Birds and bees

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Birds and bees

  1. Ion Zone says:

    It is important to tell children – twelve or thirteen is probably the best age – but there is quite a distinction between setting children up for love, and promoting gratuitous sex, which is what often is the case. I have heard of young children being told to use clingfilm as a condom – this is not appropriate, they need to associate sex with babies before they associate it with pleasure.

  2. Daisy says:

    I would be interested to hear about the sort of material which Catholic schools use for family life education. Does anyone have direct experience of this?
    Do Catholic schools encourage parents to review their programmes. Do any of them offer to help train parents for the corresponding part they must play?
    I ask out of ignorance.

  3. Ion Zone says:

    I didn’t have that part of my education in a Catholic school, unfortunately. It’s probably more tactful.

  4. st.joseph says:

    Its a long time ago since my children went to school.At that time I think it was Biology they learned- not explicit sex in those days. I had various miscarriages so my children learned about babies and where they came from and where they went to when they died! What Quentin says is right. Children ought be brought up into a loving atmosphere and and parents respect the time when they are able to cope with sexual knowledge.
    I cant remember telling my children sex instruction like the birds and the bees. I assumed as time went on with a close family life they would normally fit into a pattern of maturity.

    It is all very well saying that but life is not that simple with various definitions of family life. I think maybe the parents who value their childrens welfare and how they are instructed in faith and morals including human sexual relationships, will be concerned with how they are taught at school and will be appalled at the kind of sex instruction that is given. On the other hand families who are less caring would be only to eager to let the school teach it, and sometimes I have heard that there are lots of parents who are not too bothered about parents evenings on any subjects. So it is a broad case of parents who care and who dont. My children were brought up in the Licensed Trade so on the whole they had a very mixed flavour of life-but with the relationship of a parish church the balance was a help to keep them on the straight and narrow Thank God and with His Grace.
    My daughter and son were always involved in my teaching of N.F.P so of course that was always helpful as they matured.Also they were very active in the pro-life movement,helping with a S.P.U.C branch we started.

    Primary schools will be interested in the programme This is my Body’ If it is brought to their attention.

    I was a little curious about the letter from Eugene Byrne in the Herald which Quentin mentioned.
    I don get his meaning when he say’s that the Holy See should have taken Vat 2 advice. I cant get into the letter now but perhaps Quinten could explain what he meant.

    I am always amused with the little story I heard and for those who have not I will tell it.

    A little boy came home from school and said to his mother that his friend told him ‘where he came from’ and asked her where he came from. She was dreading this moment but picked up the courage and sat him down and told him all about the birds and the bees.When she had finished the little boy said WOW.My friend comes from Birmingham!
    We ought not to over estimate what is talked about in the school playground, but always on the watchout.

  5. st.joseph says:

    Quentin I have now managed to get into the letter page and quote Eugene Byrnes statement correctly.

    He says;
    Were diffirent from the animal world which copulates by instinct for reproduction purpose only. The failure of the Holy See to accept the advice of Vatican 2 in this matter is the underlying cause of the lack of respect for the Church in the world which is now coming to roost.
    I don’t understand what he means by the advice given to the Holy See by Vatican 2. I would be pleased if you can enlighten me. Thank you.

  6. My guess. st joseph, it that he was referring to the explanation of conjugal love given in Gaudium et Spes. This records a major change in the former view that the primary reason for marital intercourse was the conception of children to one in which the full expression of love, which Byrne describes in his letter, is given its proper place.

  7. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin, and if your guess is right as to what Eugene Byrnes meant ,he is correct in what he is saying- It is also a pity that The Bishops and Priests did not expound the further explanations of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul V1 as he reiterates the teachings of Gaudium et Spes!
    I cant remember the church teaching that the sole reason for marriage is pro-creation-only to be open to life.
    Obviousley the church in the Wisdom of the Holy Spirit would ban artificial contraception. And knowing the results now of the contraceptive mentality in society which has lead to abortifacints and abortion which was legal – I think at one time 28 weeks ,it shows how prophetic Pope Paul V1 was at that time or else we would have another ‘scandal’ on our hands if the church had gone down that road, as Gaudium et Spes says in the chapter Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family.
    Now I admire Eugene Byrnes for his family of eight and I am sure they are all very beautiful and treasured as gifts from God.
    Some families are not so blessed or perhaps through difficult circumstances are only able to have as many as they can bring up in responsible and financial circumstances.

    Now we come to the issue of responsible family planning.
    Natural Family Planning is a responsible way of choosing when to conceive or not to. and the SOONER our BISHOPS get that into their HEADS and read Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae
    we might have some progress in that area and make provisions for the proper conditions for couple preparing for marriage, so that they can choose responsibley as the church teaches.. It woud be more beneficial if they had a married couple interested in N.F.P to be head of Marriage Care instead of the person they have.!

  8. st.joseph, I don’t think you can assume that Mr Byrne necessarily agrees with the ruling in Humanae Vitae because be approves of Gaudium et Spes. The Pope had ruled that the Council should not directly attempt to decide this issue, reserving it to himself.
    There were many in fact who believed that the Church would find the basis for modifying its position on contraception in the deeper understanding of Gaudium et Spes.

  9. st.joseph says:

    My understanding of Gaudium et Spes is the same understanding as in Humanae Vitae.Then people perceive things as they wish.
    When you said you ‘guessed ‘that Mr Byrnes was referring to the explanation of conjugal love as stated in Gaudium et Spes (47)Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family.I automatically assumed that the conclusion he had arrived at
    was the same as mine that The Holy See did not implement the method of N.F.P clearly enough.
    But now I realise that like so many he assumed otherwise.
    That is the sad situation we have today. instead of a deeper understanding of Pope John Pauls Theology of the Body.
    But thank you anyway.

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