11 September 2013

Sexual Ethics as the Parent, part 3 (a)

So, here we named a problem.  

And here, we put some flesh on its bones.  

But, talking about problems all day without potential solutions, well, we don't have any time for that, and eventually, there has to be an exit strategy.

So, to solve the problem.  What should we then do about raising kids with sexualities characterized by integrity and joy?

When solving problems, there are generally principles and strategies.  The strategies will vary, by culture, age, stage, personalities of those involved, and other factors.  But, the principles can be distilled.

[I am realizing, as I'm going along here, that the general respectable length of a short essay is not sufficient.  This is the kind of thing that needs chapters, and that won't do. 
 So, this shall be a four part series.  I'm going to talk through the principles important to the Forster Family in this quest in these last two posts.  And then I'm walking away; I promise. 
 Perhaps I'll come back to some more specific strategies later in time.]

But wait, before we even get to principles, we must talk attitude.
I said before that always there should involve a lot of humility, wine, honesty, prayer and humor.  

Humility:  No one culture has ever done this well.  But plenty of individual people have.  We need to find those people and ask them about it.  One friend, who has a particularly joyful, integrity-filled sexuality told me she learned about sex from her parents, but she doesn't remember the talk.  This means it was early and gradual.  This was instructive for me.  We are to be instructed by others.  By the right others - the others who have done it well.  Ask your friends.  Put on your brave pants, and ask their parents.  I don't have the answers, and neither do you.  There is no good book; I've been on an eight-year search.  We must all enter into the process with confidence that we have a job to do and that we are capable of doing it, but humility that it is not easy and that there is no full proof plan.  

Prayer:  There is a higher authority on all of this stuff.  Submit to it.  Know that this is serious business, and be anxious not.  Make your requests known to God - for children whose sex lives are characterized by integrity and joy.  Give thanksgiving that you don't live in Afghanistan or Victorian England, and that honesty and humor and wine are possible.  (By the way, these principles aren't grounded in religious teaching alone.  They are grounded in natural law and common sense. Which just happen to line up with the teaching that God gives us.  But if that needs to be irrelevant to you, well, it really cannot be, but we can talk later.) 

Honesty:  Pretending there isn't a task is a bad idea.  Being scared of the language doesn't help.  We must be honest about parts, problems, desire, and all sorts of other things.  Your sons will get erections.  Caused by the bodies of women.  Before they leave your home.  Your daughters will experience this weird, warm, tingly feeling, caused likely by the words or eye contact of a boy.  Before they leave your home.  I'm reminded of the little boy in Kindergarten Cop.  "Boys have penises and girls have vaginas."  It starts there, and the painful, awkward honesty just keeps going.  No one likes this.  It is not fun.  It is a parental duty, though, and like discipline, neglecting it will lead to regret.  

Humor:  But you know what helps with all that painful, awkward honesty?  Please laugh.  For goodness sake, please laugh.  I'll give you a dollar.  Every person has had weird noises and other oddities in the bedroom;  don't go around reporting them, but remember that no one has picture perfect sex.  [You know the Avett Brothers song? Well, in addition to it not being possible to be in love like the movies, you cannot have sex like the movies.  No one is Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun with the gauzy curtains.]  So, go ahead and laugh.   I'll not tell any stories on the Forsters, for the sake of decorum, but, laughter is paramount.  If we can't laugh, we'll all go insane.  And yes, we should all get our sexual parenting ethics from Jimmy Buffet songs.

Wine:  Wine may not be essential (she barely grants with much reservation), but relaxing about the whole thing is.  Sex is not the end-all, be-all.  It is a funny, messy, absurd thing through which we ensure the procreation of our species.  Calm down already.  And open a bottle for me while you're at it.  

To the principles:  

One:  Children are people.  People are sexual.  Therefore, children are sexual.  

This one is actually a little nebulous, but I think it's fairly foundational.

