Friday 9 December 2016

Don't outsource 'the talk' to schools

Parents are wrong to solely rely on schools to provide sex education for their children

Published 28/02/2011 | 05:00

Unambiguous: teacher Mary Tobin demonstrating the new HSE sex education books and DVD in Scoil Spioraid Naoimh Cailini,
Bishopstown, Cork.
Unambiguous: teacher Mary Tobin demonstrating the new HSE sex education books and DVD in Scoil Spioraid Naoimh Cailini, Bishopstown, Cork.

We parents never talked to our own parents about sex, or if we did, we found the conversation difficult.

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Perhaps this is because, back then, sex and any discussion of it, was definitely taboo.

"Let me tell you about the birds and the bees," -- how many parents have uttered this euphemistic phrase, only to evoke their own and their child's anxiety?

Even the fact that we have to use metaphors of bees carrying pollen and birds laying eggs to hint at human reproduction and fertilisation shows how reluctant many of us are to talk about sex with our children.

The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships was carried out with over 7,000 Irish adults and reported on in 2006. One of their findings was that, for most people, either sexual matters never came up with parents or, when they did, discussion was 'difficult'.

Religious beliefs, especially, were hugely influential blocks to talking about sex. There was little permission for adults to discuss sexual matters amongst themselves, never mind with their sons and daughters.

But surely things have changed? A quick glance at the TV listings for any day would suggest that there are no restrictions on how matters of sex and sexuality can now be broached. Between TV, the internet, magazines and books there are innumerable sources of information, discussion, innuendo and explicit images of all things sexual.

Have you had a go at talking to your child? How was it? What age was your son or daughter when you talked to them? Did the spiel flow smoothly or did you choke over words like penis, ovulation, wet dreams, pubic hair or fallopian tube? Did your child seem interested or mortified?

Have you just opted out and assumed that they have learned all they need to know from friends, the internet and movies?

Despite the shifts in societal mores and the massively increased visibility of sex in today's media it remains a sensitive subject for parents and their children to discuss.

Perhaps some parents fear that by telling their child about sex they are more likely to encourage sexual experimentation. The concern is that we are implicitly giving permission for our youngsters to try stuff out.

Alternatively, we may fear we that we push our children to adulthood too early by talking about how their developing sexuality may be expressed in the future. We fear that, in some way, we are destroying their innocence.

These kinds of anxieties seem to hold true even though our children are probably more exposed to matters of sex and sexuality and are probably in even greater need of some direction and clarification from us.

Reluctance

At times I feel that a deeper reluctance holds sway, a reluctance to acknowledge or to accept the core sexuality of our children. It is as if the phrase 'destroying their innocence' is a euphemism for our recognition that our children are growing into sexual beings and that they will be having sex one day.

Maybe this is the crux of the difficulty we have; we and our children find it almost impossible to reciprocally accept that each of us is sexual.

Intuitively we know that they need information and guidance on sex, sexual development, sexuality, relationships, intimacy and love to allow them to make good, healthy and safe choices through their lives. At times though we seem to prefer that someone else tells them!

Perhaps this is one reason why schools, in consultation with other agencies, have taken up the gauntlet. The HSE Health Promotion Unit has launched a new version of their sex education programme, called 'Busy Bodies'.

The programme entails a booklet and a DVD dealing with all of the physical and emotional changes that children may experience during puberty.

The main aim of the resource -- which forms part of the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) component of the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) -- is to reassure children that puberty is a normal part of growing up and the booklet is designed to be used after the pupils have watched the 'Busy Bodies' DVD.

I have looked at the DVD and the booklet and they both contain excellent and clear information; just the kind of thing that children need before they hit puberty.

It is a timely age (10, 11 and 12) to be giving children this information. In many ways it is too late to talk to teens about this stuff. The normalisation of the bodily changes that will take place is useful for children and may reduce their anxiety about what is, or is about to be, happening to them.

Since the schools are taking the responsibility of informing our children about puberty and sex should we be breathing a sigh of relief or should we be questioning why such a sensitive subject must be taught in schools rather than explained by us, in our homes and according to our values and beliefs?

Knowledge of our bodies' sexual functioning is good to have but the healthy expression of that sexual functioning comes from our values and our beliefs. So, while I definitely do want my children to have the information, I want them to get the information with my spin on it, and not the spin of their teacher.

What is really important to me, in any discussion of puberty, sex, sexuality, relationships and such, is the context into which I can place the information.

Objective

No matter how well intentioned a teacher is they cannot be so objective that they will not allow their own convictions to show in a discussion about these topics. I wonder if this is the reason, for example, that masturbation doesn't feature in the 'Busy Bodies' booklet.

I would guess that its absence is because one can't guarantee that all teachers will have a single view of masturbation and its morals. We are not that far evolved from the society where masturbation was considered a sin and children were made to feel guilty for a very natural exploration of their own bodies.

Precisely because sex and sexuality are sensitive subjects, we can develop strong views on what attitudes people should hold, and what moral framework should govern people's behaviour. Those views will always influence how we portray information.

We need to remember, too, that our children and teenagers will also develop strong views. I think it is right and proper that we parents get to influence and mould the opinions they will form.

If I abdicate responsibility for talking to my children about sex then I also give up my opportunity to instill my beliefs and values about sex and relationships.

Our children will need opportunities to talk about issues like abortion, sex before marriage, lesbian and gay issues and contraception and birth control. They should have the chance to explore gender differences and how ethnicity and sexuality can influence people's feelings and options.

They should be able to decide for themselves what the positive qualities of relationships are. It is important that they understand how bullying, stereotyping, abuse and exploitation can get in the way of healthy relationships.

They will need to explore the reasons why people have sex, and to think about how it involves emotions and respect. That respect is for oneself and other people; it must incorporate their feelings, their decisions and their bodies just as much as our own.

Perhaps the schools will do all of this but I think it is an unfair imposition to expect them to do it.

I mentioned earlier how, in the slew of media currently, children can be exposed to a wide range of attitudes and beliefs in relation to sex and sexuality. Indeed, we often decry the undue influence of popular media in the early sexualisation of our children.

For example, when our children watch sexually suggestive music videos we wonder what sense they make of it. When TV soaps deal with rape, what impact does that have on our children?

Decoding all of these messages from the world is the responsibility, I believe, of parents. It is our job to make sure that our children grow into their sexuality in a healthy, secure way. It is our job to give them a strong sense of self that will sustain them in their relationships.

Responsibility

It is a help that schools are giving clear and unambiguous information to our children but it is not the whole story. This should also provide the impetus for us parents to take appropriate responsibility for our children's development.

Your child is developing into the full expression of their sexual being. You can't prevent it but you can certainly nurture, guide and influence how they make sense of sex and relationships.

So, stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye, take a deep breath and practise -- "let me tell you about the birds and the bees..."

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