I talk to clients a lot about integrity. Since I do not believe I have the right to apply my morality or anyone else’s morality to another person, my goal as a therapist is for my clients to define and find the way for them to live in integrity, sexually and otherwise. But I realize maybe this a word we throw around without really diving in.
Integrity can be defined as the fairly ambiguous “having strong moral principles”. Ok, that can mean a lot of things. What I find is that many of us first need to establish –for ourselves – what exactly our moral principles are; then we can perhaps strengthen them. Integrity presupposes that we have come to terms with what is true and right for us and hopefully shed old shames that have been applied to us by others.
We use the word to apply to things we have built, implying that they are strong, sound, in good condition. Some people will define integrity as being honest, but I think that falls short.
The definition I like is this one – “The state of being whole and undivided’. This touches on the complexity of being a stand up human being, it allows for the fact that we may have differing parts, desires and needs that may sometimes confuse or conflict, but within our personal integrity we find ways to bring these things together, acknowledge them as part of us, and make a choice of what is best. I witness clients struggling with difficult choices prioritizing which value must take precedence at this time – do you honor the new passion you feel or a long-standing precious commitment? Do you honor a valued place in your community or a developing political statement? What you deeply want or what you believe to be right? This moment or a future plan? Integrity is not simple. It often requires that our perspectives change or develop. It can set us off balance as we search for a new balance.
This last definition also resonates with me as the feeling I have had when I am standing in integrity. I am not blindly following rules, I am full of awareness and in line with myself. I see that I have choice. And I have freedom in knowing I can simply show up with others because I am ok with my actions.
Consider how you interact and live your life differently when your conscience is clear, when you are at peace with yourself, undivided. How does this resonate within
I love you SOOOO much.
Our first attachments are to our caregivers. This is a unique form of love, with need and safety and deep power differentials, that will impact us our entire life. It is also one of the first relationships were we begin to “practice” with a child’s mind the idea of romance, and its connection to love. Children learn by playing, enacting scenarios and seeing how it feels. This can be empowering even though the play is “not real” as the child imagines that they could handle themselves in that scenario.
It is very common for children around age 4 to 6 to develop crushes on adults in their life, more commonly a parent. This can be an icky and awkward phase for the parent who is the focus of their attention since it feels very inappropriate. Children in this stage may profess their love, get jealous of the parent’s partner, ask for extra attention, and even try to kiss the parent the way they saw in cartoons. For the child’s development though it is entirely appropriate to imagine and pretend and to get information from adult’s responses. It makes sense for a child to try these new possibilities out with someone they love, look up to and feel safe with, so they are actually making a good choice in play partner. It is helpful if adults are calm and kind about this phase (remember it will pass soon enough). Gently saying something like, “I love you too, so much. You are my beautiful little boy. But romantic love, when people get married or kiss passionately or XYZ, happens between two people who are close in age. So I will be with an adult, like me. And you will eventually find someone your age to be with. And you and I get to love each other as mommy and son and that is a really special love”.
What can happen, in large part because most adults have a healthy internal taboo against sex with children, is that adults overreact to a child’s natural style of learning – experimentation and play practice. Children may get shamed or unintentionally scared by an adult’s negative reaction. It is important to set firm boundaries as the adult about how you do and don’t want to be touched and also about the limits of your relationship (as true with children as with other adults, right?). There is no need to scold or punish a child for having their version of a crush, in fact this could cause them to feel uncomfortable or to doubt those feelings when they arise later in life. There is also no need to encourage the feelings and adults should be careful that they are not using the child’s affection to manipulate the child’s behavior or to create triangles or alliances in the family. Just remember that the child is trying on adult roles, not having adult feelings.
This is the same age that many kids will play house, acting out family dynamics, patterns, and habits in ways that can be dismaying or adorable to those being mimicked. Adults are role models, even when we are not aware of it, and children look to us for guidance on how to do this thing called life. They are taught early on, in fairytales and stories, TV shows, and magazine covers in the checkout line, that romantic love is something to be desired. One of the crucial things they seek to learn from us is how to love and be loved. Let’s strive to show them love can be kind, understanding, and unconditional but also with clear boundaries. Not a bad thing to remind ourselves of too.
Andy & Misty are 6 years old. They are playing in Misty’s backyard while her parents make dinner. The game of the moment is to climb on top of the picnic table and jump off. While jumping off you pull your pants down to flash your friend. Both kids think this is hilarious. They also know they are doing something that is not allowed if adults are around and that is part of the fun. They are each fascinated by the fact that their bodies look different under their clothes.
For awhile this is their favorite game. But after a few weeks of it, they will get bored and move on to something else. If they are really comfortable with each other, they may admit their curiosity and take closer looks at each other’s genitals while standing still. Maybe at some point they may play a game with kissing or even touching, but that’s not this game. This game is about jumping, and flashing parts you aren’t supposed to show, and getting a peek at a differently shaped body. It’s not a game about sex; that is an adult framework. It is about exploring and risking and your body being your own. And it is perfectly common and healthy.
