I Have a Question
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“I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 2000, 58–59

Why is it important for us to teach our children in the home about physical intimacy in marriage?

Brent A. Barlow, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Nearly a century ago, President Joseph F. Smith counseled: “Far too many risk their children’s spiritual guidance to chance, or to others rather than to themselves, and think that organizations suffice for religious training. … Do not let your children out to specialists in these things, but teach them by your own precept and example. … Be a specialist yourself in truth. Let our meetings, schools and organizations, instead of being our only or leading teachers, be supplements to our teachings and training in the home” (“Worship in the Home,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1903, 137–38; Gospel Doctrine [1966], 301–2).

In this particular area of teaching our children about intimacy in marriage the task seems to be growing increasingly difficult and complex because of conditions in the latter days (see 2 Tim. 3:1–4). Yet, it is because of those very conditions that it is easy to see why we must teach a child the way he should go (see Prov. 22:6). Then Satan may have little influence over him if that child chooses to follow the Lord (see D&C 29:47). Indications are that some young people in the world are becoming sexually active at increasingly early ages. For example, a 1998 magazine article reported that according to the Commission on Adolescent Sexual Health in the United States, more than half of all females and three-quarters of males ages 15 to 19 had experienced sexual relations. The article indicated that the main sources of information for teenagers about physical relationships were: friends, 45 percent; television, 29 percent; parents, 7 percent; and sex education programs in schools, 3 percent (see “Where’d You Learn That?” Time, 15 June 1998, 54–55).

While some of the information available from sources other than parents may be helpful, often information from friends, television, and even from school may convey to young people ideas, values, and behavior inconsistent with gospel principles. President Ezra Taft Benson cautioned, “Too often television and movie screens shape our children’s values” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 296).

The key question for Latter-day Saint parents today is not so much who will teach our children about sexual matters; in many ways they are already being taught by the world through its pervasive influences. The critical question is: Do we want to participate in the education of our children in this area?

The statistics quoted earlier suggest that if Latter-day Saint parents are going to have a major impact on our children’s understanding of sexual matters, we will likely have to increase our efforts. Education from sources outside the home often overlooks aspects of intimacy that are most important and that are more effectively taught by parents than by any others. By its very nature, secular teaching ignores eternal moral principles that must govern any relationship between a man and a woman for it to endure and be truly edifying instead of damaging to the soul.

It might be said that in the past parents have often tried to make information safe for children. For example, we may have tried to monitor and evaluate television programs and movies our children watch. Perhaps a few parents have gone to the schools to critique in advance sex education programs to be presented to their sons and daughters. We may have wanted to know something about the teachers who would be presenting the materials. Perhaps some of us have been concerned about books available in public libraries. In some instances, parents have confronted or boycotted businesses selling questionable magazines and videos. Many more parents are making efforts to prevent the introduction of sexually oriented materials into their home via the Internet; these materials can have a monumentally negative impact on all persons exposed to them, including youth and children. Concerned parents should continue doing all these things, where it is possible and appropriate.

But since it is clear that parents of youth and Primary teachers and leaders cannot control all the things our children may hear or see about physical intimacy, we must take the additional step of trying to make our children safe for information, preparing them to make righteous decisions about the information that comes to them. Acknowledging the fact that our sons and daughters are going to see, hear, read, or be taught some things about sex and morality that are inconsistent with gospel-based values, we can strengthen our children for that time. We must be able to discuss the things they may see or hear at a level they are prepared to understand, without emotionally tilting the situation so that our children feel guilt for something they could not control.

To strengthen our children, we should continually keep before them the heavenly standard of moral values and eternal principles made known by the Lord through scriptures and inspired Church leaders. There is a wide variety of approaches we might use. For example, we could teach that all of us must avoid being caught up in the “sexual revolution” of our times; that we can be safely guided only by the Lord’s prophets, not the world’s media; that all behaviors have consequences: physical, mental, social, and moral; that abstinence enhances freedom rather than limits it; and that only those who keep the Lord’s commandments enjoy the guidance of the Holy Spirit and eventually will be saved.

Parents who feel inadequate to teach these ideas generally underrate their own effectiveness and abilities. A loving, long-term parental relationship with their children gives them an advantage over any other teacher. But for parents feeling the need of additional help, many good resources are available, including these Church-approved publications:

  • A Parent’s Guide (item no. 31125 at Church distribution centers or in the Church Materials Catalog available through your bishop or ward clerk) provides information on the development of children and offers help with teaching about intimacy and the importance of families.

  • Family Home Evening Resource Book (no. 31106) offers sample lessons as well as suggestions for creating your own lessons.

  • Teaching, No Greater Call (no. 36123), the basic manual for the Church’s teacher improvement courses, provides help for anyone wishing to improve in teaching ability.

The timing of teaching about intimacy often is a major concern: will we teach them too much too soon, or too little too late? But whenever questions arise in their minds, if children feel free to ask about their concerns, including sexual matters, parents will not have to worry too much about timing. The communication process in giving answers is important. Sometimes we as parents may be unfamiliar with the nature of the question and may have to carefully inquire to find out what the child really needs to know. Or we may not have a ready answer that we are satisfied with; in this case, a response might be, “I’m not sure. Let’s study this.”

It will help to remember that in our day teaching children about facts or issues surrounding intimacy is not likely to be a single event or based on having “the talk” at the proper time. Today, it must be seen as an ongoing process.

Some of the best teaching parents do about the proper role of intimacy in marriage will not be verbal and may even be unconscious. Here, as elsewhere, example is one of the most powerful teachers. An appropriate tender hug, loving kiss, or embrace between Mom and Dad are clear indicators that parents enjoy each other’s closeness, while a wise public reserve between them that keeps other intimacies private will teach children that those intimacies belong to marriage partners alone.

Righteous parents of all ages have been concerned about the moral conduct of their children. Nearly two millennia ago, a father admonished one of his sons: “Bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12). The lesson is timeless, and it is vital for our era when the education of children in matters involving intimacy is more challenging than ever before. We must help our children learn the eternal principle that bridling their passions is essential to the enjoyment of vibrant, lasting love in a happy marriage.

Photo by Steve Bunderson; posed by models