Protecting Children’s Innocence

I was at a Mum and baby group with two of my children when my daughter started touching her vulva (through her clothes). “Darling don’t touch your vulva in front of other people.” I said making no effort to whisper (nor shout), “That’s your private place, you can touch yourself there when you’re on your own.”

The mother closest to me looked shocked. “You say ‘vulva’ to your daughter?” She asked, whispering the word ‘vulva’. “I prefer to protect my children’s innocence.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down but given that I was the new Mum in town I didn’t call her on it. Her words, and implicit judgement stayed with me, and I began to see the attitude everywhere. If you google “Protecting children’s” the second option that comes up is “Innocence”. It’s a big thing in parenting circles. I’ve heard stories of people pulling their kids out of sexual education classes in schools in an effort to maintain this ‘innocence’.

So what is this version of children’s innocence and why is it something parents feel should be protected?

Here’s the dictionary definition:

  • the state, quality, or fact of being innocent of a crime or offence.
  • lack of guile or corruption; purity
  • a person’s virginity

Commonly I feel the idea of children’s ‘innocence’ needing protection is linked to sex, but I’ve also heard it from people who feel they need to shield their children from other issues like racism or environmental problems. To my mind there is something pretty off about thinking that educating a child about their own bodies or the world around them will somehow despoil them. It also begs the question what do these people feel they’re protecting children from? Will knowledge of the correct words for body parts like vulva or penis somehow taint a child in irreparable ways? What does this mean for children who have suffered sexual abuse? Are they not innocent in the eyes of those parents?

For thousands of years we’ve lived under a patriarchal system where women have been oppressed and commodified. Historically women who were ‘Virgins’ had a particularly high value, both monetary and status wise (for extra high status examples see the Virgin Mary, or The Virgin Queen Elizabeth I). This high value on being sexually untainted has filtered down to modern days and informed many parent’s ideas of keeping their children unsoiled by sex or sexuality. Yet humans are hard wired to take pleasure and enjoyment form their own bodies from very young ages. And virginity is a social construct specifically designed to control women’s sexuality. So what are we really doing when we withhold information about sex and race and other issues that will affect our children at some point (and probably sooner rather than later)?

By not informing our kids we are teaching them shame and fear around their own bodies. This will likely have a detrimental affect on how they feel about their own bodies when they are growing up and may cause them to have esteem issues around their sexuality as well. There are a wealth of studies to show that a lack of sex education leads to teenage pregnancies. If we want our kids to be open with us we need to be open with them.

How can my 12 year old come and tell me he’s seen something sexually distressing popping up online if he hasn’t got the language to do so? What will he do with the images he’s been exposed to if he can’t talk about it and process it with his parents?

By not talking in a blatant way about racism parents are perpetuating racism. Children need to be explicitly taught about privilege and what they can do to be aware of their own. My 6 year old points out the lack of black people in movies and tv shows because we’ve had conversations about racism and privilege. Racism won’t stop until the majority are having these important conversations with their kids. Likewise other subjects that affect us communally. Each of them can be approached in an age-appropriate way with children of any age.

As parents we have so much power to change the world our children will grow up in. And in order to do that we need to start having some of these difficult conversations with our kids. You can ease yourself in by finding an issue you feel passionate about and involving your child in activism.

My 8 year old recently had a letter from the President of Ireland in response to a letter she sent him about accepting more refugees into Ireland.

She was aware of the Syrian crisis because we had been following 7 year old Bana Alabed’s messages on Twitter. She has since become passionate about making the world a better place. She asks what can she do and I offer her suggestions. My older daughter was passionate about animal welfare and started a business selling dog treats to raise money for the local shelter. Children can and do make a difference to society.

It’s our job as parents to prepare our children for life. To ensure that they are knowledgeable about themselves and the world, aware of the areas that need improving and feel empowered to make those changes. I do not value ‘innocence’ as a virtue. I value intelligence, self awareness, social responsibility, equality and fairness. I want my kids to be informed about and comfortable with their own bodies and sexuality.

I don’t judge that Mum from the playgroup, but I do hope that she someday decides to examine her idea of innocence and make an informed decision about if holding it is really serving her kids’s best interests. In the meantime, I’m going to keep on saying vulva and penis, out loud.

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