Can preschool age children be taught to reject pornography?
This was confirmed to me when I met with Jane. We were introduced through a mutual friend who knew of our shared passion for talking openly about the harms of pornography. Jane is a delightful young mom with a two-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter.
I listened carefully while she shared with me how she is teaching her own kids to reject pornography. The interview below is a paraphrased version of our conversation. I hope you come to appreciate Jane’s wisdom as much as I do.
First things first
PA: I love that you have made it a priority in your home to talk with your children about the dangers of pornography. I’m interested to learn what kinds of strategies you implement with young children.
J: Sure … I should clarify though. My two-year-old son is not that communicative yet. Most of the dialogue that I am going to talk about occurs with my four-year-old daughter.
For me, the first step in protecting children from pornography is teaching them the correct names for all their body parts. Boys have a penis and scrotum and girls have a vagina and vulva. It’s really important to me that my kids don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed about any part of their body.
While completing my college degree I studied the psychology and complications of court cases with children involved in sexual molestation. So, even before I had my own kids I knew I wanted to do everything I could to make them feel comfortable and safe talking to their dad and me about any part of their body.
Also, let’s say my child sees an image that arouses sexual curiosity, like a billboard or magazine cover. I want them to know it is safe to talk to their dad or me about their feelings. I think that would be really difficult if they weren’t already comfortable talking about the reproductive parts of their bodies. Being able use the correct names for genitalia is a really important step in protecting children from sexual predators —including pornography.
Managing feelings & emotions
PA: When we talk about pornography most often we think about the images but you’ve also mentioned negative feelings. Tell me more about that.
J: Right … Feelings play a huge part in this. I think my role is to give my kids life tools —to prepare them for moments when I am not there with a hug. Even when we are at home I encourage my daughter to find positive ways to deal with negative emotions. For example, if she has a nightmare I will come and comfort her for a bit. But eventually, I want to go back to my own bed and get some much-needed sleep. I’ve talked with her about strategies she can use on her own to push away the dark thoughts. Sometimes she will sing a song or say a little prayer to encourage more positive feelings to fill her thoughts.
I know this is an extreme example, but I recently read Elizabeth Smart’s biography —Wow, that was hard! But I took a really important message from it. Here’s a girl that has lived through the worst nightmare. She was stolen from her home. Her life was threatened on multiple occasions. She was raped and abused by her captor. She was manipulated, coerced and enslaved for months. Yet, somehow she comes out of this experience strong and courageous. I can’t stop thinking, what did Elizabeth’s mother teach her that gave her such a resilient spirit? (Video: Elizabeth Smart speaks about pornography’s role in her abduction)
This resilience to adversity is the gift I am striving to give my kids. I will protect them as best as I can but I can never predict what is going to cause them hurt in this life. It could be someone who says something hurtful on the playground or it could be exposure to pornography. Whatever the challenge is that they face I want to give my children a means to always find the light.
An ongoing conversation
PA: Your kids are still so young. Do you think your daughter has a concept of what pornography is?
J: Exactly … My daughter just turned four so she can’t really verbalize a definition of what pornography is. She is most likely to explain it as “pictures of naked people.” I always try to stress how beautiful and important the body is —even naked. It’s important to me that we discuss more positives than negatives when it comes to the body. So at this age, we focus mostly on modesty and how to show respect for others —including everyone’s need for privacy.
I’m not stressed that my kids don’t understand everything all at once. It’s not like this is a conversation I’m trying to check off my list of things to do. We’re going to keep coming back to it again and again. As my children get older their understanding of the subject will grow and our conversations will adapt.
However, I still feel it’s best to start the conversation early. When I use the word pornography in appropriate settings, it lets my kids know that it’s ok for them to talk to me about it at anytime. I think bringing it up now will make it easier to talk about it down the road.
Finding the right moment
PA: Many parents express the frustration that they can’t find the “right” moment to bring up the topic of sex or pornography with their children. How do you do this and make these conversations feel natural?
J: To be honest sometimes the conversations find us … We live in Las Vegas and there is no shortage of billboards for “adult” establishments. The messages you get from these advertisements are in such stark contrast from what we teach at home. I figure it has to be confusing for a young child to see images of nearly naked people in public when they’ve been taught to keep these parts of the body private. I guess I’m realistic. I know my kids see these images —you can’t avoid them. So, we talk about how to deal with pictures that are upsetting to us.
However, you don’t have to live in a big city to run into these situations. My daughter has started pointing out anytime she sees someone who is nearly naked. It could be in a movie, YouTube video, commercial, or public places. She has learned to call it out, tell me, and avert her eyes. These moments certainly provide a time to positively reinforce good reactions to sexually suggestive content, and discuss the feelings linked to our responses.
I am also a big fan of using books to bring up topics that might not occur naturally. I keep my eyes open for age appropriate material that aligns with our family values. There’s nothing better than snuggling up with your child and reading a story together. It’s a very safe way for us to talk about important things. Books are wonderful conversation starters.
At this age bath time is probably the most natural time for us to talk with our kids about their bodies. Kids love to identify parts of their bodies (think: head, shoulders, knees and toes). It’s pretty easy to turn bath time into a fun anatomy lesson. As previously mentioned, I feel it is important for children to be able to properly identify all body parts. It should be as comfortable for my daughter to tell me she has a rash on her vulva as it is for her to tell me she has a cut on her finger. This is also a good time to talk about appropriate touch — when and why it is ok for mommy, daddy or the doctor to see the parts of the body we keep private.
The battle plan
PA: You’ve got some great tips and advice about how to help young children learn to reject pornography. I am wondering if you have the opportunity to exchange these ideas with your friends?
J: Not so much … I really would love to talk about pornography with more of my peers. I do have one or two friends that will have these kinds of conversations with me. For that I am grateful. Otherwise, I think it makes most people uncomfortable how open I am on the subject.
It frustrates me when people think if they ignore the issue it will go away. That is an outright lie. Pornography finds its target and sneaks into the mind in ways we can’t imagine. People think it is just a picture or a moment in time but the images stay with you and replay over and over. It triggers natural chemical reactions that can often leave a person addicted unless the he or she actively fights against it with the right tools.
I have several people very close to me who struggle daily with the scars that childhood exposure to pornography has left behind. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, let alone my own children.
For me, I think of it as if I am going to battle. There is a common enemy attacking our children. We need to expose the enemy, talk about how it plans its attack, and prepare ourselves to fight back. Pornography can take anyone captive in an instant, if they have not been prepared.
That’s why I am so passionate about this. I believe parents can begin right away to build a foundation that kids can come back to throughout their lifetime to combat all the negative images and feelings they will experience.
Building a community
After speaking with Jane part of me wished I could turn back time to make these simple changes to my own parenting style while my kids were young. The truth is it’s never too late to start the conversation. Whatever stage of parenting you are in, there is a way to fight back against the porn industry and win the battle.
This is a forum for sharing concerns, ideas and successes. It’s our goal to support one another as we all work towards the same objective. We hope that you can continue to look to the community for ideas, support and success stories. Do you have a story you would like to share? Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Jane Whitaker has a degree in psychology from Brigham Young University, and continues her passion for healthy family relationships through her own family and through her photography. She is actively trying to learn about pornography addiction and how to help families defend and recover from it.