The Role of the Family in Sex Education: How Sex Therapists, Sexuality Counselors and Educators Can Assist Them

By Kaslow, Florence W. | Contemporary Sexuality, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Family in Sex Education: How Sex Therapists, Sexuality Counselors and Educators Can Assist Them


Kaslow, Florence W., Contemporary Sexuality


Historical Backdrop

In bye gone days, which may seem like ancient times, children received much of their education from their parents and grandparents. Particularly in agrarian cultures in the United States and many other countries, parents and often grandparents, aunts and uncles lived and worked together on the farm or plantation, ate their meals together and spent their fun and relaxation time with one another. Some caring adult was usually around to answer any kind of question about the universe from what makes the sun come up, the wind blow, the crops fail, the cow have calves, my sister get pregnant, or a new baby get born. The wonders of life occurred in and around the immediate household, in reasonably clear view of everyone and there was always someone to approach when a child's curiosity was aroused. Everything had a rhythm, a cycle, a repetitive and somewhat predictable season and as children saw conception, birth, illness and death of animals as normal and customary events, they also realized that the same events occurred predictably in the lives of human beings.

What was in the realm of mystery was how human beings developed their individuality, their uniqueness, their sense of self, their sexuality and sexual identity. Usually when a child grew up in a kinship or extended family, or in a close knit tribal community, there were several people in the immediate family who served as role models, so children were exposed to various acceptable possible styles of being in the world. In agricultural communities men were nearby during the day working on the farm or in shops attached to the houses, or in the nearby village, so most children grew up receiving guidance, direct or indirect, answers to queries and tutelage in what to do and how to do it from the men in the family as well as from the women. Questions could be asked at any time and answered either immediately or when a pressing task was completed, without the formality of a specific time set aside for talking "just about sex." Rather a child's queries or observations were handled as normal within the usual family context, unless a family was quite puritanical in its attitudes and any mention of sex or sexual topics was taboo. The majority of children were likely to find that their friends were raised with similar values and attitudes; these were reasonably consistent throughout their fairly homogenous communities, so they did not receive the conflicting messages about sexuality and what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior that young people growing up during the 20th century have had to sift through and try to comprehend.

The Shift from an Agrarian to an Industrialized Society

This matter-of-fact acceptance of the life cycle and its integral entwinement with sexuality changed markedly as the industrial revolution wrought enormous life style upheavals. A quick perusal of some of the changes most relevant to the topic at hand will suffice to illustrate the point. As young people moved from rural to urban communities, nuclear families replaced extended families as (one of) the dominant family forms. Children were born and raised in a two-adult household, without additional relatives to turn to for information and cuddling or for alternative role models. Fathers were often out of the home, commuting to jobs in factories and offices, working long hours and 6- or 6 1/2-day work weeks. Mothers raised children - almost alone and frequently felt overwhelmed. Few men were around for the children to communicate with easily and naturally. At school, the majority of teachers, at least in the elementary grades, were women. And often the only animals seen more than one at a time were in the zoo. There was no exposure to animal mating, giving birth to and tending to a litter, suckling their young, nor to dating, courting and romantic behavior of sisters, brothers and cousins living in close proximity. With each passing decade more and more of children's education was turned over from home to school, from parents to teachers, especially as compulsory education became the law of the land. …

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