It’s Spring Break in Memphis. Today my wife Lynn took our daughter Holly (11) away on a mother-daughter retreat. They’ll stay a couple of days at a friend’s lakehouse. Holly is our middle child of five so her older sister and brother have gone on this same retreat with Mom and Dad, respectively. It comes with turning 11 in the Huffman household.
The retreat reinforces a discussion we begin with each of our children when they turn 9 years of age (we have two boys and three girls—two retreats for me and three for Lynn). It’s the sex discussion. Lynn and I together have “the talk” with each child at age 9. Then at age 11, the one taking the child on the retreat goes through Family Life’s “Passport to Purity” curriculum with him/her.
That material is broken into a handful of sessions. Each session includes listening to a recorded talk by Dennis or Barbara Rainey addressing everything from pubic hair to the reason why boys shouldn’t pop girls’ bra straps at school. The child, sometimes giggling but also listening intently, takes his/her notes in a provided notebook. Afterwards the parent and child discuss what they heard, the parent adds his/her insights and experiences, and at the end of the retreat we give the child a ceremonial gift to remember the time by. We also try to do something fun too. My oldest son Caleb and I had our retreat in Branson, Missouri, and took in some of the sights there.
It’s on this retreat that we begin talking more specifically about what dating will look like and how he/she needs to prepare for navigating a highly eroticized Western society. The eroticization of our society is one reason why we have “the talk” with our children at 9 years old. By that age, third grade, they’ve already heard things about sex from media and from peers at school (oh yes, at Christian school too!).
What helped Lynn and me overcome our nervous reticence to talk to our kids about sex was realizing we were engaging them in a healthy conversation about themselves. There is no one better suited to do this than the parent. We are each one of us sexual beings and to try to deny or hide this from our kids does them no service. That some will never express themselves sexually (see Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:25-28) is something to be respected, not ridiculed or otherwise viewed as odd. That’s a cultural view of sex—that those who never have sex are somehow not fully alive—opposed to a Christian view.
Kids mature at differing rates and intensities, of course, but we don’t think the age of 9 is too early in today’s cultural climate for a kid to learn facts about sex. We also don’t think we should hold anything back from them when we begin the discussion. That is we tell our children why they have gender and we tell them of God’s design and purposes for sexuality and sexual expression—the stuff of Genesis 1 and 2. But we also tell them candidly how people abuse and spoil God’s good design through sex outside of marriage, pornography, and homosexuality—the consequences of the fall, Genesis 3. We’d rather they hear about sexual aberration from us first because we’ll rightly inform them and contextualize it, whereas media and peers will not. We’re also emboldened to tell them of those realities because the Bible doesn’t hide sexual malpractice from its readers.
Part of the talk at age 9 includes an affirmation of their responsibility to confidentiality. We call them to maturely steward the knowledge we give them, telling them that they know what they know now to neither impress nor inform their friends. Caleb learned the social cost of this the hard way soon after his retreat at age 11 with me. A couple of neighbor boys were having a misinformed conversation about homosexual acts as they shot basketball in a driveway. They weren’t being curious but pejorative. Knowing he knew better what they were talking about, Caleb corrected their nonfactual ideas. They in turn promptly told their parents “what Caleb said,” and the parents informed me that Caleb was banned from socializing with their boys for a time.
I remember the phone conversation with the father of one of the boys. He said to me, with evident surprise in his voice, “Turns out what Caleb said is true, but I still don’t want [his son’s name] knowing about it.” I resisted the urge to respond tartly with, “Your boy initiated the discussion, pal—he’s already talking about it!” and instead tried to make it a teaching moment. But he was even more surprised to learn Caleb knew what he knew because Lynn and I told him about it. I think he would have right then nominated me for Reckless Parent of the Year.
Nonetheless, I think for our oldest three kids it has been better for them to know the facts of life earlier as opposed to later. Yes, you feel as a parent you’re imposing on their innocence some when you begin the discussion. But there is a difference between preserving innocence and perpetuating sentimentality. Our kids do grow up and we need to help them navigate a clouded culture concerning sex and sexuality. They need to know how to fly by the instrument panel when they can’t see the horizon.
Knowing what they know when they know it has made my kids less boy/girl-crazy. We find the kids fitting that description to often be those who’ve had their ideas and attitudes toward sex shaped predominately by media and peers, not their parents. Our kids confirm this is so as we ask about their peers. We think parents in the church are not so much chickens as ostriches about this: too many have their heads in the sand hoping puberty might go away or never arrive.
Knowing what they know when they know it has also removed some of the mystique of the opposite sex and the naivety that allows for “curiosity that kills the cat.” Our kids are still kids, red-blooded and interested in the opposite sex. We’ve told them this is good and for this we’re glad. We’ll allow them to date within intentional parameters, and we pray for their future spouses now as much as we pray for them (assuming they’ll marry). And we know our kids can still make mistakes in days to come with boyfriends and girlfriends. Imparting wisdom does not ensure against every weakness of the flesh.
But we’d rather impart and invest. So somewhere on a lakeside dock in north Alabama, the birds chirping and the bees buzzing here at the cusp of spring, Lynn is telling Holly about some things she knows and some things she doesn’t. And I’m trying to figure out what to serve her brothers and sisters for dinner tonight in Mama’s absence. Don’t worry, it won’t be Hooters.
Cole Huffman is Senior Pastor of First Evangelical Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He and his wife Lynn have five children—and one dog who thinks he’s a kid. Cole’s messages can be listened to on the church website: www.firstevan.org and he blogs at Where is the Fourth?