After many years of resistance around the topic of school-based sex education, Governor Jerry Brown signed a mandatory sex education bill that was instituted January 1, 2016 throughout California schools in grades 7-12. This comes on the heels of several school districts having eliminated preparation for puberty courses.
Teaching sex education in schools has always been controversial, and at the heart of the controversy is the question of who should teach sex education– parents, schools, religious organizations or peers? Similarly controversial are the questions of how much information to give and who should be giving it.
In 2003 SB71, an HIV/AIDS curriculum, was mandated for all California school districts. The research supported the need for a more robust curriculum to be taught to grades 7 – 12. This mandate was met with much discussion and resistance due to the topic. Since 2003 each district has taken it upon themselves to choose the amount and focus of sex education that they felt worked best for their students. In 2011 an in-depth progress report was written about the efficacy of then-current sex education in California. Now, four years later, Governor Brown’s new bill addresses the areas of comprehensive preventative sex education that the 2011 report felt California was lacking.
As an educator in the field of sexuality for the past 30 years, and having been on school districts’ boards when the topic of sex education came up for a vote, I know what a hot topic this is. I also know that young people are hungry for correct information and will seek answers through the sources they have access to—sources that may be unreliable. The world is a very different place from what it was 30 years ago, due to the internet and the prevalence of early sexual involvement. Teen pregnancy is down from where it was in the 80s, but sexually transmitted diseases are not. The majority of current research supports the fact that comprehensive preventative sex education decreases early sexual behavior and thereby the consequences of its related risks.
Due to the fact we live in a highly sexualized society in which many have a fear of having open and honest parent/child discussions around the topic of sex, I have a concern that in the end Governor Brown’s bill will fall short, just as SB71 did. In my years of experience the most successful method of teaching and retaining this kind of important information is healthy exchanges between parents and children. Even with extensive in-school education, without follow-up and context given by parents, we’re still falling short.
There are many reasons parents resist having open, ongoing discussions with their kids about puberty, sex, abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, gender identity, personal values and beliefs, etc. The reasons may be valid, but tweens and teens need to have open and honest access to their parents. Without it, kids will find sources on their own. With it—and this is key—the sources outside the home, whether they are school or the internet or peers or anything else, are tempered by the conversation at home. Knowing they can safely talk to their parents about these things openly, kids usually will.
Here’s some of what you can do at home if you’d like to open this channel of communication with your kids:
- Before puberty (puberty in girls is beginning as early as 8 years of age), set the stage for your child to feel they can come to you with questions and concerns
- Begin conversations early which include the basics, such as physical and emotional changes, proper reproductive anatomy and social media
- By 6th grade your kids need to know all aspects of puberty, reproduction, boundaries, understanding of gender identity and healthy relationships
- 7th-8th graders need a much more in-depth sex education, which includes information about sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence and the importance of healthy relationships
- 9th-12th graders need to feel like they can come to their parents with questions and concerns to help them make wise choices during the age when sexual activity often begins
- Teens must have information that explains not only the physical and social parts of relationships, but that healthy relationships take emotional maturity as well.
Here are some tools you can use to increase everyone’s comfort during these conversations:
- Become informed and educated yourself, seeking comprehensive and reliable sources
- Get informed with your school and district policies
- Take a course with your child
- Face your own fears and areas of discomfort—your role here is critical
- Get educated about the current culture your children are living in and the impact it makes on their lives.
Curiosity around sex and sexuality is a normal part of adolescence. That being said, young people need the full scope of reliable information to help them make good choices during the challenging years of adolescence. It really does take a village to raise a child, and the schools are trying to do their part in helping children deal with the topics of sex and sexuality. Even more important than what they’ll receive in school, though is the part their parents play in helping to raise sexually healthy young people.