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.
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.
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).
BUT WE CAN FIX THIS!
- 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.
- 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)