AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Treatment of Sex in Education

by J.H. Badley
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 737-742

Part I. [Part 2 is below]

Canon Lyttleton, Headmaster of Hailybury, in the International Journal of Ethics for July, 1899. The paper has been reprinted (with some alterations) in a volume, Training of the Young in Laws of Sex, published by Longmans, Green and Co, which should be read by every parent.

The conclusions expressed in the following pages are the outcome of the experience of a dozen years of school-work, and of much thought about a problem which must present itself for practical solution to everyone, parent or teacher, who has the care of children and faces the responsibilities of their upbringing. Many parents recognize, to the full, the need of facing the problem themselves; some devolve the entire responsibility in the matter on to the schools to which their children are sent; others appeal to the schoolmaster, as being, presumably, an expert on the subject, for help and guidance. But the schoolmaster too often cannot or will not help. Either he takes the line that there is nothing to be done:

"It all works out right at the end. We have been through the thing ourselves and have come out none the worse. Some of course go to the bad, but so they would in any case. The worst thing you can do is to make a fuss about it."

Or, if he is of less sanguine temperament, the sense of his own impotence is apt to make him take the despairing view that nothing can be done. And schools must bear their burden in silence. Or perhaps he is afraid to speak from the not unnatural fear that if he calls attention to the dangers of school-life, the public will conclude that in his own school there must be a special prevalence of the evil he seeks to combat. For these reasons, and other of more general application to be touched on presently, schoolmasters are drawn into the general conspiracy of silence that hangs over the whole question, preferring to ignore the evil of whose existence they are aware, until it is forced upon their notice.

One Headmaster has, however, recently broken the silence with a weighty plea for definite instruction of children in sex-matters, and there are other signs that a healthier feeling about the whole matter is beginning to gain ground. A large number of parents and teachers alike are no longer content with any policy of ignoring evils or possibilities of harm, and are endeavouring, not so much to check the disease when it has become established, as to trace it to its causes and guard against the risks of infection. And I should add here that the risk of infection is not confined to one set of surroundings, or to one age, and is not to be guarded against, for example, simply by keeping a child from school, either altogether, or until a certain age is reached. You can keep a child from school, but you cannot keep him (let me make plain, once for all, that in these remarks no distinction, unless expressly stated, of boy and girl is intended by the pronoun) from a wide range of companionship, or from every possibility of harm.

The matter, therefore, is not one that concerns schools only; nor, I may say in passing, does it affect, in anything like the degree often assumed, the question as between the day-school and the boarding-school. It is one that concerns us all, school and home alike. How widely it does so, and how far-reaching are the results of our action or inaction in the matter, I cannot here attempt to trace. My aim is much more limited and solely practical. I shall confine myself to that part of the subject which concerns the school and the previous home-life; discussing only, first, whether it is wise to explain to children the facts of sex, or not; and secondly, if it should be done, then in what manner and when; and further, what part of this delicate task properly belongs to the school, and what to the parents. My hope is to find a means to bring about a more complete co-operation between the two great influences in a child's life. I write in the first place as a parent, for other parents; and in the second as a schoolmaster who has for years tried to find in his own work a practical answer to these questions, and who has learnt of what immense moment, for harm and for good, is the apathy of parents or their aid.

First, then, for the general question; shall we or shall we not ignore in our teaching the facts of sex? Shall we leave the child to come by the knowledge gradually and (as we suppose) in due time, or shall we rather endeavour to ensure that, at each stage of growth, his knowledge is neither false nor obtained through unclean channels? The course ordinarily followed is, as we all know, to let the matter alone; and weighty arguments in favour of this course are not hard to find. In the first place there is the feeling that the simplicity of childhood has no need of such knowledge, and that, until there is more experience of life and more power of self-control, it can neither be given intelligibly nor without serious risk of harm.

We want our children to remain simple and innocent in mind, and we are apt to suppose that this can be secured by withholding from them the knowledge that we do not wish them to have. And to this is added a natural reluctance to speak of the matter at all. As the result of our own upbringing and of the manner in which any allusion to the facts of sex is usually made and received, we seemed forced to the conclusion that this is a side of life of which, in the apostle's words, it is a shame even to speak; and even to our children we are unable to overcome the feeling of reserve imposed upon us by habit and by association of the subject with a smoke-room levity of treatment. And so, partly from conviction and partly from an habitual restraint in the presence of childhood, the scale drops on the side of inertia, and we answer our children's early questions by evasions or by some form of repression: "Oh, you mustn't talk about that,"--until the questions cease, and we try to persuade ourselves that the curiosity that prompted them has ceased also.

