Age of Un-Innocence

Confronting difficult topics with kids

What Values Underlie Sex Education?

When There’s a Clash Between Sex Education and Your Values



By John T. Chirban

Jim’s daughter Marcie is in fifth grade attending a private school where her dad teaches. Jim came to see me because of unexplained “anxiety.”

At first, it was hard to zero in on the cause of Jim’s anxiety. Eventually, nervously laughing, Jim tearfully disclosed that he felt he let Marcie down by not standing up for what he believed, as her class was being taught how to place condoms on dildos. Jim said he felt helpless and couldn’t do anything to help Marcie. He and his wife had taken the step of signing a waiver to excuse their daughter from the program. So Marcie was excluded from the sex ed class and given extra assignments. However, the instructor had announced to the student body that only three students in the entire school were not participating in the sexuality curriculum, “which,” she said, “was for everyone’s well-being.” In the end, Marcie suffered from being publicly identified.

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After that, Jim wanted to stay out of it to save his daughter from any more humiliation. Yet he, his wife, and Marcie were uncomfortable with the class. Jim said he felt like he was “leading the lamb to the slaughter,” as the program encouraged sexual behaviors rather than simply providing age-appropriate information and also felt that the program did not promote a context of loving relationships where he felt sexuality is best placed.

What do you think about Jim and his wife’s situation? What about Marcie’s? How would you manage it if you didn’t agree with what’s taught in sex ed? Should your child participate in a sex education program when it runs counter to your family’s values? Is sex education value-free and simply informative even when it seems to be directing kids in certain behaviors? On the other hand, how can school systems align sex education programs to embrace diverse family’s values? Can a program possibly adequately meet the various values and needs of students and parents?

     In April 2006, a Lexington, Massachusetts, teacher used the children’s book King & King as part of a lesson plan on the subject of marriage for a second grade class. King & King is a fairy tale in which a prince falls in love and lives happily ever after—with another prince.

     Parents’ reactions mainly fell into two camps. Some argued the school was indoctrinating children to accept gay marriage as healthy and normal—and in response to this curriculum they demanded a broader parental notification law in the state. Others maintained that the school’s job is to teach children about the world they live in—and Massachusetts, at that time, was the only state in the nation to sanction same-sex marriages.

     How would you react if your child were in this classroom? 

     As teaching your kids about sex is an ongoing discussion, part of your job is to help your kids make sense of what they learn in school. So open up the lines for any questions and thoughts your kid may have about stuff at school—there are likely to be at least a few! Keep in mind that you could use any story as an important teaching opportunity to discuss viewpoints different from your own. And recognize that your reactions send messages—both verbal and nonverbal—to your children about the issue and sexuality generally.

     While your school’s sex ed program is important and may solicit your voice, you may not be prepared to confront and shape the sex education program. Yet, take heart, studies confirm that the quality and importance of our communications at home strongly influences our children’s life and often has far-greater impact than sex ed programs.

     Parents who discuss sex in a loving and honest way actually decrease the likelihood that their child will engage in sexual activity. In fact, kids who share a good relationship with their parents and can honestly discuss their concerns about sex, dating, and love are less influenced by peer behavior regarding drugs, alcohol, and sex and report less depression and anxiety and more self-reliance and self-esteem. These kids are also more successful in school and develop more meaningful relationships.

 

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex (Thomas Nelson, 2012) that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information, go to dr.chirban.com and sexual problems.com.

John Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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