Revisiting the Birds and the Bees: The Importance of Speaking Frankly to Our Young Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children About Their Sexual Health

By: Jennifer Gow

There are three important reasons to talk to young children about their sexual health. All of them are centered around protection and prevention, with the idea being to keep our children safe, educated and informed. This was the take home message from Saleema Noon (www.saleemanoon.com) when she presented to BC Hands & Voices in March 2016. Many of you with school-aged children may be familiar with the sexual health education that Saleema does in school districts in the Lower Mainland. Or you may have come across her on the TV or radio. We were excited to have her present on this serious topic in her characteristic fun, light-hearted way. So back to those three reasons:

Normalize the conversation. Young children haven’t yet been conditioned to know that sexual health can be a taboo subject in our society. They love to be scientists, exploring the world around them, so they tend to be very receptive to being taught ‘body science’. By making the conversation matter-of-fact and normal at an early age, we can lessen the extent and length of the “grossed-out” phase. This is a stage that many kids go through in their middle elementary years due largely to societal and peer pressure.

Become our children’s number one information source. If we don’t teach them, someone else will, and that person may not be a reliable source. The media world today is very different to the environment we grew up in, with our children exposed to different pressures than we were. Media content is more sexualized and ubiquitous, and easier to access – think computers, smartphones, tablets. We shouldn’t rely on schools or others to educate our kids to discern between fact and fiction. Instead, we should step in to be our children’s reliable go-to source.

Protect our children. Studies show that children who are educated in sexual health are better protected from child sexual abuse. Sex predators seek out vulnerable individuals. They recognize that a child who uses scientific vocabulary for body parts and has ownership of their own body has been taught these things. From this, they also know that the child will have been taught to report any exploitative situation. By introducing the concept of sexual consent, we empower our children and help to protect them. It’s especially important for parents of children with additional needs to understand this. Since these children tend to spend more time with other adults in positions of trust, and they may not have the same education around sexual health as their peers, they can be at increased risk from sexual abuse.

With this in mind, here are aspects of sexual health that Saleema recommends preschoolers should know:

  • Scientific words related to sexual health. This means using the same anatomical language a doctor would use with your child so they won’t be intimidated in a medical setting (e.g., penis, testicles, vulva, vagina, stool).
  • They have ownership of their own bodies. They should be aware that they have three private body parts (mouth, breast and genitals, which covers the area from the belly button down and around to the bottom of the back, including the buttocks). It is against the law for anyone to go on their bodies without permission. They need to report any violation of this to an adult they trust, and know that they will not get in trouble when they do. If the first person doesn’t believe them, or doesn’t do anything about it, then they need to know to report again to someone else, as many times as needed until someone listens. While parents may worry about talking to their children about such a serious topic, kids tend to learn this in a matter-of-fact way in much the same way they learn a fire drill.
  • The basics of reproduction, pregnancy and birth. Reproduction usually happens when a man’s sperm joins a woman’s ovum by sexual intercourse. Babies grow in the uterus, not the stomach, and are usually born through the vagina. Children may ask more probing questions, which should be answered honestly. They will only absorb the information they are able to process.
  • The uniqueness of our bodies and each of these processes. How a person looks doesn’t necessarily tell you how they feel on the inside (introducing the concept of transgender). Just as each person is unique, so is each family. There is a diversity of families, with different ways for families to form. Some babies get their first water slide during a vaginal birth when the uterus muscles contract and water breaks, others come out the sunroof during a caesarean section. Both are healthy ways for babies to be born.
  • Not to pick up condoms and needles, explaining that while these are clean and healthy items before use, they can have germs after being used, and we don’t want them to get sick.

The full checklist can be found at http://www.saleemanoon.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/what-kids-need-to-know-and-when-2015.pdf.

Saleema also noted that there are many great books to refer to and explore these topics with your child. Her top recommendations can be found at http://www.saleemanoon.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/reading-list-2015.pdf

With our community in mind, the evening was enriched by two other contributors, Astrid Evenson, Sign Language Instructor, and Kim Shauer, Hands & Voices Guide By Your Side Coordinator. Astrid taught us ASL vocabulary for the scientific words and processes discussed by Saleema during her presentation, and Kim spoke to additional considerations for families who have children who are deaf or hard of hearing and have additional needs. With this in mind, we can help our children develop language to tell how they are feeling (e.g., scared, hurt) and identify parts of the body. If they have not yet developed signs or spoken language, we can model this language through their language abilities (e.g., head shaking, Picture Exchange Communication System/picture symbols, IPAD/Alternative Communication Devices). Goals around safety should be discussed with our children’s team, and safety goals included in Individual Family Service Plans or Individual Education Plans (e.g., explaining appropriate & inappropriate touch; public versus private). On this topic, Saleema also noted that there will be a chapter on sexual education for children with special needs in her new book for parents.

While preschool and kindergarten programs may adopt an approach to sexual health education that is similar to Saleema’s recommendations, it remains important that we, as parents, are confident in talking straight to our children on this topic right from day one. Given a strong basis of honest information from their own family means that any extra details they glean from other responsible adults will be the icing on the cake. It also empowers them to handle information from peers or other sources like the media. It gives them the tools to interpret the information and know they have a trustworthy source in you to explore topics. If we start today with our young deaf and hard of hearing children, we’ll be ready to help them fill in any gaps that might appear from missed incidental learning as they grow.

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