In this way, the tradition of silence and mystery is built up on the child's mind about one set of facts, which are thus invested with all the attraction of a forbidden subject; and he soon finds that any enlightenment of his natural curiosity, or satisfaction of the un-natural curiosity too often engendered by this means, can only be obtained from those for whom he has little respect, and in ways which he feels to be unworthy; and so the subject begins from the first to be degraded in his thoughts and surrounded with a sense of shame and concealment and wrong-doing--the exact opposite of the simplicity and innocence which we sought by our silence to preserve. There are, no doubt, children in whom this natural curiosity is slight and easily satisfied or restrained; and there are some, no doubt, who reach adolescence without wishing to know more than is forced upon their notice. But there are others, the majority as I believe, who are not like this. And this need not be put down to any special depravity either on their own part or on that of their associates. Curiosity, the desire for knowledge, is a normal and healthy condition of childhood. It may be distracted or checked for a time, or at least driven beneath the surface; but in most children it is there and must be taken into account. Nor can we assume, because it is never directed to this subject by us, that a child's curiosity is never directed to it at all. Nature does not enter into our conspiracy of silence. Children cannot help seeing things that arouse their curiosity in this direction.

Differences of sex are self-evident to them, and demand explanation as much as any other fact of nature. And, with all our care, how can we shut out these things from their hearing? Do we suppose that, however indifferent he may seem to it, "grown-up" talk is arousing no questions in the child's busy brain, even if the questions are not asked out loud? And even if we can avoid in our own talk before children all allusion to sex (the supposition, if we come to think of it, is absurd), can we answer for the talk of servants and others with whom they must associate? None can tell what a chance word in talk or reading will arrest a child's attention and set him wondering. It is surely plain, if we think the matter out, that complete ignorance, even if it were desirable, is impossible. Instead, therefore, of assuming that children need know nothing of the facts of sex, and devoting all our efforts to the maintenance of a state of ignorance, we had far better recognize from the first that some of the facts cannot fail to enter a child's cognizance, and to awaken the desire to understand them and to think them into a place in the world of consciousness in which he lives.

The question, then, if we take this view, changes to this: shall we, when he questions us, or when occasions arise that bring any of these facts to his notice, either put him off with equivocations and no-answers, or take the line: "These are things you cannot understand yet; wait till you are older"? Or, on the other hand, shall we try to explain the facts to him as simply as we can, and endeavour to maintain the simplicity and innocence of mind that we desire, not by any partial ignorance, but by making all that he can know of these facts as clear and natural to him as any other part of his knowledge?

The first course here suggested may, I hope, be dismissed without discussion. If we are not fully convinced that it is never wise to attempt to deceive children, we are not, in my opinion, fit to educate them at all. The second, however,--the postponement of an answer to the child's questions,--presents itself in a very different light, and at first sight seems the right and reasonable thing to do. And would be so, no doubt, if we could dismiss the subject from the child's mind as easily as we can debar it from his talk--in our presence, at least. But there lies the crucial difficulty of the whole question. I am wholly opposed to those who believe that any natural impulse can be checked by mere repression. I hold that we can only rightly deal with such an impulse by satisfying it in some way that is felt to be true and worthy, and that we can only control it by teaching self-control.

To some, it may seem absurd to talk in this connection of satisfying the curiosity of childhood, and of teaching it self-control. But my point is that, satisfied, it will be in some way or other, good or bad; and if self-control, even in the smallest particular, is associated with sex-knowledge from the first, not only is it freed, then and later, from the attraction of something forbidden, but the best foundation is laid for later mastery of the actual sex-impulses. And, in practice, this is surely not impossible. If a child is made to feel that he can bring every question to his parents and that he will be answered truly and with sympathy, there need, one would think, at no time be the loss of confidence that parents often feel so keenly, and that is, in many cases, occasioned by the answer, however kindly put: "wait till you are older." It is always best, I believe, to answer a child's questions as fully as possible; as far, I mean, as he can understand,--how far that is, his further questions will show. And if, at the same time, he is made to feel that, on some subjects, he should bring his questions to his parents only, and that while they are always ready to talk with him, they do not wish him to talk of these things with others, the simplicity and naturalness of the knowledge (the point above all to aim at) can surely be maintained without fear of misuse, and the beginnings of self-control established. I would urge, then, the following stages of treatment of the subject.

