(Disclaimer: I am not an educator or health professional. The opinions in this blog post are based on personal experience and observation)
I live in California, where a terribly misguided legislative bill was passed and signed by the Governor sometime after I left school. The law, which is still in effect after more than thirty years, requires parental consent before students in taxpayer funded (public) schools can receive sex education.
I remember the arguments in favor of the bill, and most were centered on parental entitlement. Parents wanted to control what their kids were told about sex, and in some families that means inflicting shame with every detail. The one grasping-at-straws claim of using the law to protect students was the predictable “The schools have no business teaching children how to have sexual relations before they’re ready for marriage.”
To this day, a public school student in California cannot learn about estrogen, testosterone, or the mating of sperm and egg without a signed release from a parent. Not in the classroom, anyway. The child might learn about some of the other stuff from crude friends or Cable TV, though. Not so good.
God help girls who get their first periods before anyone explains menstruation to them. More girls may be having that experience now because kids are eating more junk and gaining excess weight at younger ages. In girls and women, being heavy can increase estrogen levels. They may be too embarrassed to mention the mystery bleeding to trusted peers or adults, but if they’re thinking carefully then television advertising for sanitary products will give them some inkling that the bleeding is normal and a socially embarrassing mess can (usually) be prevented.
My mother described the basics of heterosexual behavior and conception between married adults when, at age four, I asked where babies came from. However, she didn’t mention menstruation. As luck had it, I was one of those unlikely thin girls who got my first period at age nine (now I think it was caused by stress). It happened only once at that age, and didn’t rear its ugly head again until age thirteen. I said nothing to anyone about it when I was nine.
There was no TV advertising for personal hygiene products then. Although I knew a box of sanitary napkins was always in the bathroom cabinet, I mistakenly interpreted that to mean my mother had a problem with urinary incontinence.
Thanks to gender-segregated instruction in sixth grade, I learned that the uterus sheds its lining and creates an often uncomfortable, messy situation once every four weeks or so. I still didn’t have detailed answers to the onetime nightmare when I was nine (if it was supposed to be a monthly occurrence, why…), but at least the past trauma finally made sense and I wasn’t shocked when that normal bodily function became a regular thing later.
Here’s another unfortunate thing I had to deal with, due to lack of thorough, age-appropriate education: I knew from an early age that I was bisexual, but it was unlikely any child at that time was hearing the “gay is good” message. I needed to hear it. I recognized an attraction to both sexes, and remember how filthy I felt when I learned the definition of a word which had always been used as a slur in my presence: Homosexual.
Even in the Twenty-First Century, there are adults who see nothing wrong with the conditions that caused me emotional trauma when I was a child. That covers plenty of areas having nothing to do with sex, but to prevent digressions we’ll stick to intimacy topics in this blog post.
Children are fortunate if they have parents who are eager to answer every life question in a nonjudgmental, age-appropriate way. An endearing post circulated on the internet a couple of years ago: A preschooler asked his mother why his two uncles lived together instead of living with aunts. His mother explained that some people love persons of the same sex just the way the child’s heterosexual parents love each other. The post ended with the kid saying, in effect, “Okay. Can I have a biscuit?”
When adults are enlightened, sex education doesn’t have to be awkward for anyone. You’d better not show graphic photos to your preschooler, but you can answer questions in a manner that will register the right way on the child’s mental level.
Thee will always be conflicts. I feel sorriest for the kids whose deeply religious parents dismiss science in favor of raging about sin. Those children are likely to grow up ignorant and ashamed, probably the way their parents did.
Please take a look at a current article (link below) in The Guardian. The planned policy is to instruct students in the U.K. on different aspects of sex, including proper social behavior.
It’s unnecessary to say that kids who receive little or no guidance are at a disadvantage with boundaries. Helicopter parents who believe they’re preventing trashy behavior by censoring entertainment and looking under the child’s mattress for copies of Peyton Place (Whoa! I’m really dating myself here) are missing something. There’s usually pushback, and that’s one of the reasons many of those so-called sheltered children are so good at copying the behavior of characters in R-rated films. Yes, they saw those films when their parents weren’t looking.
Children’s and teenagers’ access to popular entertainment is complicated. When those kids haven’t reached certain points in their development, they aren’t ready to process Fatal Attraction. However, the long practice of forbidding kids to view, hear or read certain subject matter hasn’t resulted in many of them easing into pop culture gradually. For a lot of kids, a strict rule applying to anything just make them sneakier.
Years ago, I saw a child psychologist on a morning news program, discussing a new music video which had caused a stir among parents who may have been ready to go to extremes to prevent their kids from watching. She advised against cancelling the Cable TV because the kids would just see the video someplace else (the way Michael Douglas’s son, Cameron, watched a VHS tape of Fatal Attraction at a friend’s house, according to a Tonite Show interview with Dad).
The child psychologist suggested parents broach the topic as inoffensively as possible, encourage the kids to share their reactions if they’ve seen the video in question, and then tactfully explain the difference between raunchy entertainment and respectful intimacy.
The interview on that morning news program lasted only a few minutes, so it was impossible for this wise mental health professional to go into much detail. However, if any parents listened to her they were better prepared than most to help their children with perspective.
Sex is delicate. It’s healthy when boundaries exist and people are realistic — and take precautions. Yes, an R rating on a movie often means it’s ideal if kids stay clear of it for a few years. Movie rating policies are based on theory rather than practice, though. Children and teenagers need support from adults to help them process confusing images they might be seeing, hearing or reading every day.
Please note that the article in The Guardian mentions sexual harassment. The right sex education program should encourage self-respect, and part of self-respect involves knowing when to take no for an answer. It also involves knowing one has a right to say no.