In response to the unveiling of the new Ontario sexual education curriculum, some parents, educators and legislators have expressed fear that talking about sexuality in schools might harm children. As physicians who work in child protection pediatrics and adolescent health, we believe that this fear stands in the way of supporting our children’s healthy development, long term health and safety.
Studies have proven that talking about sexual topics doesn’t result in children having earlier or more sex but does lead them to make better informed and healthier sexual choices. What should cause us fear is the earlier sexualization of children by media and advertisers, the reality that more than half of teens learn about sexual topics from media sources, the knowledge that as many as one out of three girls and one out of 10 boys are sexually abused or assaulted, and the too familiar stories of marginalization, bullying and suicide among youth (particularly those of minority sexual orientation).
There are many examples of technology and social media playing a role in terrible outcomes for kids as a result of their tech-savvy knowledge but relative cognitive and social immaturity. The shocking examples of rape culture recently exposed at some Canadian universities, as well as the fact that half of grade 9 students incorrectly believe that HIV is curable, reveal that the status quo has not been preparing our children appropriately.
We need to talk about sexuality with children and youth because sexuality is not just sex. Sexual health is about understanding our own and others’ feelings; it’s understanding love, respect, relationships and self-expression; it’s part of body image, self-esteem, and self-identity. It is also part of our physical health and safety.
Sexual development is a normal part of growing up and occurs gradually over time. Most parents actively guide their children’s physical, social, cognitive, emotional and behavioural development. Why should we neglect sexual development? As parents guide their children’s behaviour through interactions every day in ways that change as the child matures, so too can they guide their children’s sexual development. By addressing these topics with young children, instead of waiting for “the talk”, parents are not only teaching them the facts but also that it is normal to consider these issues. It also teaches them that their home is a safe place to discuss sensitive topics and provides them with an understanding of their family’s values and norms. Parents can also help their children by modelling respectful healthy behaviour and relationships.
Should these discussions also occur at school? Absolutely. Teachers are key role models and they impart important knowledge. They also contribute to their students’ social, emotional and behavioural development. In the same way that the education system incrementally helps students to learn to read letters and only essays much later, it is crucial that a sexual health curriculum provide early sexual literacy so that the “essays” of sexual health can be discussed when the students are developmentally ready. A school-based curriculum ensures that factually correct information is provided to all children and allows students to hear each others’ points of view in a mediated environment where acceptance and inclusiveness will be modelled. Children and youth need to hear each other talk instead of letting media tell them (mostly incorrectly) what their peers think and do
The key to success of the curriculum will be ensuring that teachers have the required knowledge of both the content and needed approach, to present and discuss the material in a way that is understandable, usable and sensitive to the developmental stage of their students.
Educating our children is protective, not harmful. So, talk to your kids. Talk to your students. Parents and teachers, armed with the correct knowledge and approach, are the best tools we have to support our kids’ sexual health, development and safety.
Michelle Ward is chief of the division of child and youth protection and Stephen Feder is chief of the division of adolescent health at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).