We do not like to look at little people and think of them as sexual beings.  Naked babies in bathtubs are innocent, after all.  We don't even like to look at our grown-people and think of them as sexual beings.  I mean, my dad still gets huffy (if mostly kidding) when my husband grabs my behind in front of him, (and I'm about to birth my fourth child, so well, clearly, I am a sexual being.)

But, it's important to realize two things - 1) Innocence and sexuality are not at odds, and 2) We don't become sexual at a magic date.  We are gendered, from the beginning.  And to be gendered is to be sexual -  God or Darwin or both, there really isn't a way to argue.  A little girl pretending to nurse her baby doll, a little boy's hand/genitalia magnetism, children talking about who and when they will marry, and the playing of house.  They come to us this way - with a drive to procreate, a desire for companionship, and with clusters of nerve endings in distinct places. 

They are imprinted with both sexual desire and sexual morals, even while they are yet innocent of what these things are.  

Take the child's reaction to grown-ups kissing.  When our kids walked in a room in which Paul and I were kissing, even when they were two and three years old, they paused.  They knew we weren't engaged in mutual light-bulb changing.  By the time they reach four or so, they start to ooh and aaah and laugh and be teased.  They know that sexual behavior is adult play and that it's funny and in some way sacred and in every way absurd.
They also know it's reserved for certain people.  If I became lip-locked with one of our good friends rather than Paul, even a two year old would be concerned.  

This means that conversations about modesty, sexuality, gender, marriage, decorum, appropriateness, and on and on actually should start younger than we are generally geared in modern America.  It doesn't mean forcing these talks, but I think it means living in a space of openness that when questions arise - and they will - you can have an honest interchange that doesn't involve, "when you're older you'll understand" or, worse, lies.  They understand now - they're made to understand.  They just don't have the vocabulary and the experiences.  Gradually giving them the words and principles is hard work, but it's our job. 

1) What is a prostitute?  (Eason at 5)
2) But tell me again why can we not eat at Hooters? The sign says they have great burgers.  I love a burger.  (Ada at 6) 
3) What is a concubine?  (Ada at 9) 
4) Is divorce bad?  (All three of them, all different ages)
5) Eason says those squirrels are mating.  What do you think? (Collins at 4)
6) Why do people say I have daddy's eyes?  Mama had me in her tummy - not daddy.  (Eason at 6)
7) Can you do something to cause yourself to be pregnant?  (Ada at almost 8)
8) Where were you when you got pregnant with Eason?  (Ada at 2.5)  

Now, we don't tell our four year olds about intercourse, but we do respond with truth, trying to limit details for later.  We don't respond with, "I'll tell you when you're older."  They will not be any more in possession of personage when they're older, and the sexuality doesn't appear one day.  It is there all the time. So we tell them, even if we don't draw diagrams.

1) Prostitutes are sad people who get paid to pretend to be someone's wife for a night.  
2) At Hooter's, they require their waitresses to dress immodestly, which we don't support.  It is a very poor way to treat women.  
3) A concubine is a person to whom a man is not married with whom he still sleeps.    
4) Yes - divorce is bad in the sense that it always causes pain, but there are things that happen sometimes, because we live in a broken world, that necessitate it.  
5) I think Eason is correct - I think they are mating.  
6) Because, at conception, you get half of your genetic material from your father and half from your mother.  
7) Yes, you can do something to cause yourself to be pregnant.  
8) Oxford, Mississippi.  

Only question number 7 led to any more questions and eventually the actual details of sex.  And she had been narrowing in on it for a long time.  I cried to Paul afterwards.  I didn't want her to know.  But parents not being ready for something is not the same thing as children not being ready.  We'd do well to remember that.

Two:  Penises are a lot like elbows - both are ridiculous and neither are scary.  

