A short time ago I shared some resources meant to help parents as they prepare to have “The Talk” with their children. But even after looking at those resources I had some questions I wanted to ask, so I spoke to Dr. Chris Richards, who together with Liz Jones has authored Growing Up God’s Way, a book with editions for both boys and girls, that helps prepare young people and their parents for adolescence and adulthood. Dr Chris Richards is a Consultant Paediatrician in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the Director of Lovewise, which produces material for teaching about marriage and relationships from a Christian perspective in schools and church groups. He is married and has four children. He is a deacon at Gateshead Presbyterian Church. Here is what he had to say about preparing children to grow up in a world like this.
As a parent it feels like we are facing unique challenges in what seems to be an increasingly sexualized culture. Are our challenges today substantially different from the ones people faced in the past? What makes today different from days gone by?
CR: The Enemy is the same, though he has a different approach to damaging each generation and, thereby, assaulting God’s honour. Today, the battle for the hearts of the rising generation of young people is fiercest in the area of sexual purity and the temptations to disobedience have never been more intense or alluring. Here are just three of many reasons for this:
Growing secular practice and presuppositions. For generations marriage has been the chief social building block of our society. Respect for marriage was implicit and most children were raised under its beneficial wing. In accordance with the Seventh Commandment, sexual purity, both before and within marriage, was held up by society as both laudable and ideal. Even if there was hypocrisy, sexual immorality was described as such and its practice led to public shame. How different today! Marriage is held in low repute, and is neglected by the majority, whilst sexual purity is denigrated and illegitimacy is no longer a cause for shame. Recently, our Governments have attempted to redefine marriage. Those who defend and teach the rightness of traditional marriage are labelled as judgmental and old-fashioned. Added to this, fewer children today benefit from the advantages and witness of being raised by a married mother and father. We have a generation of children who are confused about how they should live and more urgently than ever need to know why sexual purity should be treasured and why marriage is such a blessing.
The deceit of ‘safe(r) sex’ education. The abuse of sexual intimacy has led to unwelcome consequences, including unwanted pregnancy and STIs. The condom is falsely promoted as the means of limiting the damage. ‘Safe sex’ teaching is deceitful in both its moral approach and its efficacy. When it is taught, right and wrong are left outside the classroom. In front of the tender minds of our children and in the name of education and preventative medicine, sexual intimacy is extracted from morality, marriage, and, even, a loving relationship. Standing in such clear opposition to God’s laws, it is not surprising that this approach has been a colossal failure in its stated objectives of stopping the spread of STIs and limiting teenage pregnancy. The promotion of the idea that sex outside marriage can be experienced without consequences in moral vacuum has encouraged sexual experimentation by pupils and a resultant rise, not fall, in STIs. The UK STI epidemic continues unabated after 35 years of ‘safe sex’ teaching.
The power of the media. It hardly needs to be said that films, television, internet and music have been a highly effective way, in the name of leisure and amusement, of spreading messages that are contrary to God’s word. How hard it is for even the most alert and godly parents to guard their children against these messages, which invade our homes with such ease.
How can a parent know the right time to have the talk with their child? Though I am sure it varies from child-to-child, what are some general guidelines?
CR: The idea of ‘The Talk’ needs to be unpacked. Actually education by parents about ‘sex and relationships’ starts way back through the child’s observation of their parents’ relationship. In a home where parents are happily married, sexual faithfulness will be implicitly communicated to the child without a word being said. The child observes, and their consciences are sharpened, by the good example that they experience. Biblical instruction also lays down such principles as right and wrong, sacrificial care for one another, accountability to God, and the nature of temptation and sin. Teaching about more intimate matters builds on this.
The Biblical wisdom about teaching our children is that ‘The Talk’ actually needs to be ‘talks’. These will not always be premeditated but as the opportunity arises (‘when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way’ Deut 6:7). We should not be so busy that we do not have time for them when questions and opportunities come up. Opportunities may be provoked by a range of things; perhaps a discussion will be provoked by what the child has been told which they instinctively know to be wrong. One of your correspondents remarked that reading through the whole Bible will highlight many dimensions of marriage and sexual relationships, both good and bad.
However, you are still left with the question of how much to say and when, especially about more explicit matters such as pornography and masturbation. When we talk about sexual matters with our children, we walk on tender and holy ground. Discomfort, both of parents and child, is not, as the secularists claim, an obstruction that we ‘just need to get over’, but points to the God-given shame placed on us after The Fall (Genesis 3:7) and provides a defence against improper thoughts which might provoke arousal in the wrong setting. We need to look for guidance from our own and from our children’s consciences about how much to explain and when. This requires sensitivity and wisdom. In how we refer to matters, we can learn from the parents of Proverbs 1-8 that it is possible to refer to the danger of sexual temptation without going into the details that might set the imagination running.
The format will vary with age and maturity. Generally with early teens the emphasis needs to be on teaching the spiritual and biological facts about sexual purity and marriage. As they grow up, there will be a need for a more interactive format, which will allow the young person to share concerns and questions on the topics discussed. As well as teaching about the rightness of God’s ways, parents will also need to warn their children about the half truths and lies about sex and love that they will hear, and to help their children respond appropriately to challenges from a very difficult cultural environment.
