child asks a question, answer it; but don’t answer more than the question.

–Give your child an opportunity to observe animals mating.  Even insects on a physiological level aren’t all that dissimilar.

I have a friend who I believe has done a good straight-forward job with her children; I think it helped that her mother was a nurse.  She said that, like a career, marriage, and most other things in human life, a good sex life needs education.  I agree.

And a question for my dear readers:  do you know of some good books on this subject that you have found useful?


no limits for a difficult child

Dear blogging nana,
I am a neighbor of a lovely family.  We have gotten along well for years, often visiting and even having dinner together.  They have 3 children now all under the age of 5.  Here’s the problem:  the second child seems to be totally out-of-control.  She has broken things here while visiting and responds with a tantrum at any attempt at making a limit.  The parents and I are probably equally stumped.  What do you think they should do?  What do you think I should do.
equally stumped from the plains.

Hello stumped,
Good questions.  Here’s my thoughts.  Of course children need limits. We need to make the limits so our lives with our children are fun.  Children need reasonable limits in order to make sense of their world AND to have something to push against when there are heavy feelings to deal with.

The trick for most of us is setting limits firmly and kindly.  It’s tricky, I think, only because none of us experienced this kind of limit-setting when we were young.  Either the limits were wishy-washy or they were harsh.  And often they were both.

The second point is that children have a right to their feelings and a right to have someone close as they feel them.  So it might look like this. We say,  “No, you can’t throw that cup across the room, hon.”   You go over to the child and as gently as you can remove the cup and [maybe] the child.  And then you stay with the child as she struggles and cries and tantrums.  That’s healthy.   The child cannot really fully unload those tensions without both the firm limit and the closeness of the adult.

Just an aside, as the child is in the throes of this emotional release, don’t talk much.  Just reassure the child that you’ll stay close while she is feeling so bad.  This process often takes longer than we think.  But like most things it takes as long as it takes.

Which leads to another challenge–what to do when you’re out and about surrounded by disapproving adults–do the best you can!  If possible, bring the child to your car or a more private place, if not try to give the adults around you a quick education.

But a more important question for the writer is what should the writer do?  In general, I think the role of non-parents, especially older non-parents, is to support this new generation of parents.  This means different things for different people.  If the parents are open to information, share it.

Unfortunately, many parents, due to many factors [including the blame our society puts on parents when their children have struggles] interpret shared information as criticism of their parenting.  Parenting is so hard; it is such a heroic act just to stay in there [as Rosie MacDonnell said to her husband, if I didn’t kill them, I did my job], advice, even good advice, even advice that would make the parents’ lives easier, is more than they can bear.

I think that if the parents are in this second category, they probably need a long period of encouragement.  What else they need is listening.  They need someone to listen without advice or judgement so they can start thinking, without defending, about what makes sense in raising their child.  Their initial conclusions might not make much sense to you, but if they can actually think, test their thinking and re-think, they’ll eventually move toward a more rational stand.  This takes time.

And last, I think you need to be exceedingly appreciative of yourself for whatever efforts, awkward or tentative, that you make in their direction.  For sure, young families need a huge amount of that kind of attention, mistakes and all.

setting limits

Patty Wipfler [] talks about “bringing the limit” to the child when they aren’t cooperating and can’t listen.

Patty calls this “off-track” as it’s  a lot more accurate a term than “misbehavior” and “manipulation” and “bad behavior.”   When children are “off track”  we have to give up verbal prodding.  When the child is off-track, they can’t think and they can’t process verbal instructions or demands. We parents [and grandparents and aunts and friends] need to move in physically to stop the irrational behavior with as little emotional charge as possible, and then listen. Be quiet, but pay attention, while the child reaches down inside herself to notice the feelings that drove her off track, bubbling up for emotional release with crying or laughter.

It’s “Listen, Limit, Listen.”

Listen: you listen to the whole situation for anywhere between a half-second to a minute or two, thinking, “Is my child off-track, or am I? Is a limit really needed here? Or does my child just need some information?”

Limit: if a limit is indeed needed, you bring the limit. You don’t announce it, you don’t stand back and say it and expect your child to cooperate. She can’t. You bring yourself, and the limit, and make the limit happen. You can do that with a big boisterous snuggle. You can do that with a hand on their hand, that’s ready to throw something at a sibling. You just reach in and stop the irrational action.

