About two weeks ago the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child held a discussion on sex education for preschool children. The reason was the Hebrew-language book by the author and illustrator Alona Frankel: “A Book Full of Love – How Naftali Came Into the World.”
In the book, Frankel describes how people meet, fall in love and have sex – in one case leading to the birth of Naftali, the curly-haired protagonist of her stories whom every Israeli knows from her popular book published 40 years ago and since translated, “Once Upon a Potty.”
But MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), who heads the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said "How Naftali Came Into the World" raised many questions for her, including whether its descriptions were “a little too much for 3- and 4-year-olds.” Shasha-Biton objects mainly to the description of the sex act in the book, which was published two years ago by the Steimatzky publishing house.
As Naftali’s mother puts it in the book, “When people love each other, they want to be very close. We embraced, we caressed, we kissed, and it was sweet and pleasant. We were wrapped around each other and very close, when the penis on the body of Naftali’s father slipped into my vagina. And inside my body it was warm, enjoyable and exciting. A flood of sperm was ejected from him and became attached to a tiny egg that was waiting in the uterus, a special place inside my tummy.”
During the discussion, Frankel was attacked by the committee’s chairwoman, Shasha-Biton, who although she did not deny the importance of sex education for children, worried about the way it was being presented to preschoolers.
“Children go through stages of development, and the discussion of sex also has to be in stages,” Shasha-Biton said. “Children who are just discovering their sexuality could think that if they love and embrace and it’s sweet for them the way it says in the book, they can also do the other things. It could create confusion. How can we be sure that the child understands that this is only about adults who are in love? They learn about a situation, they don’t know how to make the distinction.”
Frankel says she thought about the book for years but couldn’t find the right approach and tone. She says children are exposed daily to harmful and even pornographic content.
“I don’t understand how the committee members felt that the book promotes sexual abuse when every day parents turn on the television showing violence, people bleeding and sexist commercials with girls in revealing clothes wiggling their bottoms on-screen,” Frankel told Haaretz.
A matter of culture
In the Knesset discussion, the female MKs and experts on early childhood education said presenting sexual relations as something pleasant could lead small children astray because they don’t distinguish between what's allowed and what's forbidden. They said this approach could lead to sexual assaults at preschools.
“We have to think what is permitted and what is forbidden at age 4, and what the limit is,” Dr. Ayelet Giladi, the head of the group Voice of the Child that aims to prevent the sexual abuse of children, told the committee. “In the book you describe an idyll, but a boy could take a girl at nursery school and do it, which could constitute sexual assault... especially when they play games of imitating adults and don’t understand the red lines. Maybe children at 10 or 11 can read the book and understand it, but 4-year-olds won’t understand it.”
Frankel says she relies on parents to explain to their children what is permitted and what is forbidden. Parents should also tell their children they must protect themselves and not let strangers touch them.
“It infuriates me that such a significant thing in a person’s life, which can be told simply with the correct names such as vagina and penis without invented names, provokes such defensiveness,” Frankel says.
She doesn’t necessarily think it’s a matter of conservatism.
“I think it’s a matter of culture. In certain cultures the entire family lives in one room and the parents have sex when the children are next to them in the room. On the other hand, I really hope that the angry reactions aren’t coming from a fear of deriving enjoyment from sex,” Frankel says.
“Someone said in the discussion: ‘And what if children read how pleasant it is and want to try?’ But children have always played. I’m not a psychologist, but children are sexual creatures from a very early age and they play in any case. They don’t need my book for that. On the contrary, we have to normalize these acts, and then they’ll stop being a big deal.”
She also doesn’t agree that such a book should be targeted at, say, 9- to 11-year-olds.
“Librarians have a tendency to restrict books according to age, but that’s hard for me to accept. First of all, children have different mental ages. Second, after all, this is a book that’s mediated by the parent, so let the parent decide at which age he’ll read it, and how,” she says.
“Besides, the stories we tell children about how they came into the world are frightening. A stork brought the child? It could have dropped him. The child is found in a field? The child will think that this was probably terrible. It’s more frightening than an act of love between two people.”
A lovely and brilliant sentence
Lior Betzer, a researcher of education for gender awareness and sexuality in preschoolers, tends to agree with Frankel. “I think the book is important as a tool,” she says. “Children 3 to 4 won’t take the book in a store and read it by themselves. The parents will read it, and I’m relying on the fact that they’ll be able to mediate. I agree that it has to be in stages and in response to what the child brings up.”
Author Smadar Shir agrees with both Betzer and Frankel. “For years sex in children’s literature was taboo,” she says. “We want to think that children’s literature is a rare jewel and are afraid that dirty sex will destroy it, but part of this process of emerging from the darkness into the light is to get children to understand, maybe not at age 3, that mom and dad have sex, and that they do it as an expression of love.”
As Shir puts it, “As opposed to what people claim, I think that promoting the discussion will actually contribute to reducing the cases of rape and harassment out of boredom. ‘The penis slipped into the vagina’ is a lovely and brilliant sentence that in a few words explains the entire act of creation. Anyone who fights such a message for children shouldn’t be surprised that 14-year-old girls think that they become pregnant because they used dad’s towel.”
As far as what age is suitable, Shir says responsible parents can decide.
The author Yehudah Atlas says it’s a mistake to believe that every children’s book must have educational value, effect change or deal with a problem. “Every good book contains a therapeutic aspect, but a book that’s designed to be educational doesn’t do the job properly,” Atlas says. “Frankel’s book was done with delicacy and good taste.”
Atlas says the book’s opponents are self-righteous. “They’re trying to show that they’re ethical and protecting children. What’s the logic behind restricting a children’s book when children see horrors on television daily? What harms children is the reality in which we’re living, not a book by Alona Frankel,” he says.
“The time has come for both children and adults to understand that enjoying sex is a good thing. We were all born that way; what’s wrong with that? The problem is that today everything that has anything to do with intimacy is presented as a terrible thing. All this sanctimoniousness is an attempt to fall in line with the religious and traditional atmosphere. It’s nonsense.”
Shasha-Biton, for her part, says sex education should begin at preschool age, but it has to be age appropriate. “Nor are children able to understand this description in cognitive terms,” she says. “Frankel’s book is very important; it’s simply inappropriate for them to imitate this act when they’re playing. It’s better to teach them about it in stages.”