I’ve been thinking about a problem many well-meaning people are having when it comes to raising children and struggling with mandatory sex ed courses.
CAVEAT: I’m NOT a parent. I helped raise a little boy for a couple of years in my twenties, but I’ve never been (to the best of my knowledge) a father myself. To many parents, that automatically invalidates anything I may say that could perhaps impact on the institution of parenthood. Perhaps that’s as it should be. I don’t pretend to be smarter or wiser than anyone else. It’s quite possible that I only see this problem differently because I’m not actively engaged in parenting, which perhaps makes it difficult or even impossible for actual parents to identify the problem.
That said, parents are not unintelligent people, and their takes may be very different from mine. I respect that.
Therefore, if I write anything here that upsets or offends you personally, I apologize unreservedly.
Innocence is a funny state; it is assumed in our society that all things are born into a blissful state of innocence, and that this state is somehow closer to some Divine state of being, and should be preserved as carefully and for as long as possible. Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn’t. As a fairly newly minted Atheist, I don’t see it quite the same, but I recognize the need to protect children from things that can make their lives dark and miserable, like disease, poverty, and physical and sexual abuse.
WHERE I’M COMING FROM
But where I differ is that I see no intrinsic value on this supposed state of innocence. Innocence, to me, is a manufactured concept, based on our hazy memories of a golden childhood and how delightful it seemed, if we enjoyed a ‘happy childhood’, or how lamentable, if we suffered a sad one. I had a bit of a mixed bag. I grew up in a household that saw a fair bit of violence and more than a little drug abuse and criminal activity. It wasn’t all there was to my childhood. Lots of happy memories and fond associations. But there were also fist fights, a battered mother, and a cavalcade of dangerous individuals with addiction problems and, occasionally, access to knives and small firearms. So I had to learn fairly early on how to behave around people who weren’t particularly altruistic or caring about a child’s so-called innocence and well-being.
There was also one occasion (which I am reluctant to mention even now, as my memory is fairly faded) where I convinced one of our babysitters, a male, as it happened, not to sexually abuse my brother, by insisting that I wouldn’t leave the bedroom until he did. He did (and never babysat for us again). Not all children have the internal resources to navigate a situation like that successfully. Personally, it’s so muddled in my head that I’m not sure exactly how it all transpired. If someone sat me down and explained that something bad HAD happened that night, I would disappointed, but not entirely surprised.
I don’t tell that story to sound like any sort of hero. I’m not. We all grew up through similar experiences. Close scrapes and could have beens, or in some cases, very real, very bad things that actually did go down, and the years of self-doubt and self-loathing and anger that come from being a helpless victim. I’m not a victim of physical or sexual abuse, but I’ve known and loved several who were, throughout my life, so I know the ghosts they live with. I’ve seen them out of the corners of my eyes, lurking, looking for a new place to haunt, and wondering if they can hurt me, too. And they did, and do. We are all victims, when the ones we love have experienced pain and suffering.
So how can I say all this and still cast aspersions about innocence as a concept? To tell that story, I have to tell another:
GENERATION WHY NOT
An interesting thing happened in the 80s and especially the 90s; parents decided to change the channel on the whole victim cycle, by removing their children from all forms of harm and lack of parental guidance. We went from being latchkey kids to being bubble children, protected by our helicopter parents who would fly in at a moment’s notice to correct any and every little problem set before us that might impact on our ability to grow to be confident, healthy, stable children. In some cases, this seems to have worked out. Like other social experiments of the last century or two, we created a whole new generation of human beings with a completely different outlook on life. Most of us from prior generations can’t help but suspect that such people are deluded into thinking themselves more important than they are. However, I’m a Speculative Fiction writer, so I find myself thinking, that’s how it happens. That’s what real social change looks like. Disappointments and failures and misfires aside, that’s how you rebuild in the midst of the old generations slowly fading out.
INNOCENCE OR GILT?
But the thing is, innocence as we know and define it presently is sort of a fantastical construct we invented in Victorian times to create what we think of as childhood perfected. In the same way, we invented the teenager in the 40s and 50s, to spectacular results in the 60s. Prior to the 20th Century, teenagers were basically young adults being groomed for early marriage, early pregnancy, early employment, early retirement and early death. In the 18th Century, children were little more than young adults in training, with little or no real differentiation, save that they were smaller, and thus able to do things larger humans no longer could. This was the status quo, and only our modern reinterpretations cast a different light on the situation, by our reenactments and retellings of classic tales with modern flourishes. Wendy Darling was the responsible almost-adult of a Victorian children’s fantasy, one with dark magic and dark consequences. Prior to that, children’s stories were all Grimm and moralistic tales about what not to do in bad situations.
These days, we deliberately sugar coat (courtesy of Walt Disney) all of those old fables to preserve our children’s innocence for as long as we can get away with, as if innocence were a priceless commodity that instills a state of grace we all lose the moment we emerge from our cocoons into the ugly, dirty, sweaty, sexual, violent world. Maybe it is. I’m not so sure of that myself, but it might be. But let’s look at that a little more closely.
