Innocence vs. Ignorance: Are We Stressing the Wrong One with Our Kids?

by | Sep 8, 2017 | Parenting Teens, Parenting Young Kids | 17 comments

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We all want kids to be innocent. But sometimes I worry that in our quest for innocence, we inadvertently push ignorance.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this last month as my girls and I gear up to launch our course, The Whole Story: Not So Scary Talks about Sex, Purity, and Growing Up on Monday. (UPDATE: It’s Live Now!)

We all know that talking to kids about sex is awkward. But in talking to parents about what makes it awkward, I’ve been getting some interesting responses. I talked on Wednesday about this urge to make sure kids don’t know what you’re doing! But there’s also this element of wanting to maintain a child’s innocence as long as possible.

And I just want to explore that idea of “innocence” today.

Keeping Kids Innocent Doesn't Mean Keeping them Ignorant: It's okay to tell your kids about sex!

When we talk about wanting to maintain a child’s innocence, we’re likely aiming to keep them in that stage of life where they don’t know about the ugliness of the world. They don’t know about things like wars and the evils that people can do to each other. And we want them to keep living that carefree, protected life as long as possible.

I do get that. Kids have a right to be kids–by which I mean they don’t need to know all the adult things too early. They have a right to their “innocence”.

But I think there’s another element to it, and ironically I think the church actually makes this worse.

Because our main aim in teaching sex is to teach kids to wait until marriage, we frame kids as sexual beings far too young.

Let me explain. A while ago I wrote a post on what to do if you catch your 8-year-old son touching himself. I was making the point that at that age, when young children touch themselves, it is not sexual. It is simply because it feels good. And so we should not treat it as if they are committing some grave sexual sin. We should not say to them, “that’s only for marriage.” What a way to freak out a child! Imagine a little girl is in the bathtub and she notices that rubbing her vulva with a facecloth feels nice. If you then say, “God made that for marriage,” she won’t know what to make of that. The LAST thing she wants is some man rubbing her there. What are you talking about?!?

The problem, you see, is that we’re attributing sexual thoughts and motivations to children, when they don’t have those at all. Just look at the comments on the masturbation post to see what I mean. People were very upset that I wouldn’t treat this as a sin.

But you see, lust is the sin, and once you’re past puberty, masturbation is normally about lust. When you’re a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old and you figure out that your genitals feel nice, that’s not lust. So we need to treat them differently.

In our quest to teach kids about purity, then, we’ve often started to ascribe these sexual feelings to young children, simply because we want to get our messaging right. No wonder we feel like they’re losing their innocence; it’s we who are putting that on them!

The main message the first time they hear about sex does not need to be, “you should never have sex outside of marriage”

Of course we teach them that God made sex to be something beautiful between two married people. But I think Christians go further than that when we tell 8-10 year olds about sex.

When Rebecca, my oldest, was 10, I took her away on a weekend to talk to her about the facts of life. We had a program with CDs that we were working through, and the main message from that program was that you should choose to stay pure. They told everything, but then they took the kids through a series of exercises to show how dangerous sex was outside of marriage, and to have them pledge not to “do it” with anybody but a spouse.

Now, at this point Rebecca was freaked out enough by the facts about sex. I could have gotten her to pledge to never talk to a boy at all! And so we didn’t do all the exercises it suggested. I just felt that they weren’t age appropriate.

To start talking about how people can misuse sexual feelings before the child even sees sexual feelings as a good thing is to push too much on a child too early.

It makes no sense to ask a child who thinks sex is gross to pledge to be pure. It’s meaningless. And it solidifies this idea that sex is bad.

Waiting until the child starts to develop sexual feelings is far more appropriate.

Indeed, that’s why telling our kids about sex shouldn’t just be “giving them THE talk”. It’s a continuing conversation that changes as they grow.

In our course, The Whole Story, we have two different versions of it–one for girls aged 10-12, which is more information based, and one for girls aged 13-15, which is more emotional and social based, because the girls have matured.

I think one reason so many parents are scared of talking to their kids about sex is because they think that they have to cover all of this other stuff the very first time a child hears how sex works. Because that seems overwhelming, they balk. But it doesn’t have to be like that! You can unwrap sex little by little as they grow, and that’s far less scary.

Look, when we think our main job whenever we teach about sex is to stress not having sex, we attribute sexual feelings to children before they have them.

No wonder we feel like they’ve lost their innocence!

But there’s one more problem, and it stems from this one about oversexualizing children’s motives too early.

Another reason we associate losing one’s innocence with finding out about sex is because, at heart, we see sex as somehow sinful or shameful.

It isn’t only about preserving childhood, this state where they don’t know everything (ignorance or naivety). It’s also that we feel as if teaching them about sex is the equivalent of Adam and Eve eating the apple. Until that moment they were in this glorious state of innocence, but after that–they were sinful, fallen creatures. And we want to keep our children from that “fall”.