(1) If a child, boy or girl, will talk freely with both parents, so much the better; but it is in the natural order of things the mother who has most of a child's confidence, as their association is most constant and most intimate. It rests therefore, usually, with the mother to satisfy the child's wish for knowledge, and to lead him to a simple and natural apprehension, true so far as it goes, of the main facts of birth and the purpose of the difference of sex in all living things. Some mothers shrink from the task, not so much from any of the motives above considered, as from distrust of their own qualification, owing to the feeling that a great deal of scientific knowledge is necessary in order to present the subject truly. But it is not a wide range of knowledge, nor a scientific exactitude that is needed to answer a child's questionings here any more than in relation to the stars or flowers or any of his constantly changing interests. There will be a place for that later.

What is needed now is what every mother can give: a simple statement of the simplest facts in the order in which they present themselves to his notice or reflection, invested with the naturalness of all knowledge so acquired. Of these facts, motherhood is sure to be the first, and it is the easiest for the child to grasp. The slow growth of the new life within the mother's body, the leaving it at birth, the pain that the mother bears for her child, the closeness of the bond of love caused by all this, and by her giving the newborn baby its food from her own body, these are the things of deepest interest to every child. And though he cannot understand fatherhood so easily, he can at least know that, in this story of birth, the father's love has a share,--and so this and all the facts of sex, as he comes, then or later, to learn them, may be associated for always with the child's deepest feelings, his love and respect for mother and father, and an instinctive reverence for motherhood.

The Treatment of Sex in Education
By J. H. Badley
Parents Review volume 11, 1900 pgs 833-837

Part II.

(2) If this is done from the first dawn of the child's wonder about birth, it will make the way easier for later teaching, and keep much harm away; for it is the first presentation of the subject, and the feeling which is associated with this first presentation, that makes the most lasting impression. But whether it has been done or not, there must come a time when more definite knowledge and more direct appeal to motives for self-control are desirable. If the course above suggested has been followed as occasion rose, this will only be, as it were, the summary and re-enforcement of the early lessons now brought more plainly into the child's consciousness. But if from lack of occasion or any other reason the child's curiosity has not been so guided, all the more necessary with increasing years to take or make some opportunity of opening up the whole subject and surrounding it in the mind of the growing boy or girl with clean natural and healthy associations and the consciousness of the need of some rule of conduct. Opinions will differ widely as to the age at which this should be done. In the case of girls the right occasion will surely be felt to be the first appearance of the functions of maturity, which can then be simply explained and made the starting-point for giving further knowledge. With boys there is no such clearly marked occasion. I believe that in no case should it be postponed later than the transition period that sets in when the age of puberty has been reached. But in most cases an occasion will have come still earlier, when the child exchanges home for school; an occasion when the need of such instruction is not only real, but easily intelligible to the child.

Most people will probably feel that, while the mother is the one to give the necessary teaching to the girl, it is the father's part to do so at this stage to the boy. Whatever is said should be simple and direct, not vague exhortations to be a good boy and to avoid bad companions. The boy must now be told more of fatherhood, and of its association with the sex-organs of his body; and the need of keeping these from all misuse must be plainly and simply dealt with. And both with boy and girl appeal must be made to the healthy feeling innate in all (though easily blunted), as well as to the conscience or the affections, to keep from conversation or companionship which in any degree offends this feeling. There are few children who do not respond to such treatment. How much is said, must, of course, depend on the age and apparent needs of the child. But, as in most things, it is not the what that matters so much as the how; not the actual words that are used (provided they are plain enough to be fully understood) as the way in which the subject is put before the child. For, to be of real and lasting service, it must be addressed not so much to his intellect as to his feelings, in which alone real motives of conduct can be aroused.

Above all (to repeat, even at the risk of wearisome reiteration, what I regard as of the first importance) the subject must remain in his mind as something clean and natural, which has to do with decency but not at all with shame, unless he lets it be befouled by degrading talk and behaviour. But if it is treated as mystery, or as something hardly to be spoken of without shame, or if any childish offence against the adult sense of decency is made into a sin and treated only as a subject for punishment, then it may easily be poisoned in the child's mind from the outset and the cause of who knows how much morbid feeling and painful struggle, even at the best.

