The Attitude Which The Parent Should Maintain
( Originally Published 1923 )
Most adults of the present generation in this country are suffering from the effects of certain customs and traditions of the past, which have brought about various hostile or perverse attitudes toward sex. In what we sometimes call the "vulgar" attitude, sex is booked upon as an object of obscene jest, or as something shameful which is flaunted in defiance of convention. On the other hand, much of the attitude which considers itself quite respectable is merely an inversion of the vulgar attitude, a self-conscious and over-emphatic denial of interests it fears to acknowledge. Both of these attitudes are equally unwholesome, from the viewpoint of the individual as well as from that of society. The prudish attitude, resulting from constraint and repression of feelings, is afraid of sex and of all of its manifestations. It tends to concealment and denial, and often to hypocrisy. It is as unwholesome as ribaldry, though in a different way.
It is easy to see how prurience and vulgarity tend to defile and degrade the high values which the race has evolved after centuries of struggle and effort, by a progressive mastery of primitive impulses. It is not generally recognized; however, that prudery tends to destroy the creative impulses, to restrain the imagination as an agent of constructive effort in the arts and sciences, as well as to restrain the appreciation and enjoyment of beauty in all forms. In typical cases prudery is suspicious of all impulses that lead to pleasure, and it is suspicious of all manifestations of pleasure. Joy and laughter suggest to it at least the possibility of something improper. Because the native desires do so often lead to wrong-doing and disaster, repressed persons are prone to ascribe wickedness to all natural impulses and to demand their repression everywhere. In this way an unwholesome attitude is perpetuated by denying life to the very spirit. In extreme cases the destruction is a physical one as well as a spiritual one, in that it may lead to actual sterility or impotence.
Therefore, the first need of the parent who means to deal properly with the sex education of the child is to free himself as completely as may be, of the hampering fears and inhibitions derived from his own earliest experience, or imposed by past generations. This requires a great deal more than the acceptance of the new science, or an acknowledgment of responsibility, or an affirmation of desire to do what is right and needful for the child; it requires a re-education. It will mean in many cases a prolonged and determined effort to acquire a totally new point of view and to reverse the feelings acquired during many years. Unless we do actually accept the facts of sex as normal and decent, unless we do our-selves look upon reproduction and all that goes with it as clean and fine and capable of enlarging the meanings and satisfactions of life, we can hardly hope to impress upon our children a wholesome and satisfying attitude.
Questions that the child may ask must be met with perfect sincerity. We cannot do justice to the child while we cling to any secrets or entertain any fears or doubts. We must recognize that whatever unwhole some associations sex may live carried for us in the past, the approach of the child is always innocent and genuine. The very fact that a child is asking a question indicates that he has no hind-thought; and our response must be in the same spirit.
We must further be on our guard against giving the child the impression that some of his questions are somehow less proper than others, that some topics or problems may be freely discussed, while others belong in a special class, calling for a totally different mode of treatment. We must enter into the spirit of the child and answer his questions or give him the explanations he wants in complete sympathy with his limitations and needs. ft is only by maintaining constantly this friendly and sympathetic attitude that we can hope to maintain his continued confidence. He will not for long resort to his parents for help unless his appeals bring satisfaction.
It follows from the foregoing considerations that neither in our manner nor in our tone of voice should our treatment of matters pertaining to reproduction and sex be so differentiated from our treatment of other topics as to implant in the child the feeling that these things are somehow in a class apart. Matters of fact should be stated in a matter-of-fact manner. Additional information or explanations may be given in a thoroughly casual and objective way. There is no occasion for a whisper, for twilight, or for sentimentalism, any more than in the teaching of table manners or geography. Any genuine sentiment that the parent may feel, any earnestness derived from sincere conviction on the subject, will assert themselves and carry over to the child without needing help from artificial impressiveness or dramatic setting.
Finally, it is necessary for the mother or father who undertakes seriously to guide the emotions and character of the child to discard once and for all the notion that the child is either "good" or "bad," or that any of the child's impulses are either "good" or "bad." We must learn to think of the child's impulses, all of them, as morally indifferent, but capable of becoming sources of either virtue and happiness, or of mischief and suffering.
Apart, however, from the point of view which we deliberately decide to adopt with respect to the meaning and place of sex in life, or with respect to the things which we wish to teach our children, we are constantly exerting a profound though informal influence through our day-by-day conduct which is but a manifestation of what we do at bottom actually accept as of value and significance. The attitude toward the home as an institution, the attitude of father and mother toward each other, the respect we have for particular persons or for personality in general, become a part of the child's instruction without waiting to be framed into slogans or principles. These things reveal themselves in a hundred trifling and casual ways when we least intend to convey suggestions.
It is in the same informal and incidental manner that we impart to the young people the feeling of confidence which we have in the principles which we profess as guides to our own conduct. We may declare solemnly that honesty is the best policy and punctiliously conduct family prayers; but what we do believe, what we do hope and desire, will become apparent to the children of normal intelligence, however skilfully we may deceive others—or ourselves. Our attitude toward amusements and recreation, our own use of leisure, our own indulgences, our own treatment of those who are more powerful than ourselves and of those over whom we have power, our attitude toward the opinions of others, toward new ideas, toward differences in taste, our own worries and anxieties and fears, will speak louder to the children than the most carefully worded and most clearly enunciated rules and formulas which we may seek to impress upon them.
We cannot hope to get very far on the basis of urging upon the child, "Do as I say, not as I do," although we must, of course, seek to give the child the benefit of our own mistakes, our own shortcomings. A genuine effort on the part of the parents to overcome what they recognize to be defects of habit or attitude, a frank acknowledgment of shortcomings, will go much farther than a pretense at parental perfection. Indeed, unless we are hopelessly incapable of learning anything at all, we shall find in our attempts to guide our children a very large and very valuable part of our own education.