I do think that this is a huge reason that so many people are nervous to talk to their kids about sex.

After all, think about how we speak about sex in the wider context! We tell kids “Stay pure until you’re married.But that implies that once they’re married they’re no longer pure, as if virginity and purity are the same thing.

No, they’re not! Purity is about living your life according to Jesus’ principles, and about claiming his righteousness for our own (sanctification). Many impure people are virgins, and tons of non-virgins are pure (many of us married folk included!). So instead of phrasing it as if purity is linked to whether or not we’ve had sex, even with our spouses, let’s just leave purity on its own. Don’t tell kids “stay pure until you’re married.” Just tell kids, “stay pure.” Because that’s what we all should be doing–married and non-married alike! We should stay pure in every aspect of our lives, not just sexually.

Here’s my daughter Katie (who stars alongside her older sister in the videos teaching girls about sex & puberty) talking about purity on her YouTube channel:

Our children can remain completely innocent and pure and still know about sex.

Let’s not confuse a loss of ignorance with a loss of innocence. Innocence is only lost when sin enters the picture. Finding out about God’s design for our bodies and for sex is not sinful, and learning about how sex works does not mean that one automatically has sexual feelings.

I know it’s hard when your children grow up and you have no idea when to tell them what, or how to tell them that (and I hope our Whole Story course can help you with your daughters!). I certainly had a horrible time opening up to my girls about it, and I’ll be sharing with you about many of my mistakes (and some are awfully funny!) next week. This isn’t easy.

But at the same time, let’s not make it harder on ourselves. Learning about sex will not end your child’s innocence. Yes, it will open up a new world where things aren’t secret anymore. But in many ways, this allows them to stay innocent because, in being more aware of what is happening with their bodies, they won’t worry so much or fret when changes come. They won’t be as inclined to act out inappropriately simply out of curiosity. And perhaps most importantly, they’ll be able to tell you more easily if someone tries to hurt them, because they’ll have words for what’s happening.

Our children deserve to hear the truth–at age appropriate times! And I totally believe that you can do this well, without wrecking their innocence at all. It doesn’t have to be scary!

We’ll talk about that more next week, but for right now, let’s discuss this in the comments.

Do you worry about your kids losing innocence if you tell them about sex? And at what age do you think kids need to know “The Whole Story”? Let’s talk in the comments!

Let The Whole Story help you talk to your daughters about Sex, Puberty, and Growing Up! See it here.

Have a great weekend!


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Emily

    I like the distinction between innocence and ignorance.
    “How to tell the kids” has not been an issue for me. I have simply answered any questions they’ve asked with an honest, simple answer. If there’s a follow-up question, I answer that, too.
    Sometimes the follow-up comes days or weeks later.
    Usually it comes at an inconvenient time (the “best” was when I was about to pay at the grocery store – there were a lot of eyes on me in that moment!!), but I try to give at least a short answer.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      Love that, Emily! It’s funny how often kids bring stuff up in the grocery store. I had that, too!

  2. Tammy

    I have talked to my kids about it all. I suppose being a nurse helps. I also grew up in a house that didn’t talk about anything and just said “don’t do it”, which didn’t work at all, which has also been my motivation. I think it should also be noted that unless you are raising your children under a rock they are going to hear about sex from any number of friends/school mates/ social media. I am amazed at this current generations openness to talk about anything and everything. Those conversations aren’t even private anymore especially once they hit grade 11/12. My firm belief that a lot of society’s messages are not what I want my children to think is the “right” way means I must be brave and have hard conversations. Gods way and the worlds way are not the same. Who is going to tell them if we don’t?

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I love that so much, Tammy! Exactly. And I love what you said about grade 11/12, too. I think so often we figure that as long as we give them the talk when they’re 10 or 11 or 12 and they know all the “facts” then we’re done. But it’s not just about teaching the facts. It’s also about teaching the emotions and the social consequences behind it, and those conversations can really only happen as kids get older. I know so many parents who did the facts well, but then they stopped all conversation. It needs to be ongoing, because, like you said, if we don’t say anything, others will fill the gap.

  3. Tiffany

    I am pregnant with my second. And my son who is just two is curious. We got a book that explains about how babies are made. It’s wonderful. It goes into enough details about eggs and sperm without the whole song and dance. (Well actually they refer to the interaction of eggs and sperm as a dance lol). He also already knows proper terminology for his penis. My vagina and how ‘boys’ have a penis (so daddy, granddad, bompa etc) and girls (mama, granny , Sophia etc ) have a vagina. I feel strongly that children having proper terminology and being open and willing to talk will actually better equip them. Some ppl might think I’m crazy to introduce things so young but it doesn’t wreck innocence. Just helps them explain and rationalize. And honestly better they get the explanations at all ages from parents then from friends where it all gets a little murky.