Many parents, I know, shrink from speaking openly to their children from a fear of "putting ideas into their heads" and making them morbidly self-conscious about their bodies. By harping continually on the subject, especially in a tone of warning or reproof, this result may be attained; but that is not what I am urging. A serious talk before a child goes away to school is not likely to be productive of anything but good. On the other hand a morbid self-consciousness is far more likely to result from the acquisition of the knowledge in ways of which the child feels ashamed, and is in consequence afraid to speak. For my own part I have never had cause to regret speaking to children upon the subject. I have sometimes regretted having allowed this fear to deter me from speaking to those who seemed too young to need it. But the task ought not, at this stage, to be left to the schoolmaster. To do it one must have the complete confidence of the child as none but the parents can yet have. The schoolmaster's part comes later, and to that I now turn.

(3) Supposing something of this to have been done by the parents before the child goes to school, there is still, as it seems to me, a third step necessary which concerns the school and devolves, rightly, upon the experienced teacher. Sooner or later, when the usually marked period of transition from childhood is reached (the age varying with each individual, but generally between 14 and 16), as the bodily changes advance and grow into consciousness, they bring with them new impulses and new powers, a new life (one may almost say) to be understood and mastered. These impulses may easily be misunderstood. If unexplained and unmastered they may cause great distress; and though some (by no means necessarily the finest characters) go through this transition period without difficulty, there are some whose difficulties may be greatly lightened by wise help. Now is the time, I believe, for giving a more scientific knowledge of the structure of our bodies, the changes that take place in them at adolescence, and the laws that govern their use and abuse.

There are some teachers who think that this can be sufficiently done by class-lessons in Physiology. I confess that I am not of this opinion. For I believe that the value of this teaching depends on its personal application. And it is not only knowledge or explanation of the facts that is wanted, but (as before) something to arouse permanent motives for the control and guidance of the boy's or girl's growing powers. This can generally be found in an appeal to the social feelings, such as their pride in their school and the desire to use their influence for its good. There are few who cannot, even at this age, feel to some extent that they have responsibilities towards those younger than themselves, and a part to take, even if at present not outwardly recognized, in the self-government of the school. And in these wider feelings of loyalty and responsibility some rule of guidance can be found for the personal affections often so strongly aroused at this age, and often, unhappily, wasted in sentimentality or worse.

This or something like this seems to me to be the plain duty of the schoolmaster, and I know it to be feasible in practice. Not equally so in all cases, of course; but this is, of all others, a subject that cannot be dealt with uniformly or mechanically, or without some instinct for the individual need. But some such treatment of it is, I firmly believe, desirable for all. It is in the later years of school-life, with their training in responsibility and self-control that the habitual trend of conduct and of thought, the attitude of mind with which the later problems of life will be faced, are largely determined and a scheme of education which does not do something to give direct guidance on this, the most difficult of the problems that all must meet, is no real education at all.

Such I conceive to be the natural and necessary treatment of sex at different stages of education. I do not, of course, touch here upon the physical aspect of the question, such matters as food, sleep, daily routine and so forth, the healthy treatment of the body that has so much to do with the healthy growth of the mind. Here I am concerned only with the giving for withholding of actual instruction in sex-matters, and the manner in which, at the different stages of growth, it may best be given. The step last outlined is the one that I regard as essentially the work of the school; but this should come as the completion of the work of the parents in the earlier years, and if the parents have not done their part, the risk to the child is greater, and the task of the school rendered more difficult. Let me add a few words on this point.

Where boys--or girls--are in any numbers, it is inevitable that some of the difficulties attendant on the question of sex will arise. All do not come from homes of equal refinement. Some perhaps have had (often through no fault of their parents) an unfortunate upbringing in unfortunate surroundings. Some may have had their natural curiosity unwisely treated and turned into a morbid interest. Sooner or later, this will show itself in talk and the curiosity of others will be roused. Most boys are only too apt to think it manly to ape the worst talk and manners of their elders, whether understood or not. Nor must we suppose that it is only amongst boys that such talk arises. Girls do not always escape the tendency to dwell on the physical side of sex as wholly as we like to imagine. It is wonderful how completely a healthy nature can, after a while, recover from a tendency of this kind; and many shake off such thoughts and talk without trace of permanent harm. But however comforting this refection may be, it cannot make us indifferent to what has, for the time at least, a degrading influence, and may, as all who have faced the matter are aware, lead to degrading habits. Much, of course, depends on the watchfulness and tact of the school authorities in seeing and dealing with the tendency to talk of this kind whenever it arises.