One of the tensions I’ve felt as a parent is speaking to my children about issues they are already grappling with or may soon grappling with, but without saying too much. So with an issue like masturbation, I find myself hesitant to say too much lest I give them an interest in something they haven’t yet considered. Is this a genuine concern? How can we navigate such issues?
CR: Yes, this is a genuine concern. If parents say too much, they may provoke unhelpful thoughts; if they say too little, they risk not giving clear direction. How much we need to pray to the Lord for wise words!
My observation from my clinics is that it is quite common for even young children (aged 2 upwards) to attempt self-arousal out of habit or to find comfort. In these circumstances, simple comments may help such as ‘it is not right to touch yourself like that’ and ‘this is a special part of the body which God wants us to treat with respect’.
As they grow older, we can be more explicit, contrasting the temptation to masturbation with the need for sexual purity. Parents need to be clear that masturbation is to be avoided and that it constitutes sexual activity. Young people need to be encouraged to recognise that masturbation separates a sexual act from a relationship, whereas God has designed sexual activity to take place only within the relationship of marriage. They also need to be warned that, whilst some people (mistakenly) recommend masturbation to relieve sexual tension, it often provokes sexual interest and fantasies that dishonour God.
The average age of first exposure to Internet-based pornography is falling year-by-year. At what age does it make sense to speak to our children about pornography? How can we introduce the topic in a way that is helpful but not alluring?
CR: The same general principles apply . With regard to timing, warning clearly needs to anticipate any potential exposure. This is hard to predict but we need to be aware of likely sources.
Early on in puberty, when understanding and maturity is limited, it might be sufficient to give a general warning that many things on the internet and on mobile phones dishonour God and can cause lasting damage. With the benefit of a godly home environment, many children at this stage will actually be shocked and instinctively draw back if exposed to sexual images. However, even brief exposure can be harmful, so we need to do all we can to control the environment in order to protect our children. The computer can be placed in a communal area of the home where there is some accountability. High security settings on all internet access are needed. We must be alert to the dangers of unsupervised mobile phone access to the internet. Children also need to be taught how to use the internet wisely and safely.
Older children require more detailed and direct warning about the seriousness of pornography. Here are some points:
- Jesus warns us that lusting after someone in our minds and hearts is sinful (Matthew 5:28). As with other sins, it deadens our walk with the Lord and dries up our fruitfulness.
- By its nature, pornography crudely cuts up a person, separating the object of our lust (not just in the image but in our minds) from the reality of the person – their lives, thoughts, needs, situation and how we relate to them. Once our mind becomes used to this, it can affect all kinds of relationships that we have.
- Pornography can be addictive. There is a hunger for more and more provocative images to produce the same stimulation. When indecency in print or in film fails to provoke, the person who uses pornography may turn to people with the frightening desire to de-humanise them for their own selfish ends. This process has been associated with many horrific crimes including the actions of several serial murderers.
(These warnings are taken from True Love:Relationships and Marriage God’s Way by Dr Chris Richards and Dr Liz Jones, to be published by Evangelical Press later this year)
Why is it important to teach about marriage when we teach about sex?
CR: The early teen is likely to meet a barrage of information about sex and relationships from every direction (probably including school). But they are likely to hear little, if anything, about the wisdom of God’s design of marriage and of keeping sexual intimacy for marriage. They will not understand sexual purity without understanding marriage.
God’s ways are not only, by definition, right – they are also the best. Many children from Christian families have been told that sex should be saved for marriage without any real understanding of why this is so important and why blessing will ensue. They should understand that sex is a gift from God. If they see sex portrayed in the media, the last person they are likely to connect it with is God. God designed sex to be the most powerful physical connector for the most intimate human relationship, marriage. Genesis 2:24, where marriage is defined, talks about a husband and wife becoming ‘one flesh’.
If children understand the nature of the committed and unconditional love of marriage, it will help them to understand why pre-marital sex is wrong. Being physically ‘one flesh’ with someone with whom you have not made that public commitment for life is not actually loving but selfish and insincere. For example, sex outside marriage, being devoid of long-term commitment, often leads to a lifestyle where people are used and discarded.
A clear understanding of the importance and exclusivity of sexual intimacy in marriage also provides an essential context for addressing questions about conduct in relationships with the opposite sex e.g. how physical should we get when we go out?
If our children are raised without a biblically-grounded understanding of sex and marriage, what do they stand to lose?
CR: Ignorance of God’s word makes Christians, whether young or old, vulnerable to temptation. Eve fell to the arguments of the serpent because she believed a half-truth about God’s word. If our children doubt that God commands sex to be kept for marriage, then they easily fall to the attraction of instant sexual gratification. If they lack confidence in the wisdom and goodness of marriage, then they may be tempted by the apparent freedom of co-habitation. If they lack an appreciation of God’s goodness and sovereignty over their lives, they may respond to the first disappointments in relationships with rebound sexual immorality.
The stakes for our children could not be higher. Proverbs 5 and 6 warn of the disastrous spiritual, social, emotional and physical consequences of sex outside marriage. We do not have to look far in our society – amongst our colleagues and neighbours – to see the truth of these warnings. Contrast this with the many biblical promises of obedience. God may not give our children all their desires, nor us all our desires for our children. But both parent and child can share a confidence in God’s provision when their chief desire is to honour Him in obedience. Hudson Taylor found peace by placing this matter in God’s hands: ‘God always gives His very best to those who leave the choice with Him.’