    If anyone is interested book is called ‘What makes a baby’ by: Cory Silverberg.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      That’s wonderful! And I’m so glad you brought that up about using the real words. I’m very passionate about that–because I did it so badly when my girls were young! It’s a big part of what we teach in the course, too. When we teach them a word, we give kids permission to talk about that. When they don’t have a word for something (or they have a “cutesie” word that they know isn’t real), then they get a feeling that there’s something weird, something different about that part of their body. And that can add to shame.

  4. Irina

    So what age should the first conversation start?
    I have 7 year old girl, she hasn’t asked how the semen get’s to mummy’s belly yet. She knows that’s how baby starts in the belly.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      I’d say definitely by age 10 (our course is for 10-12 year old girls and 13-15 year old girls, and we talk about the basics of sex in the younger course). But if they ask before, I think any time after 7 or 8 is fine to tell them. If they don’t ask, you should start that conversation yourself when they’re 10!

      Katie asked when she was 8; Rebecca didn’t ask, so I had to tell her at 10!

      • Irina

        I found out myself when I was 8 and then the vortex of exposition began( I wasn’t living in a Christian home. I never asked my parents, but there were no trusting within the family though.
        Thank you

  5. Donna

    This is so good! I applaud you and your daughters for putting this program together. It is much needed in the body of Christ. Hope it inspires others outside of the body as well!

  6. Paula Fletcher

    Where can I find your video?

    • Sheila Gregoire

      You mean the one that went out in the newsletter today? I’ll be putting it up on Tuesday, but right now it’s just for subscribers of the newsletter. 🙂

      But you can see it here. Just don’t tell anyone I told you. 🙂

  7. Jessica

    My oldest is 8 1/2 and she STILL, despite 3 babies after her, has not gotten all the way to “but how did the baby GET there”… I have concluded I’m going to have to do one of those “girls weekends”… which will be great prep for (sob) when I get to do it again with the subsequent 3 kids, who are all girls. I know I’m going to have to do it in the next year or so and I don’t want to and keep hoping that the Lord will come back in that time, or she’ll be hit with a lightning bolt that tells her everything she needs to know for her age.

    All this makes me think of a friend who finally did the girls weekend with her 9 year old this past year, and a week or two afterward, told said daughter to go to bed one night, and the 9yo said “Are you and Dad going to do that special cuddle time after I go to bed?”. Oh, all the answers I could come up with for that… but will (if ever presented with the opportunity) go with “That is none of your business”, as the friend went with.

  8. Alice Candy

    I think that distinction is important, and its also important to match what you tell kids with their age and maturity. I remember babysitting a six and nine year old as a teenager and being horrified as they acted out quite specific sexual acts with their dolls. Their imaginative play was riddled with sexual language and scenarios and they weren’t able to just be kids because they were exposed to a lot of adult stuff waaayyy too early. I have no idea what happened to them, but I worry, because they would be teens now…

  9. Cassie from True Agape

    Talking about sex to kids is kinda awkward for Parents. However, it is very important that they hear it from us. They can get a lot of information from various sources and this might confuse or scare them. But if we explain it to them, they become more open to us about their thoughts on this.

  10. KP

    A resounding YES!! I have never heard anyone explain it this way. My mind is blown to pieces; it’s like you ripped a veil off of something that has always confounded and frustrated me. It just didn’t add up. All the purity talk only surrounding sexuality. And then marriage…. you “lose” it!? Give it up? It’s a gift? No, what?? So confusing! So limiting of what God really meant! As one of my friends likes to say when something feels stiff and awkward “Barbie hands”…. and who wants to go into marriage with Barbie hands?

    Be pure. Always. In all the ways. New definition. YES. I LOVE it.

    So much to unpack and consider…. for my kids, for myself! Looking back I wish I had more of this kind of talk! I think your insight is worldview-shifting. These aren’t just helpful ideas; this is a new lens! After listening to Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerablity (on audible, also life changing) I have been so aware of shame, what it is, how it manifests, how it paralyzes and consumes us, and how to kill it. Believers have SO MUCH shame about sexuality. We just do. Maybe someone reading here doesn’t, and I would say what a gift! I think it’s rare to not carry shame here, and how ironic and sad, because we should be the MOST FREE! You explain the shame so well. And talking about it brings it into the light, and in the light the darkness flees and shame dissipates. I know lots of people are obsessing over Glennon’s Love Warrior, but I think you are a front line warrior for love, marriage, sexuality, wholeness and truth. You and grounded AND free! What a combo. What a gift you are!

    • Sheila Gregoire

      Oh, KP, thank you so much! That’s just so encouraging, and I’m glad I could give you a worldview shift!


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