A Family-Friendly Guide to Sex Education

“How do I answer my children’s questions about what they hear on the news?” “How do I parent in a post-Obergefell world?” “My childhood was far from innocent. How do I raise my children?”

Parents want answers: I’m writing here to propose a few thoughts on human nature and to suggest some reading that puts parents in touch with the mind of the Church on the subject of sex education.

We’ve been conditioned to turn to “experts” for every problem, and we don’t realize that the concept of “sex education” as a separate, indispensable subject is as shockingly unexamined as it is new.

The Church teaches that God gives parents the grace to educate their own children. The more essential to the core of the human person the subject matter, the more the parents are in charge, and the less the duty to educate can be delegated.

No teacher, no doctor, not even a bishop, can insist that you turn your child over to them for instruction. We can’t compromise with the world on this matter. As Pius XI stated in his encyclical to the German people Mit Brennender Sorge, “… none can free you [parents] from the responsibility God has placed on you over your children. None … can answer for you to the eternal Judge, when he will ask: ‘Where are those I confided to you?’ May every one of you be able to answer: ‘Of them whom thou hast given me, I have not lost any one’ (John xvii. 9).”

Sex education is not a matter of finding the right program. Instead, the core mission of the family is teaching its own children about life and love.

How a Child Learns Important Things
The enemies of the family have a powerful weapon. They try to get us to believe that “now, in this day and age, when things are so enlightened” (or sometimes, on the other hand, “so decadent), there is a new way to raise children.

But human nature is given by God and will always stay the same. Children are born into a family, and it’s up to that family to help them develop according to their nature.

We have to be careful not to project our adult worries and complexes on our children. Everyone has a body that was created with a “nuptial” meaning, and ultimately we are all meant to be happy with God in the wedding feast of Heaven. This inner meaning is why children lose hope when we deny them the joy of knowing that God has in store for them only happiness.

Giving our children a belief in happiness is the greatest gift we can give. It’s the gift of faith, of knowing that even with suffering, if we “keep his commandments” we will love God, serve him, and be among the blessed with him in heaven.

Certainly, it has been a long time now that society as a whole has tried to foist on parents the remaking of their children. One just can’t go on responding to events as they come up, or only reacting to stimuli. We ought to be grateful that these schemes are all out in the open now—no hiding behind convention.

Regardless of what is happening in the world, children develop the same way. Human nature is a given. The nature of the child hasn’t changed, and we will only do damage if we act as if it has—the evidence of that fact is all around us.

Children have certain needs, including emotional and psychological ones, that undergird proper spiritual development. Grace—God’s favor on man—builds on nature, it doesn’t replace it.

Parents have the duty to try to provide a peaceful, safe home where children, simply by being part of the family, “the domestic church and the school of virtue,” can learn about marriage and the meaning of the body.

There is no other way.

Families Provide the Full Curriculum of Sex Education
The family is mother, father, children, other family members, all doing their best to live family life with all it entails, including the failures and shortcomings. Parents fight off worldliness—without letting on that it is a fight. (For a full explanation of the importance of the family, read Saint John Paul’s apostolic exhortation on the family Familiaris Consortio, which gave rise to The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education Within the Family document.)

In his prophetic book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis reminds us of Aristotle’s observation:  “When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics [doing right and wrong]; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.”

That is, the child has to be taught the right responses to things from a very early age, to “like and dislike what he ought,” to know the “right ordering of things.”

Educating a child on sexuality is thus a long process that starts early on, very remotely from the goal, you might say. And family life, with its love and affection, its ties of kinship, friendship, and citizenship, is perfectly suited to this process of teaching right responses to things, ugly and beautiful.

Think of the child’s first experiences of his own body: being lovingly fed, disciplined, hugged, rough-housing with Dad, running barefoot outside, carrying bags for Mom…. (If we don’t teach our young one self-control in the little things, how will we expect it in the great?)

