One day my kids came from the park and wanted to know if what their friend A, then 11, had told all the kids in the park was true. What A had told them would have put a B Grade movie director to shame. My first thought was to call her mother and give her a piece of my mind. I had told my kids how the baby first looks like a bean, then a lizard… and I had shown them pictures of a fetus growing in the womb, even talked about the Sperm and the Egg, and but I had totally avoided the question, asked once and then forgotten, about how does the sperm reach the egg.
Well, now someone else told them, and this was definitely not how I would have chosen for them to learn!I had talked to them about child abuse. They knew they could say NO to anybody picking them up, touching them or talking to them in any way that made them uncomfortable. They also knew that the parts of their body covered by their swimming costumes were not ever to be touched by anybody (except mother while giving them a bath etc or a doctor if required). They knew even the most respected relatives and teachers had no authority to talk or touch in any way that made them uncomfortable. And most of all they knew they would never be blamed if something like this were to happen. They knew they could come and tell me anything.
Yet when they did I was taken back. What do I tell them now …? Do I lie? Call the other mothers and ask them how they were handling this? I remember being uncomfortable and vaguely talking about the necessity of love and marriage, of AIDS and babies requiring two loving and devoted parents, also about rules of living in a civilized society… I remember thinking my reaction should not frighten them into not asking any questions when next time there is something they don’t understand or are frightened of.
Here’s what I remember saying.
1. What she told you is true; it’s normal. It’s very personal and people, always adults, generally get married first. No adults other than your own parents can talk about this to you.
2. Yes this is how babies are made.
3. Yes even some unmarried people might do it, but generally that is considered very wrong, because…
4. Because… we fear what would happen to the baby who is then born. Babies need two parents to love them? Also we feel that the two people must love each other first. (Avoided moralizing).
5. We also fear AIDS – a very serious illness, which has no cure. There is a risk of other infections also.
6. If one of them does not like it and still the other forces them then it is wrong. It’s called rape. If someone does that they can be punished by being sent to jail.
7. There are emotions involved and that might lead to complications. I also talked about babies who are abandoned because of premarital sex. And about social stigma attached to it. (Just some facts, no moralizing.) And how love and respect, and commitment, makes for happier relationships.
8. The school had discussed changes in their bodies, I also talked about it.
I realised this became an opportunity to build trust. In the following years they continued to ask questions that were often shocking, but it was a relief that they were asking me and not someone in their peer group.
Many parents fear this openness might make the kids learn too much too soon, but we don’t really need to tell them more than what is age appropriate. Some kids may never ask, but that doesn’t mean they do not know.If we don’t tell them, their friends, advertisements, movies, magazines etc will- we may not like what they will learn from these sources.
In no way has this openness made the children too ‘liberal’. Even some rather conservative school teachers have remarked on how ‘innocent and open’ they are. I think they are innocent because there’s no guilt involved with the knowledge they have. They know everything they should know- and they have learnt it from the one source that truly cares about their well being- today- (not just about their next life, which they probably don’t care for) and I think they find that very reassuring.
I fear moralizing because that can make any teenager worth their salt suspect our motives. So I would talk about hygiene and better life, and not about goodness and purity. Also when we know they are assaulted with so much information, and misinformation from every imaginable source the last thing we would want is they consider us too priggish to care for our opinion. I don’t think anything could be worse, because then they will just stop talking to us.
Also if values and morals are brought into something I would rather, I be the teacher. I definitely want my kids to grow up with my values, without having any guilt associated with everything that stands for fun. (Clothes, grooming, just hanging out with friends, parties, dancing etc also fall in this category.)
When later I did call one of the mothers to ask how they had handled it, I found this child had not told her anything. She said, her daughter had no idea about ‘these things’, even if there are any ‘indecent scenes’ on the TV she quickly changes the channel.
I did not ask her if she wondered how the child knew which scenes were indecent (She would have said it’s instinct?)
Many of us believe that we can protect our children better by keeping them ignorant, but the only choice we really have is how they learn. Whether they learn or not learn is not an option, either we tell them, or their half informed peer group would.
Sex education does not mean teaching them sex before marriage is good. Children need to know about sexual abuse, they should know they can complain without fearing being blamed for it. As they grow older they need to know that they are ‘normal’ and any changes, physical and emotional are natural, and if there is something wrong they should be able to recognize it and take appropriate action, and not go through hell not knowing what to do. One cursory glance at any Agony Aunt columns will show us what kind of misinformation thrives when ignorance is considered safer.
Girls should also have someone they can speak to. Remember Maggie of ‘Thorn Birds’? Our government schools need female counselors for girls, preferably medically trained with instructions to keep confidences. If some of the victims in recent cases of incest knew there was someone they could speak to, they would not have suffered for so many years.
They also need to know about AIDS, and how to avoid it. We hear of women infected by their husbands, and I have had two maids with AIDS widows in their family. AIDS is more wide spread than we realise. I read a post by Malayalidoc (a doctor) where the abuser, a father infected his daughter, but everything was hushed up.
Our fear of sex education has created a situation where everybody except the victims knows what the dangers are. Education is one field where uneducated politicians should have no say.
I remember reading an interview where some ministers objected to sex education and they mentioned blue films.
“The issue rocked the state Vidhan Sabha when members ….alleged that ….it was a “planned attack” on the Indian culture. A time may come when blue films will be screened in the name of AIDs awareness programmes in the schools.
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