By Maria Hosler Byler, Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation, Salford Mennonite Church
To live out our faith requires helping our children grow into healthy, knowledgeable, and faithful adults – and this is not just for parents; this task is for the whole church. This involves how we use our money, how we treat our neighbors and how we live our lives as sexual people. As Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation at Salford, my role is to help families in this task. That meant opening a conversation with parents around sexuality and our human capacity for sexual feelings.
I don’t know if the participants at Salford’s “Beyond the Talk” parents’ gathering were apprehensive before we met, but I sure was. I had planned this conversation for parents about talking with their kids about sexuality with the help of some knowledgeable and experienced congregation members. I was confident we had solid, faith-based resources to offer parents about sexuality and child development. But beyond that, I had so many questions. Were parents even interested in guidance from the church as they teach their kids about sexuality? What was the guidance of the church for parents anyway? Would parents be willing to share, or would we just sit in awkward silence? Would they even come?
We ended up with a spread of parents of kids of all ages, dedicated to raising their kids in healthy sexuality and eager to interact. The night had moments of seriousness and laughter as well as lots of food for thought.
Beth Styer, a congregation member with experience teaching sexuality education, talked about all the different ways kids pick up information about sexuality. We teach them by how we hold them, by how we talk about private parts and human relationships. Then Ron Souder, a pediatrician, brought some sobering statistics about teens and sexuality. He reminded us all that kids learn about sexuality in one way or another, and it’s up to parents what kind of influence they will add to the mix. He also showed a hilariously awkward video clip of parents trying to tell their kids where babies come from – a cringe-worthy reminder that this is a topic lots of people stumble on. He followed that by giving some practical information on developmentally appropriate information for kids as they grow.
Sexuality is anything that has to do with living life as a sexual person. Like anything else in our faith lives, healthy sexuality isn’t a one-time conversation – it’s a way of life that we address over and over again. Can you imagine parents having one conversation with their kids about how to pray, for example, and then checking it off the list with a sigh of relief? Kids learn from our own attitudes and behaviors, so healthy sexuality education starts with us. Thankfully, these little teaching moments happen throughout our kids’ lives, so we have lots of chances to try again.
Throughout the evening, parents shared their own challenges and successes in teaching their kids about sexuality. They shared poignant and off-the-wall comments their toddlers made. They shared moments of confusion and trauma from their own past, and their desires to teach their kids better than they were taught.
My favorite part was when parents shared their hopes for their kids’ sexuality. Some of the hopes that were named: that their kids know deeply God’s love for their bodies and treat their own and others’ bodies with respect; that their sexuality be important to their faith, not something to be scared of but something to discern seriously. Then parents shared ways they help their kids learn these values – giving each other ideas and reminding themselves of the process that is already underway.
That evening barely scratched the surface of the topic. Just like it’s impossible to communicate everything a kid needs to know about sexuality in one talk, it’s impossible to cover everything with parents in an evening. In the end I was left with gratitude for the work that is already happening. Parents are considering where they come from and what we believe, growing in their own sexuality, and intentionally passing on their faith values to their kids. God is already working to heal our places of pain and brokenness and walk with us as the new generation grows up.
The conversation continues, and the work continues. My prayer is that this gathering be only the start of much thought, prayer, and care for human bodies as we raise up little ones in faith.
For some age appropriate books to talk to kids about sexuality, check out “Talking to Kids About Bodies and Boundaries” by Kris and Ginger Wint from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections or find the list under the “Books to Use With Children” heading on Franconia Conference’s Church Safety webpage.