I’m currently ending my time on a local task force of teachers, administrators, parents, and community members to recommend a sex ed curriculum to the school district. We have great conversations about what items we think should be included and what’s important. Prior to the task force assembly, a vocal segment of the community protested and there was much hand-wringing over the topic, so much so that they canceled sex ed for the upper elementary grades. Sixth-grade sex ed was quickly reinstated but not without a fight.

This opportunity clarified the 5 things that kept bothering me about how we approach sex ed in our schools. In particular, I’m addressing the attitudes of the (mostly conservative or sexually undereducated) parents on these select points.

1. But my kid is too young for this stuff!

One parent told me after one of the task force meetings that he wants the education their kids get about sex to be age-appropriate. Of course, we all do. We don’t want our children exposed to concepts and images that could have a negative impact on them. But here’s the thing: as much as we think we can shield our kids and watchdog or helicopter over them, they’ll see and hear things when you least expect it or when you’re not around. Smartphones come out on the playground all the time. And that feeling that someone is constantly looking over your shoulder? You figure out ways to get around that authority, don’t you. Isn’t this human nature? Kids can be sneaky little f*ckers just like adults.

When parents ask for age-appropriate, alarm bells go off for me. Is it possible that parents don’t know what is “age-appropriate “ since most of us had our last formal education on the subject in middle school and high school? How many years has that been? Unless parents are up to date on the current research about the ages and stages, how would they know what research says about “age appropriate”? Is it possible some experts in this research might know more than we do? For example, did you know sex education is linked to the delay in those first sexual experiences? And that sexually “comprehensive programs examined achieved the three important effects of delaying the initiation of sexual intercourse, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing condom or contraceptive use.

Of course, we know our own child’s development better than anyone. And yet, are individual parents really aware of what their child needs to know to be safe in the world when it comes to this topic? Ignoring the subject is NOT the solution – it’s the problem! The world is a different place than when we were kids in some aspects. One big difference is kids have access to so much video and content online than we did. All I had was a dictionary and an encyclopedia! Some of my classmates had cable TV so they got sex info from HBO and Skinemax. Trust me; the on-demand stuff of today is way worse.

How much of the age-appropriate concern is clouded by the parents’ own discomfort or embarrassment about sex? Fear or lack of real knowledge of the topic prevents us from making information available to our kids. Figuring out who we can trust to tell us what research finds is as “age-appropriate” can be just as scary. Who to believe? We have to get out of our own way for the benefit of our kids and be reminded from time to time that our experiences are not our children’s experiences. Here’s some current information on the sexual activity of teens and young adults.

2. My kid is intellectually gifted! Except when it comes to sex…

When so many parents want to think their child is special and gifted (I know I do), why do we think this is one area our kid is behind the curve on mental development? The idea that we think “she’s not ready” is BS, frankly. When is it time to admit – YOU are not ready?

You know, there’s this funny thing that happens too. Kids have to be ready to hear it. One of the wonderful aspects of being human is the ability to hear something and if it’s not immediately interesting or relevant we tune it out. I’m sure you have been told how to do something or show how – like how to change a tire. For me, until I really needed the know-how, it went one ear and out the other. Do you think it’s the same with kids who aren’t ready? Sure some kids are paying close attention to everything the teacher says when sex is mentioned. Others don’t pay any attention because they don’t respect the teacher teaching it OR they think they already know it all (LOL a high schooler knowing it all??). And then other kids’ parents choose to “Opt-Out” of the sex education program altogether. How many of these opt-out kids are the ones who get called into the principal’s office for sexual harassment- or bullying-related incidents? Kids positively benefit from comprehensive programs and absorb what they need. The bright kids who don’t get comprehensive sex ed? I’m sure they have some awareness that more accurate information is out there.

3. I know more than the teacher who is trained to teach my kid about sex

We don’t generally seek parents’ input on academic subjects. Generally, we trust teachers to impart knowledge to their students. But there are certain subjects that are touchy. Climate change and evolution have become touchy subjects in certain school districts, and when it comes to reproductive biology, teachers get a whole lot of scrutiny from parents.

