Consider The Curriculum: We Need Comprehensive Sex Ed in Schools
As a parent, I understand the fear that many of us have around our kids exploring their sexuality. It's one of many nerve-wracking aspects of parenting and part of letting our kids go into the world on their own. Will they be respectful? Will their partners be respectful? Will they do things that they later regret? Will they use safer sex practices? Will they adhere to social distancing when dating? Will they send a sext that will end up disseminated over the internet? What are they “ready” for?
As caregivers, we do all we can to prepare our kids for all of life’s opportunities and challenges. We want the best for our kids and for them to have the greatest experiences in all aspects of life. We can educate them about sex and our values around pleasure, but even as a sex educator, there are likely aspects that I will miss in communicating with my kids about navigating their sex lives. I also think that it's good for them to learn from many responsible adults and reliable sources in their lives, as they don't always want to listen to their parents anyway. That's why I believe that getting comprehensive sex ed in schools is the best way for our kids to grow into respectful adults making healthy choices based on accurate and helpful information.
Teaching Kids About Sex Delays Sexual Activity
Many parents fear that sex ed encourages their children to have sex at a younger age. Research shows the opposite: curriculum-based sexuality education programs for youth delay the age of first intercourse, decrease the frequency of sexual intercourse, decrease the number of sexual partners, reduce risk-taking sexual behaviour, and increase the use of condoms and contraception. Plus, multiple studies from around the world have shown that the earlier sex ed starts—with age-appropriate information—the healthier the children are, and the easier it is for them to make healthy, consensual, informed decisions in their lives. And since most Canadians begin sexual activity before the age of 20, school is the one unifying system where everyone can get the same evidence-based, age-appropriate information.
Most schools inform parents when the sex-ed classes happen so that they can complement the learning with values-based discussions at home. It's important that kids know they can talk to their parents about this part of their lives. Although it can be uncomfortable to have these discussions, they're a really important part of our jobs and there are lots of books and resources (see below) available to guide us. After my kids have their sex ed sessions in school, I like to ask them what they learned, what was new, what the reactions in the class were, and what they thought. It's a fabulous opportunity to connect with the kids, gain a better sense of what they're absorbing, and further the conversation by adding our values to the information.
What If They Learn Things Too Early?
The curricula developed for schools are based on solid research and experience from around the world. It's very explicit about what to address at what age. One person expressed their concern to me that teaching young kids about different families would end in a conversation about how gay men and lesbian women have sex. That's simply just not part of the lesson. The discussion of different families is about what kinds of people live together and how they are related. It's partly about normalizing different family units, including those who are adopted or raised by their grandparents.
As parents, we believe that our children are naïve and we often underestimate their ability to handle sexual information. The reality is that over half of what kids learn about sex comes from each other and the internet. We don't always have control over what kids watch (especially when they are with their friends). Did you know the average age that a child first sees pornographic materials is 10? Many kids have older siblings who love to educate (and often shock) younger siblings with sexual information. Those who object to a discussion about anal sex in Grade 7 need to realize that the kids already know about it. My son learned about it in Grade 4 from another child in his class who had unmonitored internet time. The curriculum is designed to give factual responses to questions kids have about oral and anal pleasure, not act as a how-to guide. The focus is on consent and safety. There are many myths that they will learn in the schoolyard about those activities. That's why it's important to teach them the correct information in case they choose to try those activities.
The COVID-19 pandemic means that teens also need to learn about the risks of not only sexually transmitted infections for their sexual health but also the risks of transmitting the coronavirus. They also need to know the added precautions for sexting. Back-to-school will look a lot different in 2020 than it did in previous years in many ways, dating and relationships included.
Prevention and Response to Abuse
Kids need to know the proper names of body parts, what kind of touch is okay or not okay, and how to report any abusive behaviour. A case in point: a young girl was taught to call her vulva her cookie. She told her teacher that someone in her family wanted to share her cookie. The teacher unknowingly responded that it was good to share her cookie. It was years before anyone understood what was really going on. And since children are not under our immediate watch at all times, unfortunately, abuse can happen. It will cause a lot less harm if they know that they can come to you (or other trustworthy adults) with anything uncomfortable, confusing, or abusive right away. Experts in the field agree that young people who are educated about sex are less vulnerable to sexual predation. Education is protection.
Education Based on a Human Rights Approach
Different kinds of people, families, and communities exist. Schools need to adhere to human rights codes, which in Ontario means protecting people from discrimination based on their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability. Comprehensive sexual health education encourages acceptance and respect for the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities that exist. It's important for everyone to feel good about who they are, kids included. Sex education is not about encouraging people to do or act in any particular way or become someone they're not. It's about validating everyone’s place in the world, including those who are not usually represented in the mainstream. Some kids unfortunately are taught at home that some differences in orientation or gender expression are not okay. It's important that schools provide an alternative affirming perspective in order to help reduce bullying, depression, and suicide of those vulnerable kids. Normalizing diversity also can encourage kids to stick up for and speak up for others who are marginalized.
Take a Closer Look
Many of the concerns about the Ontario Sex Ed curriculum adopted in 2015 are based on misinformation. I would encourage anyone with concerns to look at the actual curriculum (not a version you found online that has been interpreted with their own bias and inflammatory fears) and see what reputable educators have to say about it. Most concerns are due to misinterpretations of the documents and practices. And if a parent still dislikes the offering, there are opportunities to withdraw their children from the specific classes that they disagree with. A strong majority of parents support this curriculum. It's better for the majority of kids to get this information than to withdraw it from all schools for the sake of the minority who want to impose their values and misunderstandings on the rest.
Resources to Discuss with Your Kids
What Makes a Baby (Young Kids)
It’s Perfectly Normal (ages 10 +)
The Transgender Teen (for parents)
Websites for Teens