One key issue in the debate which took place while the Children, Schools and Families Bill (2009) was being discussed was the emphasis on the Magisterium’s constant teaching that parents are the first educators of their children and that they, rather than the state, had ultimate responsibility for family life education. But this teaching requires, in my view, a continuing and mighty consideration because it imposes on parents a great responsibility.
It was my habit when preparing engaged couples for marriage to ask them, during the appropriate session, from whom they had first learned the facts of life. Regularly, nine out of 10 reported that this was in the playground or its equivalent. In practice Catholic children’s first explicit educators are often misinformed friends.
I can remember my friend Patrick enthusiastically explaining “the facts” to me when I was 10 years old. His version had struck me as bizarre when contrasted with the accurate account I had received long before from my parents. Yet it remains true that parents are necessarily the first and foundational educators, even if that education is negative by its default.
When does the process start? I have heard the age of five suggested, But this is five years too late. Sex education starts at birth. In fact, to be absolutely accurate it starts some time before birth.
Over-anxiety is a great enemy of mature sexual attitudes, and we know that high (as opposed to normal) levels of anxiety in a pregnant mother can increase the risk of an over-anxious child.
Infancy is the time when we first learn how love is expressed through physical contact. And gradual social interaction leads the baby to understand that its universe contains other people with their own separate needs to which it must respond. Few psychologists would disagree that the essential foundation for trusting intimate relationships is largely made or marred by the age of three.
Despite its influence on mature sexuality we might instinctively refrain from describing such a young age group as overtly sexual. Yet of course infants are overtly sexual, as any observant mother of children of both sexes will know.
We may not accept the significance that Freud gave to infant sexual feelings, but we should not deny the evidence which he used. If we equate genital sexual feelings and fantasies with loss of innocence (which I do not) then that innocence is lost very early.
But children do move into a latency period which lasts until the first prickings of puberty begin. This period is of course a key opportunity for explicit sexually connected information. The parental belief that this curtails childhood is simply an unwitting cover-up for a problem which lies with the parent rather than the child.
A child has a natural curiosity about its own origins and, of course, the birth of further siblings or the pregnancies of family friends. If children learn from the start that their questions are welcomed and are answered, naturally, at the right level this will continue. The young are curious to hear about new life, and, at the right time, to understand the special nature and expressions of married love. My friend, Eugene Byrne, has saved me the trouble of listing these (Letters, April 16). At this stage such knowledge is absorbed quite naturally; there is no embarrassment in the child, as there will be once the taboo caused by puberty starts.
I recall my four-year-old asking about the new baby. In fact I didn’t answer; I asked the six-year-old to explain to her sibling. Which she did, leaving me only a minor point or two to clarify. It was a good occasion.
In this atmosphere it is easy and natural for queries and comments triggered by television, the school playground and even sex education given at school to be raised and discussed. This provides an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings or examine public values critically, as they arise.
This is, of course, the opposite of sexualisation, to which our children are being exposed every day. Sexualisation is the belief that sexual attraction is the key to earning self-esteem and esteem from others. And nowadays it seems to involve the belief that actual sexual activity is expected behaviour.
We cannot protect our children entirely from external and peer pressure but we can, in the ways I have described, build the foundation on which sexuality is seen as a great and privileged gift from God.
The approach I have described will encourage parents to take an active interest in what the school is doing, and how. There is nothing to be gained by looking over a teacher’s shoulder but we should at least be sure that the teachers involved are among the best in the school, and are ready to explain their educational approach at each stage – showing how they communicate deep Catholic values in a way which relates to the actual experiences of the children. Thus the school and the parents can work together to ensure that this very important element of education is achieved successfully.
I need hardly mention that throughout childhood the parental marriage will, for good or ill, prove a powerful, unconscious model. Fortunately we are not required to be perfect. Children need to learn from us how to cope with failures and problems, as well as with success.
Society has, of course, a legitimate interest in family life education because of its responsibility for the stability of society. The fact that, at present, its secular agenda reflects a bankrupt social ethos which fragments society does not affect this principle. We may hope that our own work will provide a good example from which society can learn.