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Ask Dr. Sears: Teaching Children Respectful Sexuality

Q. My 5-year-old son talks about girls and women in an inappropriate manner. Where is he getting it from, and how can we put a stop to it?

A. One of the nuggets of wisdom that I regularly offer new parents is: Keep in mind that you are raising someone's future husband or wife, father or mother. Family life is like relationship boot camp. What your child experiences with you, his father, siblings or other close relatives, teaches your child how people should relate to one another; how men treat women, boys treat girls and vice versa. In fact, your son's first lesson in how boys should appropriately view and talk about girls will most likely come from seeing how his father, or other adult male family member, treats you. Here are a few tips to help you actively encourage your child's healthy sexual attitude and appropriate respect for the opposite sex:

Take advantage of teachable moments

Studies have shown that one of the most powerful influences on how children grow up to treat the opposite gender is the way they perceive the relationship between their parents. Years ago, one of our children was being disrespectful to my wife. I intervened by simply saying, "I will not tolerate your talking to the woman I love like that." A dad's attitude towards his child's mother will shape his son's attitude toward women in general. Look for opportunities in your daily family life to model respect between mom and dad.

Encourage a father-son talk 

It's never too early to begin instilling a healthy attitude about sexuality. Your husband should have a chat with your son about how men respect women and boys respect girls. If your son is talking or acting inappropriately toward women, Dad should intervene immediately and tell him this behavior is not okay. Your child needs clear instructions in order for him to understand what is appropriate and what isn't.

Have a mother-son talk

Take advantage of your mother-son bond to explain to your child about the respect boys should show girls. Remind him that, believe it or not, you were a 5-year-old girl at one time, and you liked boys who were nice to you. Your son may have completely overlooked the fact that his mom was, at one time, just like the girls he talks so inappropriately about. He may not yet realize that the language he has been using is a real problem. Just like with his father, your child needs to hear from you what language and behavior you believe is healthy and respectful.

Monitor his friends

Perhaps he has befriended other boys who are influencing his behavior. Take inventory of his peers, classmates, and even older boys that he may be hanging out with. Also, make sure he's not overhearing grown men speaking inappropriately about women—little ears can pick up more than you realize. Attitudes about sexuality are especially contagious, and he is at a very influential age. Treating the opposite sex with utmost respect is one of the most important virtues you can instill in your child.