Last week, I posted about my prior soul (and Bible and lots of other) searching about strategically raising children who don’t enter adulthood weighed down by body shame but retain the assurance of self-respect and proper modesty. Contrasting dominant Western struggles with their absence in some parts of the world show the naked body may have great power in large part due to its novelty; that is, we shame it so much it becomes a carnal curiosity at best or a debilitating disgrace at worst. The ignorant mystery in which we’ve encapsulated the human body and sexuality can and does work against us, particularly as parents.
As Ken Davis writes in Lighten Up!, “we promote this [forbidden fruit] image of sex by what we _don’t _say to our kids. When we fail to talk about it, we might as well be handing the keys of our children’s sex lives to strangers. Their friends, the media, and the purveyors of pornography will eagerly fill in the blanks, and the ideas they promote are nowhere near God’s wonderful intention. In other words, where we’re absent, there’s a vacuüm, and nature abhors a vacuüm.
I’ve also expressed how I unexpectedly gained some insight from Ezekiel 16 on how God may perceive nudity in parental situations, and how I’ve tried to adjust my paradigm to fit it and other insights from Scripture (such as that nudity is not sinful) into my parenting decisions. Getting this right is crucial to me.
In The Body Project, Joan Brumberg notes how studies show “adolescents are capable of reproduction, and they display sexual interest, before their minds are able to do the kind of reasoning necessary for the long-term hypothetical planning that responsible sexuality requires.” Biologically speaking, they “experience a lag between the body’s capability and the mind’s capacity to comprehend the consequences of sex.” I’ve got a responsibility as a parent to get this right because my kids can’t get it right alone.
Doing the Damage
In his Conversations with God series, Neale Walsch writes the perspective of a Universalist, unbiblical “God” on a variety of topics. While much of it is, in my humble opinion, heretical hogwash, certain excerpts contain a lot of insightful and reasonable criticisms and assessments of culture and organized religion. If an evangelical Christian is willing to be open-minded enough to recognize validity even amidst dissent — which not all are — and is discerning enough to set aside the layers of untruth — which even fewer are — then such a resource can be valuable.
In Book 2 of the series, “God” summarizes the problem of shame-based methods rather succinctly, saying, “By this time [between the ages of 12 and 17] the damage has been done. Your children have been shown for ten years or more they are to be ashamed of those body parts. Some are not even told the proper name for them… Having thus gotten very clear that all things having to do with those parts of the body are to be hidden, not spoken of, denied, your offspring then explode into puberty not knowing at all what to make of what’s going on with them. They’ve had no preparation at all!”
Along the same lines, Brumberg writes, “Children who grow up in an environment without shame are better prepared in adolescence for changes in their own bodies.” That’s why, she writes, “In some liberal families, parents have even stopped using euphemisms for genitalia and encourage children as young as three or four to openly talk about the vagina and penis.” The undesirable result of the alternative is seen in many adults: “In talking about their bodies, women still struggle to find a vocabulary that does not rely on Victorian euphemisms, medical nomenclature, or misogynistic slang. Ironically,” she muses, “we live with a legacy of reticence even in this time of disclosure.” I’ve noted the same problem exists for us men, and open, healthy dialogue from an early age can be a big help.
More Tangible than Words
However, frank speech alone can no more take away the shameful novelty of the human body than frank speech about a flat tire can inflate it. The vocabulary equips a solution, but it isn’t the solution.
In my discussion of muting the sounds of passion, I refer to societies with a very different set of boundaries — boundaries that might sicken most evangelicals but whose public monogamous intimacy has failed to produce many of our Western problems. Walsch briefly paints a similar picture:
In some societies, parents couple in full view of their offspring — and what could give children a greater sense of the beauty and the wonder and the pure joy and the total okayness of the sexual expression of love than this? For parents constantly model the “rightness” and “wrongness” of all behaviors, and children pick up subtle and not-so-subtle signals from their parents about everything through what they see their parents thinking, saying, and doing.
…You may call such societies “pagan” or “primitive,” yet it is observable in such societies rape and crimes of passion are virtually nonexistent, prostitution is laughed at as absurd, and sexual inhibitions and dysfunctions are unheard of.
Western culture isn’t ready for that kind of shift. CPS would have a field day! Walsch even admits this, but like the “liberal” parents with their candid speech written about by Brumberg, we too can inject a candor into our homes, but with more than mere words.