This is not a mantra we're chanting or anything (maybe we should), but it is a principle in the backs of our heads.  Sexual purity is only one part of the equation.  Capability of sexual joy is the other part.  If purity were the only issue, we could just lock them in chastity belts and throw away the key.  Purity is frankly not hard to master, at least in the externals.  But, most successful external mastery of it over the years has involved a lot of shame.  And that's not helpful, almost always backfires, and when it doesn't backfire, leads to a life of sexual misery.  We are in the business of teaching them truth, beauty, and goodness.  We are in the business of training their desires, not simply controlling their behavior. 

No part of our body is to involve shame.  Modesty, of dress and behavior, has nothing to do with shame or dirtiness or the sinfulness of having parts.  And the best antidote to this shame-trap is smiling, laughing, and realizing that parts are parts. 

When one of the boys gets a bug bite or injury on a boy-part, we go about investigation and treatment like we would on any other part.  When our daughter was little bitty (2 or 3), she somehow got a hair in her panties - canine, I believe - It ended up poking her, internally, in just the right way, and it had her in a panic - it was coarse and she was freaking out - screaming, "my 'gina hurts!" I can remember Paul holding her down and me trying to find out what in the world was causing the pain.  This is all normal.  And knowing it's normal is key to not creating shame.  [Don't get me wrong - it's not fun to examine the parts of any person who no longer wears a diaper and can successfully make sentences.  But occasionally, it's necessary.]

If you're not fine with parts, pretend you are fine with parts.  

Isn't it funny that God gives boys penises?  I mean - if you aren't a laugher, spend 8 seconds pondering the penis, and you shall become one. 

And along with that:

Three:  Sex is fun, and Daddy and I like each other a lot. 

Sex is great - I've already talked about that in post numero dos.  But, communicating that to your kids is hard sometimes.  I think it's awkward and a bit weird to make references to your kids about your sex life.  "Daddy and I were up late, if you know what I mean" is not an option for us at Casa de Forster (it frankly sounds like something Cousin Eddie would say in Christmas Vacation).  Maybe I'll feel differently when they're older, but I doubt it.  But, bully for us, direct talks are not generally the way one communicates fun.  We use body language and daily habits much more.  This is where the fact that kids tend to absorb actions, rather than words, actually works to our advantage.

Paul and I both engage in a good deal of casual physical affection in front of them - kissing, patting, the occasional over-clothes fondle.  And, I'm sure they'll look back on moments and realize innuendo was occurring.  And they'll pretend to be horrified, but secretly be glad that their parents enjoy one another.  We smile a lot, and make eyes, as they say.  This is giving both our sons and daughters a picture of normal sexual joy -  both man and woman are happy campers, both are initiators, both are receivers, and there isn't anything weird about it.  It's reserved for certain times and places, but it's not overly serious.  To limit sex to intercourse is like limiting worship to Sunday mornings or enjoyment of food to five-course meals.  
One lone, fresh cherry is pretty damn great.  
Robert Farrar Capon, in Bed and Board, his genius work on marriage, says: 

Obviously, the sexual act is central.  But the circle that is drawn around it consists of a thousand small passes and light touches.  What they lack in moment they more than make up for by sheer weight of numbers, and it is a poor bed that sees only the grand piece of business that really arrives.  It is precisely the unconsummated nonsense that makes the main absurdity fruitful. 

The children don't need telling about or even letting in on the knowledge of their parents' central sexual act; no one does.  But, the thousand small passes are healthily seen, and that is something central in our home.  We don't hide the outer circle, and we hope that's giving them a foundational model of healthy sexuality.

"But, won't showing them that it's fun make them want to do it?"  Yeah, I hope so. I'm not trying to tamp out desire.  I'm trying to train it.

And guess what, you don't have to make people want to have sex.  Again, we come that way.  And if you lie to them and tell them that it's gross or dirty or unpleasant, it won't go well.  Or, more likely, just imply that it's gross or dirty or unpleasant by the sour look on your face every time your spouse comes near you, it will not go well.

I've seen it.  Over and over again.  And best case scenario, your child will meet a person who does it for him, and all of these little tingles begin. 

