Sex ed at home: the importance of parental engagement – Yoan Reed interview #1
Updated: May 10, 2021
Outspoken co-founders in conversation – relationships and sex (RSE) educator Yoan Reed (above right) talks to Leah Jewett (left) in the first of a 3-part series
What was your driving force in setting up Outspoken Sex Ed?
YOAN Through Outspoken we want to reach outside the classroom – not taking sex ed away from schools but extending it into families. “Taking sex ed out of the classroom and into the family” – that’s a good title.
I want to empower children but I also want to empower parents. We have to reclaim learning about sex. We have to claim it back. We’ve given it to this massive industry of pornography, which has got nobody’s interest in mind apart from its own bank account. I don’t think it’s a good way to learn about sex in any way, shape or form.
You came to sex ed after having been a midwife in your 20s. What made you decide to become a midwife?
YOAN When I was eight years old, I had goats as pets. One day when I got home from school I went to tend to a goat who was pregnant. I could see her belly was alive; I could feel something was going on with her. She was starting to give birth. I was totally alone with her, and she had three kids. It was a miracle for me, a huge life event. I was transformed into a different world. That day I decided to become a midwife. It was all I wanted to do.
I had a baby before, during and straight after qualifying in midwifery at Brighton University in 1997 – all in my 20s – so I lived the experience from both sides. I loved the antenatal part of my job – that helped shape what I do now. That was the early stages of my realising that there was so much education to be done – and there still is – around pregnancy and childbirth. The whole science of reproduction wasn’t taught very well in the UK. In my caseload I saw a disproportionate number of teenage pregnancies, and there was no distinction in socioeconomic group – even the affluent girls were so ill informed about pregnancy.
Tell me how you became drawn to working with issues around parenting and teaching.
YOAN Seeing these teenage girls was the spark. Also teaching new mums about contraception after giving birth, I realised how little they knew about it or about their own menstrual cycle. I became very engaged with antenatal education preparing for birth. I studied with Janet Balaskas in north London and became an Active Birth Movement associate, doing yoga, antenatal and postnatal Active Birth classes and midwifery part-time. I enjoyed teaching prospective parents about birth and not making it a medical event but empowering women to have confidence in their own body.
What aspects of being from Denmark affect the way you think and work?
YOAN There’s a natural, liberal view of sex and sexuality in Denmark, so people talk about it in a more relaxed manner. The vocabulary, the correct terminology, is used in everyday language – it’s not hidden at home, and because it’s not a hidden curriculum in schools, talking about bodies is natural.
Body awareness has had a huge impact on how I’ve worked in the UK in that I’m not ashamed of my body. One of the first things I noticed here was that in swimming pools and changing rooms people dressed in private. In Denmark there’s just one changing room, gender divided, but you’d just see all different bodies – young, old, fat, thin – and you saw the genitals and could name them; it was just a natural part of life. So when it comes to people’s sexuality there’s an instant recognition of who you are and that you’re not shy about your body. That could have changed now with the internet; I’m sure it has impacted young people’s body awareness and body image.
As a relationships and sex-education teacher, you hold parents’ evenings at schools. Who is likely to show up at those events?
YOAN When a parent event is presented in the framework of “safeguarding” or “child protection”, fathers are more likely to go and sit there and take notes.
Research tells us that mothers are the gatekeepers about their children learning about sex and fathers have to negotiate their role in it somehow. I observed that when I did the focus-group research for my dissertation on parental engagement. In terms of talking about sex ed at home, fathers put a lot of emphasis on the role of the family and their partners while mothers took on that responsibility without thinking too much about the relationship with their male partner. That naturally puts a father outside the box slightly as a protector, as a safeguarding person.
In one of the focus groups a father said about pornography: “Well, I deal with the WIFI, the router, the filters; my wife deals with talking about it.” That spills into which-gender parent engages with schools about this.
Society as a whole is more likely to engage with sex ed in the framework of safeguarding than if you present it in the framework of positivity.
Talk about what children can get from sex ed at home versus in school.
YOAN At the moment children are taught sex ed without us thinking too much about how their teaching is developed at home. If something is worth teaching at home, it’s things like values, common values that we all want to live under – a moral compass of love, security, responsibility – and if you put sex education into that kind of framework, it suddenly makes sense. You want your children to have that; you want to apply that onto sex ed.