Kids find all kinds of creative ways to explore their world and bodies are a part of that world. Many of us will have our own stories of exploration with childhood friends. And for most of us, if there is shame attached to this memory it is because of adult intervention from being caught and scolded. Healthy kids, who have not been abused or traumatized, will engage in explorative play of genitals without fear. They may be embarrassed if caught, because they know it is “naughty”. If they are following natural curiosity, no one will be bullied or pressured into anything and the play will feel mutual. There may be giggling and silly questions. None of this tells us anything about Andy or Misty’s sexual orientation, nor would it if it was Andy & Arthur playing or Misty and Monique. It certainly doesn’t mean that the kids will be overly interested in sex or that they have any trouble with impulse control. What it actually might mean is that they are not afraid of their body and so they let it be a part of their play.
Preparing Kids for Sex Requires a Different Kind of Conversation
I remember so clearly a moment from my Health class in High School – topic Sex. Our teacher, a 60 year old women with orthopedic shoes, lectured us saying, “Next time you are in the back seat of a car with someone you should pull out a flashlight and check their genitals for diseases”. Um…yeah. Not the most helpful sex advice I have gotten in my life. But I sure do remember it! Most of our sex education for kids focuses on the dangers of sex. Sure, we do want to prepare kids to be safe, to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and increasingly from criminal consequences for certain types of sexual expression. But focusing on the negative aspects of sex misses the reality of sex by a lot.
A sad side effect of the well meaning but limited way we generally talk to kids about sex is that it desensitizes kids to the anxiety-provoking aspects of sex. Does that statement surprise you? Here is what I mean by that. When we only talk to kids about the ways that sex is scary or dangerous, when they start to engage in sexual activity, if they feel scared or anxious it is no longer a red flag – that is how they have been taught sexual behavior will feel. When all we have heard about sex is related to the things that can go wrong, our mind creates a link between feeling anxious and worried and sexual behavior. I wonder how many of you out there had early sexual experiences that were uncomfortable, with high levels of nervousness and doubt, that looking back you think, “Man that could have been easier”? Personally, I want kids to learn that if sex feels scary or you are really anxious that is a sign to slow down and reassess. I want them to relate sex to pleasure, not fear and shame.
And that it what we need to be talking to kids about when we talk to them about sex – pleasure. But that scares people. There is a misguided belief that if we suggest to kids that sex is actually fun they will want to have it. I am sure as you see this in print you can also see how ridiculous this is. Kids will want to have sex. What they need to hear from us adults is how to know if they are ready, if the person they are with is a good choice as a sexual partner, if the sex they are considering is within their own values and integrity. And they need to hear from us that if sex hurts, you can stop. If you are too overwhelmed to be able to communicate with your partner, you can stop. If you are scared, you can stop. So what I really wish parents were saying to their kids : “ When it is time for you to start being sexual with someone, I wish for you to feel…”.
The next part is up to each family or adult and their own perspective. But I might suggest some things like, “…like you are good friends with the person you are with, that they respect you, that you have talked about sex and know what to expect from each other, that you are comfortable and confidant, that you have a safe and private place to be, that you focus on pleasure and expressing affection to each other, that you are excited and curious, that you know how to be safe and get the resources and answers you need, that you are ready”. Imagine what a sexual conversation like that might change.
Recently there was a tiny article in the news about a middle school principal banning girls from wearing strapless dresses to the school dance because they “distract boys”. Parents at the school are protesting and I think they should, for several reasons. I also think this story says a lot about the ways we as a society go wrong in addressing adolescent sexuality.
First question of course is – what are the boys supposed to be focusing on at a school dance? I mean truly, what are they distracted from that is so important? Should they be finely honing their dance moves? Memorizing song lyrics? Part of what is maddening about this story, is that the principal seems to have missed the point of a school dance in the first place. We are supposed to be distracted by our fellow students, we are supposed to learn to dance and flirt and get flustered by mutual and not so mutual attractions. This is not about troublesome distractions, this is about pretending that adolescents are not going to actually be interested in each other’s bodies or sex.
The next piece of this that disturbs me is this: if boys are not supposed to be distracted in this way, how will they ever learn to handle the sexual distractions that are around them all the time? I believe that one of the important tasks we (all of us, boy and girls) are to learn in adolescence is how to handle our own sexual energy and desires, while respecting others boundaries and appropriate social settings. Even if adults could manage to create an environment in which teenage boys were not distracted by people they were attracted to, who would this serve? Certainly not their future partners. Not the boys themselves. We need to learn that our sexual energy and desire is not an overwhelming force over which we have no control. We have to learn to be distracted and still function. And we have to learn to not blame our distraction on the externals, other people, cute girls, etc, but to own that we have choices in the way we behave and to some extent in where we focus our mind and thoughts.
And then there is the piece that many parents at this school complained about, which is the implication that girls, by the way they dress, behave, look, should mediate the boys’ sexuality. This is a dangerous implication that has shown its ugly head in rape cases and sexual harassment cases for years. If only women can carry the burden of repressing our sexual natures, then we would be safe from the consequences, and perhaps the freedoms, of sexuality. This outdated sexist model has got to go. Now.
We are all responsible for our own sexual behaviors. It can be a challenge sometimes, no doubt. We are surrounded by a big juicy, sexy world with lots of distractions. Learning how to navigate in that world is valuable and we need to support kids, and adults, in how to do that with grace, respect, and also excitement and passion. Invite sexual distraction – without it the world would be a much less alive place.
The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.
As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous. As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?
What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?
So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is. I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.