Think of his experiences as he’s taken to church. The music, the art, the awe of worship; of seeing one’s parents given wholly over to something apart from oneself…. (If there is ugliness in worship, what hope do we have to inoculate him against ugliness in relationships?)

Think of the home’s little prayer corner with its beautiful and heart-breaking crucifix, its serene image of God’s own Mother, its strong icon of Jesus’ foster-father…. (If the faith isn’t in the home, how will the child find it elsewhere?)

Most of all, think of the child with the example of mother and father, loving each other with affection and forbearance, complementing each other…. (What other model is there?)

Protecting Latency
A crucial time period in the child’s development is the latency phase, during which important aspects of character, intellect, and emotions grow, undisturbed by premature exposure to sexual ideas and feelings.

Very young children do have a natural curiosity about sex—usually just about their bodies. Wise parents know to give short, accurate answers that emphasize love and marriage, which is the reason our bodies have been created the way they are, and with accurate but not overly particular names for body parts.

In this way, parents protect the child’s innocence while conveying important lessons of privacy and intimacy—lessons that by their nature, school programs make impossible.

Learn to ask questions to find out what they really want to know. “Why do you ask?” is a good one. “Did someone say something about that, or did you see something that made you wonder about it?” is another. The answers sometimes alert the attentive parent to a situation that needs intervention.

A question about something above their developmental level (and dangerous to their equilibrium) can be answered with a kindly, “You know, when you’re older we can talk about it again.” Remember in The Hiding Place, when Corrie ten Boom’s father demonstrates with a heavy suitcase that a child must sometimes wait to be able to carry a burden. He is wisely responding to a question about sex; he is asking Corrie to trust him, and to trust God. His lesson carries through to a decisive time in her adulthood when she must totally abandon herself to God’s will as Nazis threaten her existence.

The child ought to be left untroubled by excessively detailed factual information and images for which he can have no context. Parents should protect this truly carefree time in a child’s life, which is as much a normal part of development as teething or toddlerhood.

Let’s remember that living things have their own pace and their own way of unfolding, a way that cannot be circumvented without causing damage.

Truth is, there is actually not much to talk about. A good Catholic doctor once said that the actual “talking” takes about fifteen minutes per child. What you don’t talk about says volumes about what you really mean.

We mustn’t be impatient or panic. Some things take time—and not much talking.

Families Need Support from Friends and Church
Parents desperately need solidarity with others as they raise their children, especially in the area of purity. Parents don’t need to be managed in groups, but rather encouraged in friendship, cultivated and strengthened by the Church.

Our priests’ most important role is to provide families with the sacraments; in addition, they have a real part to play in fostering connections and community so that their people aren’t left to wander. Priests must be willing to sacrifice with the work of restoring and renewing the school, if there is one, and supporting the home school.

We need cheerful priests who are good role models. Fathers of families and priests should be friends—most pastors spend far too much time with women in parish life today, although a little time is good.

A priest should be ready for actual persecution when he shows solidarity and helps parents to do what is right in this area. It may happen that doing right even entails opposing his own diocese’s requirements. It will certainly mean opposing worldly advice and norms.

Solidarity means making real friendships between families, friendships that will endure. If there are two, and soon, say, four or five families having conversations about the importance of setting standards in these matters for their own families, living out their convictions, and of course enjoying each other’s company, the community will survive and grow.

You see, in puberty, the child emerges from the latency phase and begins to require a bit more information—not only about the “facts of life” but also about himself personally and how he will be able to mature and fit into this life he knows so little about. He will begin to wonder what his vocation in life will be, even at age 13 or 14, although he might not show visible signs of such (or any!) inner development. He will need friends outside of the family. He’s not a “teen” in the sense of belonging to a category set apart—he’s a young person developing into an adult.

Each person must respond to the Lord’s word: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8).

And here is where the trouble starts as far as the world goes, even with the family providing the norms of purity, and where solidarity will bear fruit. Having cultivated friendships with good families along the way, parents will be in a position to provide children with healthy peers and with other adults for encouragement.