Some parents think that sex education is simply about learning about penises and vaginas, which is what freaks people out – just saying the two words and putting a small child into that picture does not make sense to some parents.
But we should give parents an understanding of a much bigger framework so they think about learning sex ed as learning in a vortex – a spiral curriculum, spiral learning.
So parents should start with simple, simple things. If you start, first of all, using the correct terminology for genitals and with your toddler being able to express happiness, sadness, pleasure and discomfort – putting words and articulation onto those very primal responses to everyday life – then you have started giving your children very, very early sex ed. That is sex ed in its purest early form.
That’s so exciting!
YOAN Then you keep revisiting that basic-level information and you add, as your child is growing, developmentally appropriate learning. So by the age of four your child will be able to say: “That hurts and I don’t want that to happen because that hurts” or: “That feels so nice. I like it.” If your child is able express those emotions with the physical feeling, you can then later on begin giving them tools to say: “This is my body. I don’t like it when that happens to my body.” So you start teaching your child about consent and bodily boundaries.
It’s only when your child understands that there’s a difference between men and women that you’ll explain the genital differences. If your child then asks why, you should be able to have the confidence and knowledge to say: “Because…” and don’t stop your child there. Many parents will say: “Yes, that’s a penis, that’s a vulva” but most children at some point will say: “Why is that? Why are we different?” and “Where did I come from?” and “Who am I?” Those really early conversations will be quite fundamental to keeping the conversation going later on, as they grow. And before they hit puberty, they will need information about it.
But there’s a paradox when they become teenagers. We pretend that children are not sexual beings for so many years – then suddenly we allow them, and expect them, to become responsible sexual beings. It’s like ships passing at night. For all the years up to puberty they’ve been interested but have been subdued in their curiosity, their natural interest in how bodies work. Suddenly we make them responsible for being sexually responsible young people – but where is the information, and how are they going to be taught about it? They will find out. They will find out about sex from their own sources. So I really feel that parents need to become responsible parents and actually teach their children well from very early on.
Was this the approach you took with your three sons, who are now young adults?
YOAN Yes. But my own parenting was shaped by the time, when the internet didn’t have such a big influence over young people’s lives, so I need to put that into perspective. If I was parenting a child now I’d have to think about where my child would be getting their information from if I wasn’t willing or able to give it myself.
You know, I realise this when I teach children as young as nine, 10 or 11 and I ask them – in an anonymous poll – if they have come across pornography or sexualised content. The majority will say yes, and when I then ask: “How many of you have spoken to your mums and dads about it?” the majority will say: “I haven’t.”
So there is a real gap in parents’ expectations and understanding of what their child is actually influenced by, and their normal curiosity.
I think we need to examine how we have constructed childhood. Out of fear of overexposing them to sexuality we’ve almost disabled them from learning about it – and disabled our own skills as parents to teach children about a normal sexuality. We have been so scared by outside influences that we’ve almost taken that information away from our children.
On a personal level I don’t think the word love is spoken enough in the context of sex ed. I’m not trying to push for any kind of cultural establishment such as marriage or any other structure that will fit into a culture or a normative system – that’s parents’ responsibility. I’m just talking about the basic level of love and trust between two people when they have sex. There’s not enough emphasis on that.
How did you get into teaching relationships and sex education (RSE)?
YOAN It really struck me how little British young people knew. I kept thinking about my own sex education in Denmark in the 1980s – it wasn’t perfect, but it was much more comprehensive. I’d had proper sex ed at school and I realised that my own boys weren’t receiving proper education here in the UK. Then I found out it wasn’t even obligatory.
I went into sex ed after my friend, a school nurse, asked me to help teach about menstruation and periods at our children’s school – she and I went on to found Teaching Lifeskills, which delivers RSE lessons and consultation. Even before embarking on a year-long university-accredited course for health professionals and teachers through the Family Planning Association (FPA), the sexual-health charity, I became a member of the Sex Education Forum, soon applying for core membership because I’ve always been interested in the politics and policy-making behind RSE.
What interests me are all of the arguments around sex ed: what prevents some people from not supporting sex ed, why other people really push for it, how it rests in fear, the construction of children’s innocence and the idea of children not being sexual.
