Teaching Children about Physical Development
June 1988

“Teaching Children about Physical Development,” Ensign, June 1988, 39

Handbook for Families

Teaching Children about Physical Development

Although I am a professional counselor, I was surprised to find myself uncomfortable and a little embarrassed when my children started becoming inquisitive about physical development. It was difficult to answer specific questions, and I found myself avoiding the discussion.

Since then, I’ve found my initial reaction was little different from that of most parents. For several years I informally asked my students in child development classes how many had parents who contributed at least half of their knowledge about physical development and human reproduction. Never did I have a class in which more than 20 percent of the students said they did. In the winter of 1980, for example, out of a class of 247 students, only 23 indicated they learned more than half from their parents.

The implication of this condition is obvious: if parents aren’t doing the teaching, who is? If we aren’t teaching from an eternal perspective what we want our children to know about human development and reproduction, what are they learning? I don’t like to contemplate the warped ideas present-day society is only too eager to teach them.

To counteract such influences, we developed a plan we use in our family. You might find it useful for teaching your own family.

First, we prepare ourselves. Children learn as much from how we teach as from what we teach. If we teach in an embarrassed or nervous way, or if we have negative feelings ourselves, there is a good chance our children will assimilate the same feelings. Since it’s important that we use proper and appropriate terminology in our discussions, we need to learn to say these terms comfortably.

As we formulated our method of teaching, we tried to keep in mind just what we wanted to accomplish. My wife and I decided that one objective was to form the kind of relationship with our children that would encourage open discussion with them whenever and about whatever we or they wished. We want these discussions to improve our relationship. Subsequently, whenever our children have asked questions, we have first made them feel good about coming to us, and then we’ve tried to tell them what they wanted to know.

We also want our children to have accurate factual knowledge and to learn from both of us. There is much sons and daughters can and should learn from both parents. Furthermore we must gear our teaching to our children’s ages and to their readiness to learn.

Another of our objectives is to help our children understand that their bodies and the power to create mortal life are sacred and that, within marriage, the physical expression of love is a source of joy and an important contribution to the eternal bond with their loved one. We want them to understand that the desire to express love in this way outside of marriage must be completely controlled so that their future relationship with their marriage partner will be the best it can possibly be. We want them to know that the best relationships are those in which people’s standards of behavior are consistent with our values as Latter-day Saints.

The accompanying sidebars contain helpful information for parents about four developmental stages children go through.

There are moments when we clearly sense that our family can be eternal. During these times, it is as if the obstacles to our understanding are removed, the veil is thinned, and we are given a mental glimpse into other worlds.

Sometimes, however, we are so involved with other things that we misplace our attentions and fail to remember our eternal commitments to our children. During these times, we miss the teaching moments and fail to see the future consequences of what we do or don’t do.

For a child to successfully manage his emotions during adulthood, he needs to learn to control his emotions while he is still young. Many of us unwisely allow our young children to have tantrums, to believe they can get whatever they want, or to be undisciplined in work and achievement. But when the time comes for them to restrain themselves from inappropriate behavior, these children may not have sufficient internal control. And when a child does not have sufficient internal control, he tends to use external controls, like the influence of others, to determine his choices.

Every child needs to know early that he is responsible for his choices. Each person is responsible to choose, to act, and to receive the consequences for good or ill. Helping children learn this one idea should be a major focus.

Children deserve to see parents live positive principles of modesty and fidelity. They also deserve to learn more from their parents about procreation than from anyone else.

First Concepts in Childhood (Birth–7)

Developmental Stages of Children’s Understanding

Children this age are curious. They’re interested in objects and their physical properties, such as shape, texture, size, and color. They organize ideas into concepts and want to know about feelings associated with objects.

Concepts That Parents Can Teach

  1. Using correct terms, teach your child about the body and the differences between males and females.

  2. Teach when to talk about the body and when not to (at home with parents, not in Primary class).

  3. Teach concepts of modesty.

  4. Begin to teach basic principles of conception, pregnancy, and child prenatal growth.

Suggested Ways to Teach

  1. Respond to your child’s questions about the body.

  2. Explain when it is best to talk about these things.

  3. Use examples and positive comments to teach modesty and self-respect.

  4. Use reading material about prenatal growth and childbirth. If appropriate, use own pregnancy as an example.

  5. Be loving; show affection to the child.

Emotional Control and Prepubertal Physical Development (Ages 7–11)

Developmental Stages of Children’s Understanding

During this time, children learn preliminary logical thinking and social skills. They achieve a sense of relationships with other people and learn to control their emotions.