As I write this, only 20 states require that sex and HIV education be “medically, factually, or technically accurate,” Twenty?? Out of 50 and the District of Columbia?? I can’t imagine how you parents in states that don’t mandate medically accurate sexuality education feel about this. Is it okay that your kids are given questionable information? I’d be hopping mad if math or science were taught incorrectly; I wouldn’t allow it.

4. Gah! Naked bodies in a textbook about sex!

Part of the hubbub about the last curriculum was the depiction of the genitals, in particular, the female vulva. Some parents reportedly got upset by the medical illustrations used in a sex-ed curriculum proposed for the schools. You know the ones. The black and white drawings of what things look like on the outside and the cross-sections of the internal reproductive systems.

Line drawing of a vulva

Sometimes they include an image of the vulva (similar to the right), or a side view of an erect penis as well. Keep in mind these are drawings, not video. Most often in the curriculum for younger grades, the images are more cartoonish and don’t really have a lot of genital detail. Some curricula show a little more detail in the drawings as you move into high school. What we fail to realize is how important it is to teach kids to know what their own genitals look like to set them up for success in monitoring and managing their future sexual health. Hell, I have adult students who don’t understand that importance until they do a genital self-exam for themselves! Gaining a sense of pride in ownership is super important to keeping yourself healthy into adulthood. And for when teens/young adults eventually do start to engage with each other sexually.

5. Bad touch

This concept of “bad touch” comes up when parents express what they want their kids to learn with sex ed too. I imagine they want to protect their children from inappropriate touch from strangers but here’s the complication: bad touch and good touch are weird and confusing concepts. Why? Big and little kids touch their genitals because it feels good. And frankly, NOBODY should be touching a child without first obtaining consent or permission. The focus instead of bad touch/good touch should instead be on teaching children bodily autonomy and self-advocacy. No one should touch them without their permission. Period.

I get that it’s tough to implement these lessons with babies; they need everything done for them. And I’m practical about things like doctor’s visits and shots – those things are necessary (But even then doctors aren’t perfect – consider how many girls were violated by Larry Nassar in front of their parents).

I’m talking about the age when kids start to be more self-sufficient and independent, which can be different for each child and parenting-style. Consent is a topic to be mindful of when we force our kids to do things, like hugging relatives over the holidays. I know consent also gets murky when considering things like putting kids into their car seats or taking care of their hygiene. Some things aren’t negotiable sometimes. It goes hand in hand with the ability to ASK for what you want and to be able to hear no and be okay with it.

But why should anyone touch a child who isn’t directly responsible for the child’s care? Kids should know this and feel empowered to speak up. This is very different than good or bad touch tied to touching genitals or any part of the body.

Information is your best tool…

We must expand our own understanding and knowledge of sex education and cease thinking about sex education for children as focused solely on penises and vaginas. Otherwise, we are robbing our children of the vital education they need for their lives about relationships, intimacy, communication, consent, respect, pleasure, and fantasy.

What messages do you hope to impart to your children about relationships, dating, love, and sex?

One thing that will help if you are a parent feeling anxiety about your kids beginning sex education in school, is to get the latest up-to-date information yourself. Working with an experienced sex coach or therapist can help give you the tools to answer questions when they come up, rather than shut those conversations down, and help you to better understand what to expect as your child learns the ins and outs of sex education.



About the Author

The MamaSutra

Dr. Lanae St.John is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sexology and certified sex coach with a background in sexology and a passion for helping people improve their sexual health and relationships. She is the author of "Read Me: A Parental Primer for "The Talk"" and the upcoming "You Are the One: How stopping the search and looking inside will lead you to your romantic destiny," and is committed to staying up-to-date on the latest research and trends in the field. Dr. St.John aims to share her knowledge and expertise in a relatable and approachable way through her blog on themamasutra.com.

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