In teaching and facilitating RSE for more than 10 years, what kinds of things have you observed about parents and their approach to sex ed?
YOAN Parents have a willingness to learn but also a fear of sexualising their children. There is the beauty of when you teach parents and they see that sexualising their children does not come about through teaching them. Sex ed is a preventative method. Children are sexualised by the world around them.
Also parental engagement in sex ed being heavily female dominated is changing. Both men and women in the younger generation of parents are much more inclined to engage. That’s because there’s a generational shift: very young parents didn’t have sex ed themselves, they realise how needed it is, and they want it for their children. But though they see the benefits and the value in it, they haven’t really got the skills, they haven’t learned to be sex educators themselves to their children. Of course some parents are doing a good job but I think it’s uncharted territory.
Sex education hasn’t been engaged with properly by schools, and even in countries like Denmark – where sex ed is such a natural thing in schools that people don’t really think about it much and there’s very little opposition to it – parents still lack knowledge about young people’s perception of sex, because how we learn about sex has changed dramatically. There is such an influence of pornography on children’s learning – even if children are too young to look for porn they’re still going to be informed by pornography and how sex is portrayed in media. I don’t think parents are aware of that.
Before parental engagement became a more widespread idea, you chose it as a topic for the International Child Studies thesis you did in August 2017, which received a distinction – congratulations! – from King’s College London. How did you hit upon the idea of parental engagement?
YOAN It came from my practice, from teaching children and young people about RSE in schools and occasionally being allowed to hold parent-information events. From those events I understood that parents almost needed the same kind of teaching as their children. In an ideal world I would love to carry out a scheme of work with children and with parents separately, but teaching them the same thing.
So parents and their children studying the same topics in the same week?
YOAN It would be such a fantastic way for parents to develop their children’s learning at home. Because what I hear from children now is that their excellent sex ed at school is not really discussed at home. Children don’t go back and say: “I learned about X, Y and Z.” Parents say to me: “But I ask my children what they learned in sex ed and they don’t want to talk to me about it.”
There could be a couple of reasons for this. With younger children it’s perhaps because there were previous messages about learning about sex that weren’t very positive, so they feel unable to communicate at home about it. A young person who’s 15 or 16 has already moved into their own private sphere where they start to pull away from their parents, to become more independent and to learn much more from their peer group – it’s a natural separation. You also can’t expect your 16-year-old to come and talk about everything they’ve learned in sex education if you haven’t laid the groundwork of talking freely about it. Talking openly is difficult enough, but they are also becoming their own people and don’t want to share everything with their parents.
How did you come to have this conviction about parents being a missing link in their children’s relationships and sex-education learning?
YOAN Research tells us that children want to talk to their parents about sex-ed topics and that parents want to be their children’s primary sex educator – children and young people actively express that – but in reality it’s not the case.
I also came across this in my teaching, when I’d ask children and young people about their sex ed at home. Then I would meet their parents, and they’d say to me: “Little Johnny definitely isn’t watching porn.” But I’d know that he was. That’s been one of the biggest conflicts for me: what do I say? I’d like to close that gap, because it’s important for Johnny, for everyone.
More and more I see the parental disconnect with the technology that is shaping young people’s understanding of themselves and others. Parents are fearful of the technology that children are experts in using. A natural response is to monitor children’s online activity, or limit their use. But this should be combined with a constructive engagement with children’s social interaction where parents empower children to become critical consumers. Children are experts in the field of technology – as they mature, they will be able to negate most filters and obstructions and need to understand the implications of online presence, rather than be denied access. Parents need to educate themselves not just about online protection measures but also about how to help their children understand the bigger picture.
Why do you do this kind of work around relationships and sex education?
YOAN I just think it’s so important. I have three sons. I want them to be fantastic lovers and I want them to have an amazing sex life that’s full of love and respect. And I think I’ve managed to give them a lot of that through my own teaching at home, so I know how important it is for parents to be active teachers.
I would love to see some of the great work around sex-ed topics that children do at school replicated at home.
We need to be active. We can’t just pretend that children are not interested in sex and then they’ll figure it out for themselves when they are older. If they are going to figure it out for themselves, they are going to have so many levels of misinformation, and I don’t think we should risk it.
Next week: Yoan Reed on how relationships and sex education (RSE) is changing