There are the lesser demonstrations of affection in front of the kids which depict in a tangible way the godly context for sensuality. Even Walsch’s “God” supports this view: “Allow your children to see and observe the romantic side of you. Let them see you hugging, touching, gently fondling — let them see that their parents love each other and that showing their love physically is something that is very natural and very wonderful.”
Yet for all the value of clear communication and visible affections, we shouldn’t neglect the more basic building block of marital sex and much of our psyche: our bodies. It’s great for us to talk about the body and express our marital love overtly, but if we show shame in our own bodies (or in the bodies of our children), we sabotage our own efforts.
What am I suggesting? To put it bluntly, we need to get naked — or very close to it — in front of our kids. And fairly regularly. And always casually and comfortably. This last bit may require some adjustment for some of us who wrestle with poor body esteem or a sense of shame instilled in us by our own parents, but we must end the vicious cycle. We cannot demonstrate shame for our bodies while expecting our children to grown into healthy body esteem.
Some might read that in shock. “That’s immodest!” they exclaim. But keep in mind that modesty is about suitability for the audience. The intimate audience of our children and their desperate need for healthy body esteem make it highly suitable to depict a comfort and familiarity (the antithesis of nudity’s novelty, by the way) with the human body.
Walsch writes, “For heaven sake, stop hiding your bodies from your children. It’s okay if they see you swimming in the nude in a country water hole or on a camping trip or in the backyard pool; don’t go into apoplexy should they catch a glimpse of you moving from the bedroom to the bathroom without a robe; end this frantic need to cover up, close off, shut down any opportunity, however innocent, for your children to be introduced to you as a being with your own sexual identity.”
No, I don’t agree with his theology, but his point here is sound. In fact, I’ll take his point a step further. Where he depicts incidental encounters as I fly between rooms or the occasional camping trip that happens to be near a body of water that favors skinny dipping, I feel the need to be intentional about this, particularly — albeit not exclusively — with same-gender children (my wife with our daughters, and I with our sons).
As horrible as this might sound out of context (I hate our sound bite culture sometimes), we must strategically and deliberately effect opportunities to expose our bodies to our children.
At young ages, potty training and instruction in hygiene offer frequent opportunities to do so, but we need to diligently create occasions (the aforementioned camping trips, going to the gym together, mother-daughter spa days, etc.) at older ages if they don’t come naturally. In the reverse of what I may have previously thought before prayerfully considering these issues, such strategic exposure should become more commonplace rather than less as the child nears and enters puberty.
While my son begins to seek his own independent identity, I need to be an ever-more-visible demonstration of godly resolve and biblical integrity, and part of the integrity I must portray is a healthy sexual identity. If he doesn’t see me modeling one, he’ll ignorantly seek another role model. Of course, the same is true for my daughters, in their own way.
We must remember that children learn primarily from example, not command, and if we want our kids to develop into sexually healthy adulthood, we must model for them sexually healthy adulthood.
God, after all, does that very thing. Ken Davis points out that the “Song of Songs, with all its sexual imagery, didn’t slip into the Bible accidentally. It’s the inspired Word of God, and without embarrassment it proclaims the beauty of sex.”
Note that God never tells us to give our kids a Bible with that book edited out until they’re old enough to handle it. Do we dare presume to arbitrarily censor God’s word to fit our traditional ideas? Of course not! So why do we do the same with our marriages?
“Obviously,” Davis writes, “sex doesn’t embarrass God. He isn’t prudish about it, and he never asked us to be so.” He suggests we should clearly “let [our] children know that sex is a creation of God. [We should] teach them that their most powerful enjoyment of sex comes not from responding to every glandular stimulus, but by lifting sex to the place of honor it deserves.”
That means equipping our kids — through demonstration — with the words, the marital context, and the familiarity with the human body to combat the licentiousness our culture will happily feed them if we leave them hungry.
With modern media on the prowl, sexual imagery at the click of a mouse, and lusty advertising interrupting our lives at every opportunity, we can’t simply dodge the issue like in the Victorian era. That applies across the board, in language and action.
Dr. Juli Slattery (and we Instagrammed) said, “the world around us is intentionally discipling our children sexually.” The enemy will be presenting his ideas; we’d better be presenting God’s.