Concepts That Parents Can Teach

  1. Teach your child about conception and reproduction.

  2. Reinforce his or her need to talk openly with you about his or her questions.

  3. Use social events to teach modesty and appropriate conversation.

  4. Help your child learn to control his or her emotional impulses to avoid extreme or uncontrolled displays, to be loving, and to give affection.

Suggested Ways to Teach

  1. Initiate conversations to learn what your child knows or is wondering about. Encourage your child to talk to you.

  2. Respond to his or her questions as they arise.

  3. When he or she exhibits extreme emotions, focus on the need to manage his or her impulses. Encourage him or her to talk about feelings and emphasize that each person is responsible to control the expression of his or her emotions.

Puberty and Early Adolescence (Ages 11–15)

Developmental Stages of Children’s Understanding

Children this age have increased interest in the body and how it relates to popularity, athletic skill, and attraction to the opposite sex. They are increasingly aware of physical changes and have a tendency to compare themselves with others. They are very self-conscious about “looks” and relate their own appearance to other’s respect and social values. They give importance to the opinions of peers, and they experience strong physical desires for the first time. They also see the logic behind reasons and perceive cause-and-effect relationships.

Concepts That Parents Can Teach

  1. Teach your child about physical changes that occur in puberty.

  2. Teach that “good looks” don’t make a good person and that one must develop good values, standards of personal conduct, and modesty.

  3. Teach social skills (how to make friends, talk with others, and achieve) so that acceptance can be achieved on some basis other than appearance.

  4. Teach that individuals go through puberty at different rates: early or late, rapidly or slowly.

  5. Teach that our bodies are sacred gifts from our Father in Heaven and that to respect ourselves is to respect him.

  6. Teach that self-abuse will result in loss of self-esteem and feelings of self-doubt.

Suggested Ways to Teach

  1. Obtain good reading material and other information to use with your family.

  2. Reinforce your child’s physical changes by paying positive attention to his or her growth, (“You sure have broad shoulders.”)

  3. Create teaching times in which you can tell him or her about what boys and girls can expect during puberty.

  4. Share some of your own experiences with puberty and its changes.

  5. Initiate numerous conversations to ensure that he or she develops positive attitudes about his or her body, social success, and personal standards.

  6. Frequently explore your child’s self-image.

  7. Teach ways to manage physical desire (avoid pornography, become involved in physical work, and talk about feelings, for example).

Late Adolescence (Ages 15–18)

Developmental Stages of Children’s Understanding

Youths this age can easily observe how they relate to others. They insist that reasons and ideas be logical, and they feel a need to make their own choices, their ability to do so leads to the development of personal values. Attempts by others to force ideas will evoke resistance. Teenagers see social success as increasingly important, especially attention from the opposite sex. Their personal esteem is closely tied to feelings of being socially successful, and they require abundant positive emotional support from parents. Youths this age often have difficulty acting according to what they believe, although they understand correct principles.

Concepts That Parents Can Teach

  1. Teach that physical intimacy is a commitment to another person that should occur only in marriage.

  2. Teach that intimate involvement before marriage is a sin that cheapens relationships.

  3. Explain that physical attractiveness used to increase popularity will achieve only temporary results. Personality and social skills result in more permanent success.

  4. Teach how to hold expressions of love within appropriate limits.

  5. Teach that properly managing physical desire is a major part of preparing for success in marriage.

  6. Teach how to avoid compromising situations.

Suggested Ways to Teach

  1. Share with your child personal experiences about making correct choices.

  2. Talk with your child about the importance of keeping the law of chastity.

  3. Emphasize positive examples of young people marrying properly.

  4. Initiate talks about marital relationships.

  5. Express confidence, support, and love.

  6. Tell him or her clearly what you want for him or her and why—without demanding or threatening.

  7. Avoid critical comments about his or her looks, choices, or actions. Instead, focus on the positive choices he or she makes.

  • A. Lynn Scoresby, a psychologist and associate professor of Family Science at BYU, serves as Young Men president in the Highland Fifth Ward, Highland Utah Stake.

Photography by Craig Dimond