The four or five families will grow to include many others; no need to worry about unduly or artificially sheltering the children. This sense of community doesn’t require uniformity. What matters is that there are standards and that the community has, over the years, sacrificed for them.

This sacrifice can and will mean standing up to spurious experts, educating children at home, resisting premature exposure to the internet, and otherwise protecting the children from the barrage of extreme, destructive information. Parents have the right to resist intrusion into their sphere.

Sometimes the danger comes from within the Church. If a bishop insists on a program that exposes the child (such as Talking About Touching or a human sexuality course), then parents must keep their children away and warn others.

The best reality check for the bishop would be to have to meet with a large delegation of angry fathers, but just a few would be a start.

The World Around Us
The Obergefell decision ratifying so-called “same-sex marriage” was handed down a little more than a year ago. In the Church, seemingly settled questions about divorce are debated. The challenge of raising children in purity has intensified. How do we talk about these things when opposing them calls into question our good will?

The context of sexuality is the fundamental nature of man and woman and the original plan of union in marriage (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:8). Trusting this context, it’s then not so hard to explain divorce honestly: “Either there was a marriage or there wasn’t—you can’t just un-do a marriage that really was, although people do talk as if you can. Jesus taught very clearly about that.”

And gay “marriage”: “You know that God gave man and woman to each other to marry, to become one flesh. This is God’s covenant with us.” Such a conversation begins the child’s grounding in the Theology of the Body, which is simply Christian anthropology, based on Scripture and the teaching of the Church.

Have the courage to be true to God’s word, to be open and honest. We are not worried about offending anyone, because we are defending our children’s purity—and their happiness.

We often say that children learn by example. Another way to put it might be that they learn most things incidentally, rather than directly. If a father lets his children call his sister’s lesbian partner “Aunt Becky,” any talks he has with them about what he really believes will be pointless.

Do we treat cohabiting couples as if they are married? They are not. The man does a grave injustice to the woman, robbing her of her years to bear children and stealing her intimacy. If he were harming her in some other way, would we accept it? It is a sin to use the conjugal act against its nature; sex outside of marriage is wrong, because those are God’s terms of the gift.

Is a person presented to us as a girl, when we know he’s a boy, or vice versa? We need to tell the truth. There really isn’t anything more fundamental on a natural plain than the reality of boy and girl. We can’t lie or be made to deny reality out of a wish to be nice. Where we can be cordial, affectionate, and loving, we are. But good people don’t lie.

Never treat two people—same sex or other sex—as married who are not married. When I explain the Sixth Commandment (thou shalt not commit adultery) to children, I say, “It means not acting as if someone is husband or wife who is not husband or wife.” (And as a religious education instructor, that is pretty much all I say to other people’s children; more than that would be inappropriate.)

Where there is a family member who is aggressively “gay” and we’re being asked to accept that in order to keep ties, we can’t, even if it means a break in the relationship. What did we think Christ meant when he said he would pit father against son, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law (Luke 12:53)?

The child suffers internal disturbance when he sees or experiences immoral behavior; let’s acknowledge this by relating it to the moral life, affirming what is good and asking whether he really understands what God means by marriage.

The vital importance of knowing the answer becomes clear when we contemplate what St. Paul says, that it has to do with the mystery of Christ’s love for his Church (Eph 5:32). So the child’s relationship with God himself hangs on our courage in this matter.

Pray for fortitude in truth telling and in child raising. A lot is at stake, and it will cost us.

But our happiness depends upon it! And God’s grace abounds. As St. Thomas More said, “May we be merry together in heaven!”

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Leila Marie Lawler

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Leila Marie Lawler is a wife, mother, and grandmother living in central Massachusetts. She is co-author of The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home, and blogs at Like Mother, Like Daughter. Her new ebook, on the meaning of marriage, is God Has No Grandchildren, with an introduction by George Cardinal Pell. Married for 37 years, she has 7 children and 9 grandchildren.

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