I have two little girls and my wife and I have always referred to all of their body parts by their anatomical names with one early error that we need to correct. We taught them that their external genitalia is called a vagina, when we should have said vulva. This article has reminded me that I need to correct this. We read the Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson with them as toddlers to help them learn the names of their body parts.
I know for many dads the topic of the sexuality of their little girls is an uncomfortable one. For all parents we have been taught to be afraid of teaching our children about sexuality. In many cultures we are taught and we teach our children to be afraid of sex. We teach them to be uncomfortable with their bodies and we teach them that nudity and private parts are sources of shame. At the same time we are presented with images and concepts of sexuality in all of our media. Sex sells. Sex is titillating. Sex is secretive. Sex is fun. Sex is dangerous. Sex is dirty. Sex is pleasurable. We are presented with images of extremely attractive men and women in advertising in various states of undress. Too thin women and unrealistically muscular men are shown to us as some kind of ideal to seek. I think for many parents we have a reactionary view of sexuality. We teach children about sex from a place of fear because we don’t want them to grow up to soon. We don’t want them to engage in sexual activity until we are ready (as opposed to when they are ready). We are afraid of the shame they could bring upon themselves if they have sex before they are married, or “live in sin” or have to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. More likely we are afraid of the shame we might feel if our children do any of these things. We are afraid of how society will view us as failed parents and speak about us in whispers and how we weren’t able to teach our children to control themselves.
These fears are of course multiplied if we are the parents of girls. Boys will be boys and all that. Boys and men are expected to sow their oats before they settle down, boys are expected to be a little out of control. Boys are expected to be virile. Girls are expected to be demure and virginal. Girls are supposed to resist the boys who apparently lose control of their brains when they see a pretty girl and their penis takes over the thinking functions for them. All of these stereotypes and social norms are ridiculous.
I write from a position of some knowledge on this topic and it won’t be the only time I write on this topic. I had sex for the first time when I was 14 and was a father by the time I was 16. I felt the shame of getting my girlfriend pregnant. I experienced the expectation to keep our situation quiet. My girlfriend had to leave school for a semester to be pregnant in secret. We developed a cover story for why she was away and we denied, denied, denied that she was pregnant. It was of course an open secret. These things are not easy to actually keep as a secret. After university I trained with Planned Parenthood Ottawa (www.ppottawa.ca) as a sexual health educator and served as a volunteer educator for ten years in Ottawa. I spoke to boys and girls, men and women, mothers and fathers about sexual health. I taught anatomy and contraception, healthy relationships, self esteem, media awareness and Sexually Transmitted Infections. I spoke in elementary schools, half-way houses, secondary and post-secondary schools, and stood at booths at more community events than I can remember and answered questions on many issues related to sexual health. Parents and teachers were always grateful for the support.
Now I am dad to two girls and I am proud to say that we have answered all their questions to date. My wife is pregnant and we have had conversations about what is going on with her body, how the baby got in there and how it will get out. We answer the questions they ask and no more. We provide factual information until they have exhausted their curiosity on that particular topic. We will continue to answer their questions. We want them to be comfortable with their bodies and understand how they work. As they get older we will teach them about menstruation and try to help them learn to not feel dirty at “that time of the month.” I will talk them about boys and sexual activity when I feel like they are ready to absorb the information. I will talk to them about my experiences and feelings as a teenager. I will not teach them to be afraid. I will teach them to respect themselves and their feelings. I will teach them to respect their partners and their feelings. I will teach them to be confident and how to make decisions. I will teach them that I am proud of them and confident in their ability to make the decisions about their bodies that are right for them. I will also make sure that they know that if they have a bad experience or an unexpected outcome that I will be there to support them. I will be there to help them sort out their feelings and next steps.
If the new kid turns out to be a boy when we take delivery in the fall, then we will teach him the same things. I will even teach him about menstruation and how women’s bodies work because more information about how our bodies work is always better.
I will agonize about decisions they make that I disagree with. I will try not to scare away the people they choose to date. I will fight to protect them if I feel like the people they are spending time with are a negative influence or are disrespectful of my children. I will do my best to arm them with the tools and knowledge they need for healthy sexual lives. I will make sure they know my values and what I feel is appropriate and I will trust them to make good decisions for themselves.