And then, the worst thing happens.  Then, the child knows his parents to be liars.  Or, sex-haters.  And, he begins to throw out other things you've said.  Because if you are a liar, or are sexually miserable, why listen to you about sex, or maybe anything else?

Four:  Sex and sexuality are serious, and it is dangerous for children to mimic adult behavior

Okay, so I'm not talking about playing house in your toddler and primary years.  I'm talking about the boyfriend/girlfriend stuff at which 8-15 year olds play. 

Well, Susy likes Timmy.  They're going out.

No, they're not.  Timmy and Susy are 9.  Timmy and Susy are mimicking adult behavior, and they're not ready to know what they're doing, and believing that the fact that they are nine protects them from the seriousness is a surefire recipe for regret.  Children are children; adults are adults.

But, didn't you just say that children are sexual from the beginning?

Yes, I did.  But, that certainly doesn't mean that we allow or encourage them to engage in behaviors before they are ready.  In fact, knowing that they are sexual from the beginning should help us to know that their behavior has sexual consequences from the beginning. Seeking after these feelings (provided by sexual, if not physical, relationships), however 'innocently', in elementary school, leads to seeking after them in junior high.  Which leads to all manner of trouble.

At my (private, upper-middle class, in the bible-belt) junior high, girls were performing oral sex behind the school.  Yes, that was happening.  To girls who haven't started menstruating.  And that starts with craving attention from the opposite sex.  Which starts, of course, with not getting the right kinds of attention from the right people, but it is betrayed and encouraged by staying up all night in fifth grade talking about boys and who said what to whom.  So, nip it in the bud.

So, we don't have boyfriends and girlfriends until you're old.  Like really old.  Like no longer under my roof.  Sweet prom dates and other highschool frivolities are not necessarily banned (we aren't there yet, ask me again in 10 years, and that's a specific strategy, not a principle), but certainly banned is the attaching to those types of dates emotions or physicality.

If you cannot joyfully have babies, you shouldn't have sex.  And, if you shouldn't have sex, you shouldn't say things to someone of the opposite gender that are typically reserved for people who sleep together.  And if you cannot say or do those things, you shouldn't spend time obsessing about it or enjoying the emotional drama surrounding that.  

Paint your fingernails, throw the football, read good books, climb a tree.  Later, when your hormones aren't making you idiotic, I hope you'll find someone who turns you on.  Until then, hush up about who likes whom.  

We like you, little one.  And your friends are awesome. And those two things are plenty great. 

This not-growing-up-too fast goes hand in hand with other limiting of grown up behavior and appearances. A couple of specific strategies in hopes of illustrating the principle:  
We don't have boyfriends and girlfriends, and so we also don't even participate in conversations about things like that. We've worked with Ada Brooks on strategies to extricate herself gracefully from those conversations started by fellow 9 year olds.  
We don't wear make up at 9 (except to play dress up - such fun!), and we don't plan on starting anytime soon. 
I know this one may seem silly, and some will wave the puritanical flag, but I won't be purchasing pretty under garments during our teen years.  You can get you some lacy panties and leopard-print bras when your husband will be the one removing them.   

And on and on:  Once it can be explained to them why, children should not mimic or long after adult sexual behavior.  

In the next part, you'll find the following principles explicated. 

Five:  We should not allow the obscene to become normal entertainment for our young people. 
Six:  Simultaneously, we should not wrap them in bubble wrap. 
Seven:  The sexual sin of other people is mostly not our business and, moreover, comes from brokenness, so pity, not judgment, is the correct attitude.  
Eight:  There are sexual sins our sons must guard against in their own lives.  
Nine:  There are sexual sins our daughters must guard against in their own lives.  
Ten:  Constant and close relationships with our children are necessary for any of this to work. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm nodding right along for the most part, except the part about nursing the baby doll. I just don't think of nursing as a sexual thing...at all. I mean clearly breasts can be/are sexual, but I don't think that's all they are for and I don't think the fact that people use them to feed their babies makes feeding the baby sexual. Maybe I'm missing the point here?