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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Hiding in plain sight: what’s missing from your children’s sex education

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

What is one of the most important elements that is missing from your children’s sex education? What’s missing is you – their parent.

Although we live in a highly sexualised culture, it rarely comes naturally to talk openly with our children about challenging issues like body image, unwanted touching, the impact of porn, sexting, pleasure and consent. But research consistently shows that both parents and children want to communicate with each other about these and other sex-ed subjects.

Your children look to you as a moral compass. Often they’re navigating the pressures and negative messaging they’ve internalised from the media, social media, their peers and the internet. Many parents would be surprised by the discrepancy between what they think their children know and what their children have seen or heard about.

Research overwhelmingly shows that parents’ engagement with their children’s relationships and sex-education learning can play a fundamental part in improving their children’s confidence, self-esteem, mental health, emotional wellbeing, critical thinking, decision-making, and ultimately their ability to enjoy healthy sexual experiences and satisfying relationships.

How do you strengthen your children’s resilience? Talking with them openly is key.

On the one hand you might think nothing of encouraging them with sports or art, helping them with homework, teaching them to cook. But do you, on the other hand, prioritise or take responsibility for confronting sex-ed issues so that openness is integral to your children’s experience of growing up?

For me having a pre-teen daughter and teenage son brings all of this into sharp relief.

I’m from America, so being direct comes with the territory. I grew up in San Francisco during the radical 1960s and self-help-era 70s, when the Summer of Love, the Pill and books like Our Bodies Our Selves and The Joy of Sex were part of the cultural landscape. It all fuelled my interest in frank communication between parents and children – which is a vital, overlooked component of children’s sex education.

My Outspoken Sex Ed co-founder Yoan Reed also comes from a culture that feels more open to being up front. Her natural ease in addressing sex-ed subjects derives from her growing up in Denmark, where the relatively liberal societal structure allows for a forthright approach to sexuality and, as in so many Scandinavian countries, talking candidly about bodies begins at a young age.

Many parents tend to limit frank communication with their children around sex-ed issues to references to their children’s changing bodies. Often parents shy away from talking about their children’s emerging sexuality or growing awareness of sex-ed issues, as well as the emotions behind it all.

That’s understandable: perhaps they aren’t equipped with the skills, language or confidence to talk honestly, matter-of-factly, about sex-ed subjects because that kind of conversation didn’t feature in day-to-day life during their childhoods.

It’s also an intergenerational near-impossibility for today’s parents to fathom what it’s like for their children to have engaged electronically, from a young age, with friends and the wider world via the powerful portable computer that is their smartphone.

But you can make a point of changing the conversation with your own children.

Explore difficult and off-limits subjects and they’ll come to feel less foreign, less loaded. Challenge yourself to see frequent but short talks about tricky sex-ed subjects as being part of an ongoing, everyday process, and it will become second nature…

  • Actively bring up issues instead of reactively waiting for your children to ask questions or for something to happen that triggers discussion

  • Test-drive awkward words out loud or with another adult

  • Choose your moment – maybe when you’re both in parallel while out walking or driving so you won’t have to make eye contact, or brazen it out at the dinner table

  • As a way in, talk about a third party – use something that happened to someone else as a springboard for discussion; ask if an issue has come up at school; hook conversation onto themes brought up by news stories

Tackling sex-ed topics entails revisiting how your own formative experiences – from sex education to sexual activity to the assumptions that were conditioned into all of us – inform your current stance and viewpoints. In fact it’s important to examine your own values about relationships and sex-education topics and how they implicitly convey messages to your children.

You don’t have to go it alone. It’s useful to define where you stand relative to other people’s parenting stories and values. Coming together with other parents to compare notes, hear different perspectives and exchange experiences is eye opening, emboldening.

Attending a panel discussion means that being in the relative anonymity of a large audience shares out the awkwardness – you’re all in it together – while small parent-discussion groups are rewarding because of the interactiveness.

It can be embarrassing saying something revelatory to someone you know. Equally it can be intimidating to relay a personal anecdote to a total stranger. But either way you’re learning experientially and testing the waters – this is a trial run for taking the plunge to talk with your children.

Becoming part of the conversation inspires you to spark conversation at home.

It’s a catalyst for talking with children and young people about healthy and LGBT-inclusive relationships, respect, enthusiastic mutual consent and becoming a critical thinker – all of which are at the heart of relationships and sex education (RSE).

RSE will increasingly make headlines in the run-up to September 2019, when it will become mandatory in secondary schools and relationships education will become mandatory in primary schools. Supporting parental engagement around RSE should already figure high on schools’ agendas – they have a responsibility to communicate with parents about their RSE policies. Parents also need education from schools about the topics covered in RSE lessons, and when, so that they can reinforce their children’s RSE learning with casual conversations with them, just as they would about other school subjects.

You can make it all kick off at home well before the 2019 start date. As the missing piece in the puzzle of your children's relationships and sex-education learning, start discussing and demystifying sex-ed topics here and now. You’ll be shoring up your children’s resilience and wellbeing. The fact that you are modelling openness and confidence will give them confidence. The compelling end result is that you will be strengthening your connection with your children over time.

Dare to talk openly with your children.

Don’t decide to not go there.

Go there.

A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared on the Huffington Post under the title Every Parent Must Get Involved In Their Children’s Sex Education in February 2018

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