When we drop our kids off at the school’s front gates or wave good-bye to them at the bus stop, we hope that the main event is the three Rs, but we know that reading, writing, and arithmetic are not the only kinds of education kids get at school. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed long ago, “I pay the schoolmaster, but ‘tis the schoolboys that educate my son.” Teachers, like parents, are caught in the middle of the maelstrom—pre-adolescents just coming into their own sexuality may practice kissing on the playground, hold hands in the halls, and play “games” to experiment with different kinds of intimate expression. How do we make sure our kids are managing invitation to various peer games, such as “Playing house,” and later “Truth or Dare” or “Seven Minutes in Heaven?”
One teacher’s clear-sighted way of handling the situation can offer insights to us as parents. In response to rumors about kids kissing, this teacher took the time to hold an “open circle session.” In an environment where they felt safe, the kids were able to honestly share their concerns and discuss the ways they were trying to explore their sexuality. The teacher’s basic messages were: “Listen to your conscience—and don’t engage in dares that make you go against that voice,” “Boys and girls can be friends,” “Kids should not be kissing anybody but family members,” and “Talk to an adult if you ever feel scared, nervous, or uncomfortable.”
We can learn a lot from the way the teacher handled this situation. We have to recognize that our kids face challenges and pressures at school that we may find difficult to imagine. But our response can still be comforting: although we cannot be present on the playground or in the hallways to guide our children along, we can provide them with a set of pointers, similar to the ones offered by this teacher, to remember when they’re in a situation of pressure. The more we stay aware of the pressures our children face from their peers, the more we can equip them with the tools to explore their sexuality in a healthy and values-rich way.
In primary grades, kids learn to follow rules and develop discipline, especially through sports. Their growing bodies allow them for the first time to demonstrate strength and grace. They are already developing physical models of masculinity and femininity, and you will notice that they identify with particular styles as they develop their personalities.
Physical:Though somewhat uncommon, it is not unheard of for 7- or 8-year-olds to develop secondary sexual characteristics (such as budding breasts and pubic hair), so it is important that you begin talking earlier rather than later about the changes that happen to our bodies as we grow up. Kids at this age also start to take more responsibility for their own hygiene, so you’ll need to initiate conversations that keep up with their physical development so they are prepared to take more care of themselves as their bodies change.
During primary school, children are often introduced to rudimentary sex education or science classes that give specific information about differences between male and female anatomy and the stages of human reproduction. It’s important to be aware of the content of material covered regarding sexuality so that you can integrate your conversations to blend what your kids learn at school with your family’s values. For example, in later primary school, kids will start to put together, either from what they’ve heard in classroom instruction or on the playground that sexual intercourse occurs when a man inserts his penis into a woman’s vagina. You want to make a link between this information and your own talks about sexuality—particularly because kids may take sexual information as secretive if it is not also addressed at home. You want to show that you understand sexuality as natural and support them so they feel comfortable with it.
Emotional:Children at this age begin to develop stronger friendships and often develop best friends. These friendships become more and more important as they get older. With their friends, children in primary grades may partake in games in which they “play house,” taking on identities as “mommies” or “daddies.” These games often recreate perceived gender stereotypes—the man goes to work while the woman stays home with the children or cooks the dinner. You may want to observe this play and use it as an opportunity to point out that many women also go to work, and men also take care of children, cook, and clean.
In primary school, children begin to be aware of sexual activity, and their reaction tends to be mild aversion: things like kissing are considered “gross” (with the exception of parents—we hope). Jokes begin to develop around sexual humor, and kids will laugh (and sing songs) about who likes whom. As kids express a full range of emotions and develop the capacity to think for themselves, parents have an obligation to pay attention to their growing child’s feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, pleasure or embarrassment.
Relational:School, friends, and activities take children out of the home more and more. At this age they learn that there are different kinds of love (for family, friends, and parents, also the idea of being “in love”). As they expand their definitions of love, you will notice that they begin to initiate caring gestures—from bonding gestures in sports events (such as patting a teammate on the back) to embracing a friend after a long summer vacation.
Though kids at this age primarily gravitate toward friends of the same sex, the opposite sex is beginning to be increasingly noticeable. Conversation about girlfriends and boyfriends stirs at school, and boys start to catch up with girls and include the opposite sex in their network of awareness—though admittedly they’re usually well behind girls in social consciousness.
Social:Primary school children begin to understand different circumstances that lead to marriage or divorce. They observe that relationships often evolve from friendship to courting, then dating, then falling in love, and finally, marriage, and they also may learn that having kids does not mean that people are necessarily married.
Primary school kids begin to learn how to manage conflicts and develop long-term relationships with others, identifying qualities that they admire and desire in friends. At this time, children become aware of differences in communication and interaction styles between homes and individuals. This is an appropriate time to help your child deal with and understand why he or she is valued or not by peers. By taking the time to discuss friendships and qualities that nurture healthy relationships (such as kindness, fair play, generosity, and understanding), you help your child to develop practices that will serve him or her throughout life.
Spiritual: Through exposure to religious traditions other than their own, primary school kids learn how different religions or belief systems can have different values. This age is a ripe time for discussing the values that are important in your family as they relate to lifestyle choices and current events. Part of understanding values is accepting that individuals’ choices may have broad consequences. Value systems are important in helping kids later understand why sex is appropriate at some ages while not at others. As they come to understand and accept these values, they can see how values determine whether sexuality is seen as positive or negative, that it may be abused or used improperly, and that it is something to be handled with care.
If you make the effort to engage in an open dialogue with your children about your values and your perception of God, they will be equipped to develop a spiritual life, providing them with yet another resource (besides parents!) for seeking counsel in trying times, as their spiritual connection becomes personal.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.