PARENTHOOD AS WE THINK WE KNOW IT
Our society in the Western World is longer lived and supposedly more enlightened and generous of spirit than it was, and perhaps it is, to some extent. But the thing to take away from this isn’t that children don’t exist; it’s that the qualities we attribute to childhood aren’t necessarily present by their very nature as children, but because we dictate how childhood looks. It’s all prepackaged and indoctrinated through decades of careful shaping and molding of our society. How many of us have watched A Christmas Story and thought that was a great example of how life in the late forties and early fifties was in middle America, and by extension, most of white North America? We know in our hearts that that isn’t the whole story, but it certainly feels ‘truthy’. It’s better than the truth. Except that it’s not the whole truth, and in that, perhaps it’s not even close. So what are we teaching our children? What world are we creating? Are we elevating our children into a new world with less tragedy, or are we setting them up for a dreadful fall when the dirty old world at last pierces the bubble and gets its grubby hands on our children? I honestly don’t know. I believe the jury is still out. But it worries me.
Now, what, you may ask, does all of this have to do with what my friends are struggling with presently? Simply, it’s the problem of deciding when is too soon to teach our children responsible sexual habits before they do something life-altering like become pregnant or contract AIDS.
Let’s let that one sink in for a minute. Children having children because they didn’t know it was possible. Children contracting deadly venereal diseases because their parents were afraid to tell them the whole story. Children going through their tweens and teen years thinking they are somehow deviant, defective, deranged, all because they are feeling stirrings of desire to couple with their peers, whether of the opposite or the same sex. If parents are prepared to teach children at an appropriately early enough stage what to expect when they are growing curious, a lot of this trouble can probably be avoided.
But the fact is, a goodly number of modern parents fall into the trap of thinking they can stave off impending the teenage years and burgeoning adulthood simply by raising their hand and voice and saying ‘Not in my house’. I think that, if we’re really honest without ourselves, we’ll remember that it didn’t work that way when we were that age, so what int he world makes us think we can change that without tweens and teens?
See, the problem starts long before we want to remember. Many of us see nudity for the first time and are immediately taught to be ashamed or embarrassed about it. The human body is something we are all a little sensitive about, even when we’re pretty hip and institute clothing optional rules int he privacy of our own homes. Public nudity is still frowned upon. And child nudity… OMG don’t even dare to go there. Forget that some of us were hippies and children of hippies trying to make that type of body shame disappear from society. The more prudish of us won that battle and reinforced it in the 80s with the discovery of HIV infection, which was inevitably blamed on the sexual revolution and all of its social ills.
When I was around seven or eight, in about 1978, I was at a school friend’s house during the lunch hour, getting ready to head back to school, when a tween-aged girl pounced me on the sofa and gave me some very saucy kisses. I was both embarrassed and thrilled (even though I had already been through a childishly kissy phase with Pamela Banyard, a lovely girl I’d been crushing on since we first met in the cloakroom area of Hillsdale Elementary). Kissing girls wasn’t alien to me, but the obvious sexuality of those particular kisses were something of an eye opener. There were other crushes and other experiments in the intervening years. Lots of them. And yet, I didn’t actually lose my virginity until my early twenties. No regrets there, or at least, very few. A few ladies who might actually read this should know, despite my teenaged fumblings with them, I was just as inexperienced and uncertain as they were. And I thank them all for tolerating me, and apologize to the ladies I was a disgusting little twerp to. You didn’t deserve to be the target of my very pathetic sexual advances, and I regret ever mistreating you.
So you see, it’s all a mixed up, muddled bag of goods. But I at least had the advantage of a mother who was pretty frank and fairly prepared to deal with the oncoming sexual awakening with something resembling coherent thoughtfulness and honesty.
I guess the question is, do you really believe in the intrinsic nature of innocence, or, like me, do you suspect that it’s a bit of wish fulfillment and a lot of misplaced expectation?
See, because it’s children’s lives we are playing with when we decide we’re too embarrassed or unprepared to deal with sexual education lessons in our schools. We know on one level that preparedness is needed, but we refuse to let anyone dictate to us when that might be, even if we’re dragging our feet. Perhaps childhood sex ed seems like a terrible idea, but the thing is, we’re trying to reinforce the feeling of non-judgemental security we wish to instill in our children. It seems like the helicopter parent method has produced mixed results, as most parents are incapable of being present 24-7, no matter how much they wish they could be, and children still know their parents will be disappointed if they do things that their parents are unprepared to accept or allow. Under such circumstances, which are still fairly universal, regardless of what your child might tell you to reassure you that there are no problems you need to fix, the smart money is on giving them all the right tools as early as possible. When they master the basics, move on to the more complicated stuff, and hopefully you will have conditioned them to think smartly before they actually become active themselves.
Because the fact is, you’re not going to be there the first time it happens for them, and in many if not most cases, they aren’t going to wait until they’re adult and married to have their first experience, good or bad. I’m sorry. I don’t think that’s changed as much as we’d like to believe. They’re going to learn one way or another. The responsible thing to do is to make sure they learn the right things as early as prudence dictates. That is different for every child, but most are starting to get curious a lot earlier than we like to admit, to ourselves or anyone else.
So if you’re thinking you can stem the tide of puberty by putting your foot down and invoking your authority as a parent, you’d probably be better looking in the mirror long and hard and remembering what it was like when you were a child/tween/teen, and remind yourself that, in most cases, your parents tried as hard as you think you are, whether you respect their efforts now or not. They did try. And they lost, the same way you’re going to lose.
Your job isn’t to protect your child from every eventuality; it’s to PREPARE them to cope and make sound judgements on their own.
That’s the only way it has ever worked. They WILL make mistakes. They WILL break rules. They WILL defy you.
Isn’t it better to make sure they know what they’re getting into?
Okay, that’s enough from this bush league armchair parent. As you were. thanks for reading.