Listen: you stay and pay attention. There might be laughter, and you stay with that. There might be a tantrum or tears, and you stay with that. And this listening step is what takes the sting out of setting limits–your limit is firm, but your attention is theirs. They get you. Not the chance to throw blocks, or to eat another cookie, or to go to the movie that is rated PG13 that you don’t think will be good for them. They do get your warm, caring attention.

And bringing the limit is one of the things that makes our approach different from other approaches out there–we don’t expect a child who’s in the grip of feelings to suddenly care or respond to the things we say to them. We stop talking, and get to their side, with the gift of the limit. And we stay, and listen.

big brother/little brother

this is from , an excellent resource that i thought you’d like:


We were unloading the car after a shopping trip, and the boys got in a fight about who was going to carry what. The younger one wanted the bag with the toys. The older one already had it. I suggested that they switch halfway to the house. At the switching point the younger one got the bag, but some overflow from it ended up in his brother’s hands. He was complaining about the injustice of it when we reached the steps, but I was out of fresh ideas at that point and anyhow, the deed was done. I couldn’t fathom why he was so upset by a few yards of sidewalk and a plastic bag.

But I had no pressing business and his brother was immediately and totally engrossed in the new toy. So I took him in my lap, commenting that I noticed how upset he was about the bag–and he burst into tears.

It’s always easier for me to listen to a child crying than a child complaining. At least it feels as if something useful is happening. Even if I don’t understand exactly what is going on, I have this image of pressure being released, of pus being drained away from a wound. It feels healthy.

So he cried and I kept talking to him, trying to get closer to what was really hurting. I called to mind everything I knew about him, and used the intensity of his tears to gauge my accuracy. (It’s like that children’s game of guiding someone to a hidden object by telling them how cold or hot they are: “You’re freezing cold… you’re getting warmer… colder… warmer again…warmer… HOT!”)

“You wanted to carry the bag and the toy?” (tears). It feels like things just don’t go your way?” (more tears). It feels like your big brother gets what he wants and you don’t?” (big nods and tears). “It feels like he’s first? Like we put him first?” (convulsive sobs).

HOT! Here is the center of the hurt. I’m taken aback, and very sorry that this wonderful child feels that way, even for a minute. Yet I’m sure that this is the right thing for us at this moment. I hold him close and he cries and cries. He doesn’t say a word, so I keep up both ends of the conversation. I talk about his part, about how hard it is to be the younger child, and my part, of how wonderful he is and how sorry I am he feels that way, and how much I love him.

Then he’s done. Just as with a scraped knee, after a while the pain goes away. He’s ready to check out this new purchase, and moves easily into play with his big brother.

Nobody is to blame, nothing must be corrected, nothing more needs to be said.

Lessons. Lessons. I’m always learning–and relearning–lessons. Things that seem little aren’t little. Tears can heal. A wonderful opportunity may be at wait behind any free moment when we can choose to really pay attention.

what does child raising have to do with peace and justice?

Our job as a parent, in my view, is to raise children who can think and love well.  And by thinking well I mean being able to think through difficult situations and come up with something useful to lead people and communities in a good direction.

At this time in history, it looks to me, so much of what we do to children serves the purpose of fitting them to be untroublesome members of this largely disfunctional society.  Drugging children,  herding them into overlarge classes [the excuse that we don’t have the resources is well answered by the car bumper sticker “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”], stopping their crying and thereby their ability to heal from their hurts, a prison system punishing people for their harsh childhoods, and on and on, all serve to buoy up a system in which no one’s real needs are met.

On the other hand, every time we kindly set a limit and allow our child to have her feelings about it and stay with her while she has them; every time we follow our child’s lead in play and let her take the more powerful role; every time we ourselves take time to unload our own feelings with a friend so we can go back with some attention to our children and grandchildren, we are contributing to a child who will be able to think.

We need these children, raised without the drag of rage and fear and addictions that befuddle us, to assist in the work of making a society without war, with communities that support all parents, and where parents have the time and resource to do their job.

What do you think?