Eleventh in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
When the question is asked point blank whether children should be taught at least the chief facts of the sexual life, the answer is hard to give. Nearly everybody's instinct shrinks from saying, "Yes." All right-minded parents and teachers feel a reticence in speaking to children on a matter which from its very nature is so private. Yet, on the other hand, nearly everybody's reason declares that children should have such instruction. The great majority of young girls who go wrong do so simply out of ignorance of the tendencies, dangers, and responsibilities of the sexual life. Moral depravity in boys, too, arises chiefly from the fact that they acquire their first information from older boys already depraved. What must parents do in the face of this dilemma? A universal healthy instinct counsels silence, whilst a universal healthy reason counsels speech. Evidently there must be a compromise. And the compromise is this: there must be speech, but it must be reticent and discreet.
The mind and the senses, the brain and the nerves, are so related to each other that they act and react on each other. So intimate and organic is this relationship that conversation or reading about sexual matters tends to excite the sexual functions. Even though the conversation and the reading may be justified and done with a right Intention, it is, nevertheless, fraught with certain dangers. It emphasizes images in the imagination which may become temptations to sin, when the brain is tired or the mind off its guard.
There can, therefore, be only one reason for enlightening children with sexual knowledge. There can be only one reason for adults discussing sexual topics amongst themselves. There can be only one reason for the writing of this and similar chapters. And the reason is necessity.
In 1905, a conference on the subject was held at Mannheim. An almost unanimous vote declared that the chief laws of sex should be taught to boys in the higher classes of secondary schools. But the widest diversity of opinion was expressed as to the manner in which the instruction should be given; and also as to the extent of the matter; nor yet was there any unanimity as to who should give the instruction. In Germany, experiments have actually been made. But the result has not been satisfactory to the Catholic conscience. Complaints have been raised both as to the information given and the way of giving it. Indeed, very little reflection is wanted to show that, in a matter so personal and private, class instruction is not the desirable thing.
The first principle that may be laid down with safety is that the duty of giving the first instruction in these matters belongs to the parents of the children. Even in the more general parts of education, the school is but a supplement to the family. The school teacher is only supposed to do what the parents cannot efficiently do themselves. But the parent can teach the laws of sex, and ought to be able to do so even more efficiently than the school teacher. Moreover, the teacher has a right to presuppose such knowledge if in the course of his lessons questions involving sexual laws should incidentally arise.
It has been frequently said that the mother should teach the girls and the father the boys. This rule becomes more appropriate as the children grow older. Girls between the ages of thirteen and seventeen would more naturally turn to their mother, whilst boys of the same age would more naturally turn to their father. Parents may take this as a healthy instinct and use their judgment accordingly to direct it.
But questions begin to arise in the child mind long before the age of thirteen. As the mother is occupied almost entirely with the children during their earlier years, it is her duty rather than the father's to watch for the signs of awakening intelligence. Knowledge should never be thrust into the child's mind before it is asked for. The state of innocence or ignorance, whichever we like to call it, is better kept untouched as long as possible. If a boy or girl can be kept in a state of innocence, without fear of being smirched by other and more precocious children, say up to the age of thirteen or fourteen, he will be all the better for it both in health of mind and health of body. To put sexual images into a child's mind before due time is to start a tendency towards precocity and moral depravity. The arrival of a new baby is best explained by saying that it is a present from God, and has come in God's good way.
Together with this protection from the unripe fruit of knowledge there should be a corresponding observance of sexual hygiene. Irritation due to uncleanliness, or to tight and hot clothing, may easily cause undue sexual development and so become the source of moral difficulty in the future. If any signs of abnormal sexual development appear, a doctor should be consulted. Under no circumstances whatever should children be allowed the taste of alcohol. It leads both to drunkenness and impurity.
There comes at length a time when explicit knowledge is in order and must be given. The dawn of a more intelligent interest begins to glimmer. It comes so innocently, so naively, that it is just as likely to express itself in the presence of the mother as in the presence of other and older children. That is the mother's opportunity. Then, and not until then, may she give the information. If, as is frequently done, she silences the question by saying that it is one that ought not to be asked, or if she ignores it by talking of something else, then she has missed the opportunity given to her by God through nature. The child's interest has not been crushed, but has even been accentuated and probably directed into a dangerous channel. He will ask the question again, and perhaps when he does get an answer it will be adorned with the attractions of vice. The impression will come to him that somehow the facts of sex are very wicked, but at the same time very alluring.
No! When the right moment has arrived, when the mother judges that if she does not speak some one else will, then she must say the word solemnly and plainly. The fact of sex is something holy and mysterious. If the child wants to know anything about it, it must ask mother and not other people. Children grow in the mother's body and, when the time comes, they are born.
If the matter be thus solemnly but openly treated there will be no need to go too much into details. The child will make its own inferences, which will be substantially correct. At any rate, they will be enough for the time being. As the child grows older it will want to know more. Here, again, no exact rule can be laid down. The parents will be guided by their judgment, which will partake rather of the nature of an instinct. As more details are required, so will the mother speak to the girls, and the father to the boys. To the parents and not to the schoolmaster, nor still less to boys and girls, belongs the duty of explaining what is meant by being born.
This knowledge is sought for, and possessed, long before the knowledge of how children are begotten. The latter is one of the most difficult things to teach. Parents are inclined to be too reticent about it, with the result that children invariably get their first knowledge from undesirable sources. Let reason, then, decide that the parents shall say what is essential, and at the same time let instinct decide that they shall not say more than is essential.
There is no need, whatever, for a full and particular description of the sexual act. Much less is there need of diagrams and pictures of the human body.
The best way is to begin with the lower forms of life. The description of the fertilization of a plant is most admirable. The plant excites no harmful images in the imagination. The poultry yard, too, may be taken as a convenient object lesson. If plants and poultry are understood, then the parent may go further and say that in the higher animals and in human beings the young are produced in a similar way.
