Most parents support the updated Ontario sex ed curriculum, for good reasons

The uproar over Ontario’s updated sexual education curriculum has now gone way over the top, with misinformation flying around the province and some parents pulling their kids out of school in protest. I respect the right of these parents to make their views known. I respect the right of these parents to pull their kids out of school when the new sexual health curriculum will be discussed in class. But what I oppose and resent is the attempt to axe the whole curriculum so that my child and the children of most Ontario parents, who support the curriculum, can’t benefit from it either. These parents have the right to impose their minority religious beliefs and values on their own kids, but they have no right to impose them on mine.

Some of the misinformation about the new curriculum floating around rivals the inaccuracies kids get about sex from their friends and our culture.  Some parents are convinced that their kids will be taught to touch themselves at school – I kid you not. The Toronto Star has tallied up some of the misinformation that parents are getting. Here is a summary of the actual curriculum, and this is the parents’ guide to the updated portion of the Grades 1-6 curriculum. The curriculum stresses respecting yourself and respecting others. If you oppose it, fine. At least know what you are opposing.

I am sure these concerned parents are well-meaning. They just want to protect their kids. Despite all the research evidence to the contrary, I have heard some parents on the radio express fears that teaching their child the correct names for their genitalia will somehow encourage their kids to experiment sexually.  I hate to break this to them, but kids’ curiosity about genitalia predates sexual education curricula by thousands of years.

In Grades 1-3, Ontario kids will be taught the correct names for body parts, as opposed to “wee-wee” or “down there”.  They will also be taught how to recognize inappropriate touching and what to do about it. Because I am a researcher who has done work in the area of child sexual abuse, I recognize that this is based on research about what actually works to help kids avoid sexual abuse and to report abuse if it does happen. Here again, parental misinformation is a problem, fueled by media focus on sexual predators. Many people believe that child sexual abusers are monsters and weirdos hiding out in bushes waiting to abduct kids, because that’s what gets the headlines. In fact, most people who sexual abuse kids are ordinary and have a relationship with the child – a family member, a family friend, or a person with authority over the child. It is very difficult for a small child not to believe a trusted adult who convinces them that sexual touching is okay and “our little secret”. Ignorance does not protect children. Information does.

In my own parenting, I have taken a cue from an uncle who was a doctor. He taught his daughters the correct names for genitalia and even about sex from an early age. Did they grow up to be teenage moms, as one parent I heard predicted? No. They both grew up to be happy, well-adjusted doctors. I taught my own daughter to say “penis” and “vagina” by the time she was three and started asking these questions. The woman I heard on the radio who doesn’t want her kids to learn the correct words will get a surprise when her kids come home with ruder names for these body parts from the playground.

In Grades 4 to 6, the time when some kids are now entering puberty, they will learn about the physical and emotional changes that accompany puberty. The curriculum includes getting cultural advice from elders as a way of managing stress, as well as taking care of yourself and making healthy choices. They learn that touching people without their permission or sharing explicit photos of someone is both inappropriate and illegal.

When kids are older, the curriculum is based on evidence about what delays teen sex, prevents pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease. I’ve heard parents mistakenly assume that if sex is discussed in school, kids will rush out to try it when in fact the research shows the opposite is true. Robbing kids of factual information does not prevent them from developing sexual feelings at puberty like everybody else. Not getting factual information at school does not prevent them from hearing about sex elsewhere, such as misinformation from friends and the internet. Not talking about sex except in the context of religious values and abstinence does not prevent premarital sex, as the existence of institutions for unwed mothers prior to the 1960s clearly show.

The United States, which has the least sex ed and the most abstinence-based sex ed programs also has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. Why? We live in a hyper-sexualized culture. Our kids see it through TV, movies, the internet and other kids. They get all sorts of misinformation about sex, particularly through pornography, in which no one ever gets pregnant or picks up a disease. Even if you try to shield your kids from the culture around them, they will experience it through other people’s kids. When young people learn in school that sex isn’t just pleasure, it comes with responsibility, they tend to delay sexual activity and are better prepared to protect themselves when they do engage in it. The Netherlands has a very low rate of teen pregnancy and teens delay sex. They have very well-developed sex ed curricula in schools. Knowledge is not the enemy. Misinformation is.

