The importance of educating parents to educate their children
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
In today’s digital and highly sexualised world, there is a pressing need for relationships and sex education (RSE). Recent media coverage and increased public awareness around some of the topics it covers – such as consent, sexual harassment and the impact of porn – as well as the fact that it will be mandatory in secondary schools as of September 2019 mean that RSE is on the national radar.
Discussion of sex and healthy relationships – whether it’s through the lens of safeguarding, risk and danger or from the vantage of encouraging positivity and pleasure – is considered essential by most parents but seen as threatening by those parents who withdraw their children from RSE lessons. This opt-out policy, which affords no means of ensuring that children’s rights to RSE are being met at home, is driven by the demands of a vocal minority.
Research shows that most parents – the silent majority – support RSE and actively want to talk openly with their children. But because they lack the knowledge, skills, language and confidence, the powerful potential of parents becoming RSE educators for their own children remains untapped.
The key is parental engagement. Parents need education and encouragement from school in order to reinforce at home the RSE topics that are covered in the classroom. They need to be educated not just about safeguarding their children but also about supporting them in their sexual development and engaging them in positive conversation around sex and sexuality.
School-supplied tools such as written materials and video resources are useful. But interactive learning – putting theory into practice and learning by doing – makes a lasting experiential impact.
Just as children thrive on collaboration with their peers, parents benefit from the opportunity to come together with adult peers to share experiences and learn from other people’s perspectives. Panel discussions or small discussion groups make excellent testing grounds where parents can practise saying awkward words, tackle difficult topics and begin to clarify the opinions, fears or tensions that hold them back.
Having a forum for discussion gives men, in particular, permission to share insight and reveal emotion – as evidenced by the male-only focus groups run in 2017 for an MA dissertation in International Child Studies at King’s College London. Those fathers voiced a clear need to parent their own children with more openness than they’d experienced while growing up.
The dissertation – entitled ‘What’s out there for us, putting us in a better position?’ Parental needs for engagement in children’s relationships and sex education by Outspoken Sex Ed co-founder Yoan Reed – spelled out parents’ explicit and implicit needs around the famous “what”, “how” and “why” of RSE delivery.
Parents have explicit needs for resources about sexual development and for information about the content and teaching methods of RSE lessons. They have implicit needs for understanding children’s right to RSE, the importance of LGBT-inclusive RSE delivery and the benefits of good-quality RSE on children’s lives. The study recommends concerted efforts in politics, policies and practice in order to strategise parental engagement.
At the top of the agenda is improving communication between schools and parents. Parents uninformed about the nature of RSE undervalue its significance in countering the damaging output from the hugely skewed, profit-driven porn industry and other misleading or non-educational online content. Our social construction of childhood, including fears over RSE stealing children’s innocence, can also affect how much parents enable themselves to, or want to, communicate about RSE issues.
Best-practice RSE involves ongoing dialogue with parents. Before children begin RSE lessons, the teacher meets with parents, sending out resources about lesson topics and a timetable of when they will be covered so that parents can initiate conversation with their children. At the end of the programme there is another meeting to show parents artwork and other evidence demonstrating the children’s reactions and changes in their factual knowledge, views and perceptions.
Parental engagement is the vital missing piece in the puzzle of children’s RSE learning. It is of paramount importance that both schools and government begin to focus on supporting parents to become effective RSE educators for their children. Talking openly, non-judgmentally and on an everyday level brings families closer and gives children and young people a sense of confidence that they will then take with them out into the world.
This article was submitted to the Westminster Education Forum for inclusion in the briefing document for its conference Preparing for Implementing Compulsory Relationships and Sex Education In Schools – Curriculum Content, Best Practice and Teacher Training held in February 2018