The manner of giving this information is more important than the matter. There must, on the one hand, be no tendency to laugh and joke about it, whilst there must, on the other, be no attempt to suppress it as if it were something wicked. The inquiring mind at this stage is alert and receptive. Moreover, it works in harmony with a natural instinct. Thus, of its own nature, it readily makes the right inferences and draws the necessary conclusions. The aim of the parent is to keep these conclusions as ideal as possible, and to prevent them from becoming topics of conversation and reading. The more they act on the senses so much the more likely are they to induce an indulgence of the senses, and thus lead to acts of impurity.
After the age of thirteen or fourteen, the boys will claim more particularly the attention of their father, and the girls that of their mother. Now is the time for explicit teaching on certain well-defined matters.
If the boy has been encouraged to look to his father rather than to his own playfellows for information of this kind, he will sooner or later ask in anxiety about the relief of nature in the night. He may be told that so long as this does not arise from any tampering with himself, it is perfectly natural and nothing to be distressed about. The father may also take the occasion to warn him against the sin of self-abuse. This sin is so prevalent amongst boys that the father need hardly be afraid of giving the warning too soon. Let it be said solemnly and plainly that the boy has certain powers given to him by God, for the purpose of begetting children in lawful marriage, and that if those powers are abused in boyhood they will be damaged for their function in manhood.
Strong motives will be required by the boy to keep him straight. At this age, natural motives are very powerful, but they are more powerful if spiritualized and raised to a supernatural plane. Tell the boy first, then, that this is a sin against God. The body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, and sins against the body, therefore, have a special malice in them and bring after them a special punishment. The law of nature is broken and nature will exact a heavy toll. But what is the law of nature except a reflex of the divine mind? And what is the retribution of nature except a fulfillment of the divine Will? Tell the boy, then, that self-abuse impairs the brain and shatters the nerves, that it dulls the intelligence and weakens the will, and that these are the effects ordained by God to follow on the violation of His law.
As the boys get older, they may be warned against venereal disease. The terrible natural effects may be pointed out, but always these natural punishments should be associated with the divine law, and shown to be but a portion of the punishment due to such sins.
A proposal has been made, and in European countries partly put into practice, to enlighten young minds concerning the many extreme forms of sexual perversion. This instruction I hold to be decidedly pernicious. If the boy is warned against the more common sins, he will at once recognize the less common and more heinous ones if the temptation should arise. Whereas, if the idea is put into the boy's head unnecessarily, temptation is put in his way. Nay, I would go further and say that books dealing with the extreme forms of sexual perversion should not be read even by adults, unless their profession obliges them to deal with such cases. Obviously the doctor, the lawyer, and the priest should know all about these things. But the ordinary layman can only read them to his own disadvantage. And if this is true of scientific works, how much more true must it be of certain novels and pictures? The policy of reading and seeing all things is sure to work disaster on those who adopt it without sufficient reason. Where there is reason in this matter there is also grace.
Together with reverence for the divine law, there should be instilled into boys a profound reverence and respect for womankind. This will be directed, in the first instance, towards their own mother and sisters. The habit of mind and heart thus formed in early youth will be of the utmost service to them when in later years they have to associate with and move amongst women not of the family.
The mother will give corresponding instruction to the girls. Directions concerning the first signs of womanhood must be explicit. Our Lady's Virginity may well be taken as an occasion to explain the nature of virginity and its importance to young girls. There is a bodily virginity and a spiritual virginity. Bodily virginity is usually taken to be the sign of spiritual virginity. It is certainly a most important protection of the same, and as such must be guarded with the utmost care. Bodily virginity may be lost either through sin or through ignorance, or through accident, or through necessary surgical operation. Such a misfortune therefore may imply sin or it may not. And if it does not imply sin, it may give rise to needless distress and scruples. Mothers, therefore, can do much both to protect their daughters' chastity, and to preserve their peace of mind, by explaining to them clearly these circumstances of womanhood.
The question has been asked: Who is to instruct those children who have no parents, or whose parents are unfitted for the task? For those who have no parents, the duty devolves upon the guardian. For those whose parents are unfitted, the task may be undertaken by the schoolmaster or the priest. But, generally speaking, it is not advisable that children should associate such instruction with the priest. In the confessional, he never speaks of it unless he is asked or unless he has reason to suppose that there is something wrong. It is not right, therefore, for parents or guardians to relegate instruction to the confessional, for it is their duty to anticipate the wrong by giving instruction before the wrong has been done.
With regard to children at boarding schools, there should be some arrangement between parent and teacher. The parent will endeavor to take the lead either before the child is sent to school or during the holidays, and then communicate with the head teacher accordingly.
The time of going out from home to earn a living is an occasion for special warning. Again, there is no need to go into all the details of the dangers of the streets. It will be sufficient to say that grave dangers do exist and that the chief occasion of these dangers is the accepting of acquaintance with unknown men or women. If good relationships have already been established between mother and daughter, then the girl will willingly tell her mother of any new friendship she may have made.
Whenever there is a question of a girl leaving home for a distant town, and more especially for a foreign country, the mother may well inform her child of the existence of the White Slave Traffic. There are, though, I believe, large numbers of mothers even who do not know of its existence. Let it be said here then that this terrible business is spread all over the world. It consists of tricking young women into houses of ill fame under pretense of finding them situations. The two chief means of enticing girls away are chance acquaintanceships whilst traveling, and advertisements in the newspapers.
Provision has been made for the protection of Catholic girls by the International Catholic Society for Girls. Whenever, therefore, a girl thinks of taking a situation away from home, and especially if she be going to a foreign country, she should first put herself in communication with this society.