The new curriculum specifically talks in Grade 7 about the benefits of delaying sexual activity and the risk of sexually-transmitted infection. Only in Grade 8 is contraception covered. You can see this in the full Health and Physical Education curriculum for Grades 1-8, which is where the updated sexual health information is embedded. Sexual education is not a stand-alone topic in Ontario schools. It is part of a holistic approach to understanding human physical and emotional development and healthy choices.

The updated curriculum is also based on evidence about what prevents bullying and suicide based on sexual orientation. In Ontario, it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. In Grades 1-3 kids will learn that some kids have different abilities, come from different cultural backgrounds or might have two moms or two dads, and that we must respect everyone and not treat them badly because they may be different. Not until Grades 6-8 (ages 11-13) does the issue of sexual orientation come up in terms of self-concept. This is an important time to cover this issue. This is the time that bullying on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation ramps up in schools, which we know is a factor in the higher suicide rates of LGBTQ youth.1 The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about the LGBTQ youth, “Going to a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important.” Unfortunately, some parents are not accepting, which is a factor in the higher risk of homelessness for LGBTQ youth. Some parents see this as a moral issue. So do I. Like most Ontarians, I think it is unconscionable to pretend LGBTQ youth don’t exist, to make them feel sick, sinful or less than human, or to turn our backs while they are being bullied.

It is ridiculous to think that if we just don’t talk about it, no teen will develop feelings for another person of the same sex. In some parts of the world, same-sex relationships are illegal and even subject to the death penalty, but that does not stop them from happening.

I strongly support the discussion about consent in Grade 8 (age 13), and the focus on treating ourselves and others respectfully. In our society, there is now a disconnect between many people’s attitudes about sexual consent and what the law actually states. I still hear attitudes about women or girls “deserving it” because of what they wear, the hour they are out at night or because they went to a party. Our human rights are not suspended because of our clothing, the hour of day or our GPS location. Getting the facts about consent, that any girl or boy, man or woman has the right to say no to any kind of touching or activity at any time, will hopefully become the cultural norm for this generation of kids who get this discussion in school. They will learn that clear and ongoing consent to sexual activity must be obtained, and that not to do so is against the law. That will empower teens to say no. That will prevent some of the rampant sexual assaults of teens and young women. This is a significant step forward for our society, to try to get everyone on the same page to prevent sexual assault. Ignorance does not protect young women or young men.

I also strongly support the discussion in Grade 9 (age 14) about the dangers of sexting. What teenagers listen to their parents about technology? How many kids like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons need to die before parents realize that ordinary kids can get into big trouble through coercion or the attitudes of the people around them? We all want to protect our kids, but as they grow up, this becomes more and more difficult. We can’t keep our kids locked up in the basement until they become adults. Not only is this illegal, but they will have no idea how to function in this world. Knowledge is our kids’ best defence. Ignorance cannot protect them.

Far from trying to supplant parents, the curriculum actually states: “Parents are the primary educators of their children with respect to learning about values, appropriate behaviour, and ethnocultural, spiritual, and personal beliefs and traditions, and they are their children’s first role models.” Parental values go hand in hand with knowledge.  The school is there to provide knowledge, based on the latest evidence. The parents are there to provide love, guidance and values. It is a partnership in education.

This leads me to the other argument I have heard – that parents should be the only ones to teach their kids about sex, not schools. Suddenly, I am flashing back to the most awkward conversation I’ve ever had in my life, where my mother tried to tell me about sex when I was 11, only because I asked her. Many parents are not comfortable talking to their kids about sex, and do not cover the topic well or thoroughly. Many teens do not feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex, and are afraid to ask questions because the parent may assume they are sexually active. Teens tend to talk to their friends about these topics, and what they learn in the locker room isn’t what they would be learning from either their parents or the classroom.

Parents are entitled to pass on their religious or moral beliefs to their kids, but they are not entitled to pass on their religious or moral beliefs to my child. By trying to force the Ontario government to yank the evidence-based, updated portions of the health curriculum for all Ontario kids, they are trying to prevent the majority who support this initiative from benefitting from it. And that’s wrong.

By all means, withdraw your kids from class during the sex ed sessions if that’s what you want. But I want my daughter to be there learning.

 Notes:

1 Russell, S.T. & Joyner, K. 2001. Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health 91:1276–1281.

Another concerned Ontario parent has started a petition in support of the updated, evidence-based curriculum.

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