But school authorities cannot see everything; nor is it even to be wished that they should. To try to do so leads to some system, such as that in vogue in most French schools, productive of far more harm than it averts. What really determines the fate of a school in this matter is the way in which the subject is regarded by the public opinion of the school. This may vary widely at different times, but always, I think, depends on two factors. These are, first, the number of healthy-minded boys or girls, coming from healthy homes and bringing with them, with whatever knowledge may have been given them, a right and clean feeling about it all, and a feeling that it is a shame to degrade it by anything of which they or their home people need be ashamed; and secondly, the attitude of those who are strong enough to make their will felt; the force of their feeling, and the amount of trouble they will take to make this feeling tell, that such talk and its consequences shall not rot their school, nor, so far as they can keep it out, find a footing there. Here, it seems to me, is rather the task for those in authority, to maintain or inspire this feeling, basing it on knowledge and calling into its service all the best motives of youth, its affection, its desire to be of use, its love of power, its sense of honour, and so on. If, amongst the older boys and girls, there are many in whom this feeling is strong, the tone of a school will be good. But, even so, it will not be possible to keep the mischief entirely away unless there is amongst the younger, too,--amongst whom (strange as it may see at first sight) this kind of talk is commonest and most infectious,--a natural healthiness of mind, not merely a fear of older opinion and authority. And this depends chiefly on the home influence, the closeness of confidence between parents and children, the knowledge and inbred feeling that these bring from home to meet the problems that they will inevitably have to face, sooner or later, and almost certainly in the early days of their school life. Parents, I think, scarcely realize how much of the tone of a school depends on the home treatment of these and other subjects which they persuade themselves belong entirely to the province of the school, and so leave untouched. The foundations of school morality must be laid at home. The general conclusions, then, to which I am led, may be summed up as follows:--

(1) It is, in most cases, necessary, and in all desirable, to give children, girls and boys alike, some teaching on sex-matters before they reach maturity.

(2) This teaching falls naturally into different stages, the earlier of which belong to the home, the later to the school.

(3) The work of the school is not only to give fuller and more scientific knowledge of functions and their control, but also to utilize and direct the growing feelings and impulses to some worthy aim, not merely individual, but social.

(4) But this work is rendered far more possible, and the risk of harm far less, if parents have done, and, throughout, continue to do, their part, both in satisfying the natural curiosity of children and in instilling and maintaining a right feeling and healthy attitude of mind towards all the facts of sex.

(5) The feeling and attitude at which we must aim is not one of shame and fear, but one of frank and reverent acceptance; a self-respect based on knowledge cleanly obtained; and habitual self-control of feeling and expression.

This, I am convinced, is a better aim to set before ourselves than any doubtful and untested innocence based on ignorance and repression. And, as a means to its attainment, I would urge upon parents the following practical points:--

(1) Never to put aside children's questions on this subject, whether by evasion, or direct refusal, or postponement to an indefinite "age of discretion"; but to explain every fact to them, as occasions arise (and making such occasions rather than avoiding them), simply and truly.

(2) To take every care that the subject is associated in their minds, not with any sense of shame or unexplained mysterious prohibition, but with the feeling that everything of God's ordaining is clean and sweet, if we will keep it so.

(3) To talk freely with them about these things when they wish, and to welcome their confidence at every age; but to make them feel this as a part of the relationship of parent and child, not a thing to be lightly entered upon with others; and that they not only can refuse to join in any coarse or shameful talk, but should do all in their power to put a stop to it.

(4) To speak to them specially, whether boy or girl, when they go to school, and to make clear to them the special danger of the misuse of the sex-organs, and of all unclean talk; and to make them feel that, in this respect, each member of a community has some measure of responsibility for others as well as for himself.

(5) To co-operate as far as possible with the school authorities, and to recognize the duty of bringing to their knowledge (as far as it can be done without breach of their children's confidence) anything that may help authorities to deal with the beginnings of infection from which it is impossible to keep any school absolutely free in perpetuity. To many parents, this course of action comes instinctively and needs no urging. To others, it is not easy; but the prize at stake, if we do our utmost, is great and far-reaching; and the penalty, if we leave it undone, often unspeakably grievous. It needs courage and tact, and it needs trust. If we cannot reach all our aim, we can do much. If we cannot make all equally wise, we can at least save any from being a fool through sheer ignorance,--through our fault. The rest is a matter of wise conditions and wise care,--the care that knows how to give the utmost freedom, without which there can be no healthy growth, together with the help and guidance without which freedom may be wasted or misused. There is our task, the common work of Home and School.

Proofread May 2011, LNL