We can’t waste this teachable moment: How the teaching of one commandment silenced generations of sex abuse victims and what we can do to change it

Part One: Young Children and the Sixth Commandment

It’s the juicy one: Thou shall not commit adultery.

How do you teach the term adultery to young children? There are two ways:

  • There is a guilt and sin-laden method that shames child victims of abuse into a lifetime of silence and self-loathing. It also silences witnesses and whistleblowers and fosters continued sex abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church and other faiths, or
  • There is an empowering method that can protect our children from abuse.

The Problem

My son is a 7-year-old second grader at a Lutheran school. This week, he came home with this quiz. As you can imagine, I flipped.

Sexually Pure? What seven-year-old truly understands?

Young children do NOT understand what it means to be “sexually pure.” And what about the child who has been sexually abused. According to this worksheet, is that child not pure? Is he dirty or has she sinned in the eyes of God?

NOTE: Fortunately, my child’s teacher (who is required to teach this worksheet as a part of Luther’s Cathechism) is a smart, wonderful woman who has been around the block . She completely understands the serious problems with this definition. She teaches her classes that boys and girls are made differently and that we respect those differences. The end. But the worksheet is still there. And we need to fix it.

This problem is not unique to the Lutherans. When I was a first grader in Catholic schools, I was taught that I needed to be sexually pure for my husband and/or for Jesus. In fact, we were encouraged to be like the Virgin Mary in every way possible. If we were not, we were sinful and sullied in the eyes of God. I was six years old. And ultimately confused.

At that age, I didn’t know what sex was, nor did I understand the meaning of the word “virgin.” But by the sixth grade, I did understand. And by that time, the ideas of sexual purity and sexual shame were deeply engrained in my young mind. Can you imagine how the victim of sexual abuse feels once they understand? That burden of sin, shame and guilt is too much for any child, especially the child who has done nothing wrong and is the victim of a crime.

It gets worse: a child who believes that he is sinful will blame himself for abuse. A child who thinks she is “sullied” is going to believe that she asked for the abuse and is NOT going to report what happened to her. Peers and potential whistleblowers—who received the same lessons—are more likely to blame the victim for what happened (as happened in my own case).


The Solution

  1. For young children, take any discussion of sex out of the equation. Period. Children do not and should not know what sex or sexual purity are. Any child at this age (under 10) who acts out sexually has more than likely been the victim of abuse or witnessed something entirely age-inappropriate. That child needs immediate help. Sin and sex have nothing to do with it.
  2. Give children an empowering message that can help them stay safer from sexual abuse and help anyone else who has been hurt.

Here’s an example:

“We love, protect, and respect our bodies. We also respect and protect the bodies of others. We do not allow anyone to touch our private parts (except in some very special cases) and we do not touch the private parts of anyone else. If someone touches our private parts or we see or hear that a friend has been touched that way, we tell an adult we trust.”

Blunt? Yes. Shameful and full of innuendo? No. Appropriate for the classroom? It’s far more appropriate than any discussion of sexual purity in a second-grade classroom.

What’s the worst that could happen? It’s the same as the ideal result: A child will come forward and report abuse.

I think Jesus is far more concerned with helping the child victim of sexual abuse than he is worried about the sexual purity of a 10-year-old.

It’s time to change the discussion right now.

Coming up in Part II

The discussion of the sixth commandment and older children (including purity rings, the case of Elizabeth Smart, and why female victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church seldom come forward and report)

3 thoughts on “We can’t waste this teachable moment: How the teaching of one commandment silenced generations of sex abuse victims and what we can do to change it

  1. Sorry Joelle…Just read the catechism you had highlighted. That would be a concern…so much room for shame and guilt there on many levels. (Luther wrote a book that I recently was made aware of..”On the Jews and Their Lies”). Glad the teacher was open to your concerns and suggestions..huge really to be
    listened to.

  2. Nonsense. The two are completely separate issues. Youre work is confusing your theology. Youre right that young children do not need to know the details of the Commandment. But not teaching Gods word to avoid confusion is not excusable. All a child needs to know is that a husband and wife are to love one another only. That simple! Teaching about ownership of their own bodies is another subject completely that has nothing to do with adultery. When you try to relate to the two is when you confuse young children. I understand where you are coming from but your solution is no solution and fails both issues.

    1. I totally understand where you are coming from (and when it comes to the actual theology, you’re spot on). In fact, you share my husbands opinion on how the commandment should be taught. My point is that is “sexual purity” is going to be introduced, we need to do something about it.

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