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Preserving kids’ innocence in the digital age

Six and four years old they are, our kids, apples of my eye and fuel to my angst.


At forty, I became a father relatively late in life, and so far I have faced the challenges of parenthood with resigned stoicism. The fading memory of a decent night’s sleep, the toy-strewn, noisy maelstrom of home, dwindling social calendar, mealtime battle-grounds, tantrums and meltdowns, the exacting demands of a bedtime story audience, I have borne these crosses unbowed.

But who knew the whole sexual behaviour thing would rear its head so soon?

Our daughter, who started prep this year, has recently taken to walking with a pronounced wiggle and gyrating in front of the mirror at bathtime in what appear to be attempts to twerk. Then there are those giggling references she makes to her “boobies”, while the romantic clinches that conclude her Woody and Jessie dolls’ nuptials are a little too ardent and protracted for my liking. All of this is no doubt our fault, which doesn’t make it any less disturbing.

What’s more, on the one or two days a week it’s my turn to drop her off, she insists on kissing me half a dozen times on the mouth before I leave. I’m sure I can feel the inquiring eyes of other parents on us as I gently prise her little fingers from my neck and try to extricate myself from her Disney Princess-aping smooch without hurting her feelings.

I caught her practising a sultry pout in the car’s rearview mirror the other day. Where is she getting this stuff?

Meanwhile her little brother has taken to proudly producing his “doo-doo” at any given moment. The exhibitionistic little parades he performs around the house are accompanied by a demonic new cackle that combines Muttley the sidekick hound from Wacky Races with Linda Blair in The Exorcist.  Also, he’s always been an affectionate kid, and long may it continue, but of late the enthusiastic hugs he gives us have tended to be lower-centred and, well, sort of … thrusty.

Good grief, it looks like we’re going to have to come up with some guidelines, or something. To set parameters for a healthy display of affection that doesn’t cross the line into pashing, for instance, besides carefully explaining why private bits are private, not that we should ever feel ashamed of having them, okay?

When I try to recall how my own parents navigated this stuff, I draw a blank. I’m sure the mums and dads of the seventies were fully aware there were exploratory games of “doctor” going on behind closed doors, but tended to let nature take its course.

They never had the damned internet to contend with, though, nor the prospect of sexting, or whatever high-def virtual-reality mutation thereof will be in place by the time our depraved little cherubs have reached their tricky tweenie years.

The landscape out there has changed beyond recognition, people. Porn is everywhere. I can be making the most banal of online purchases (one or both of my kids harassing me at my desk in a “what’cha doing, dad, that “work” stuff you crack on about?” kind of way), and suddenly some horny housewife pops up in the corner of the screen with a lewd wink and glistening decolletage. (“Who’s she?” “Look! Boobies!”)

And if it’s not technology messing with their development, it’s chemistry.  Environmental pollutants now ooze from a cornucopia of products and are apparently bringing on an epidemic of “precocious puberty”, girls and boys having to deal with sexual maturity and hormonal chaos at an ever younger age.

With all of this other crap, there’s barely time to worry about pedophiles.

Faced with this terrifying minefield, my first response is the same as every other lazy and diffident parent out there: I hope the school system is going to take care of it for me. Apparently not. Most in the know consider Australian sex education to be falling woefully behind in terms of equipping our children and young adults to deal effectively with their own sexual feelings, the behaviours of others and the increasing complexity of the world in which they’re growing up so fast.

Even Christopher Pyne agrees the whole sector needs an overhaul. It’s pencilled in for next year. Expect religious naysayers to wade in with ramped-up rhetoric on “lost innocence” before long.

The truth is, my little girl pouting and twerking in front of the mirror; my son waving his genitals around and dry-humping my leg – this is innocence itself.

I guess I’m going to have to buck up and get to grips with guiding them (along with my partner – there’s no way she’s getting out of this) in how to, ahem, handle themselves out there, to help them preserve that innocence, while ensuring they’re protected and respectful of others.

Who knows? Maybe with the support of the school we’ll be able to produce a couple of people with healthy and confident attitudes towards sexual intimacy, who are intolerant of violence and objectification and free from all prejudice and fear of their fellow human-beings, in all their wonderfully various genders and preferences.

Should be a walk in the park, right?

First things first. Let’s get the boy to put that thing away.

Ian Rose is a Melbourne writer.

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