Like many sex educators, I appreciated the needed attention that John Oliver’s piece on the sad state of sex education in the U.S. school system has brought to the public.
Yet, in setting up his argument about just how important comprehensive sex education is in schools, he quickly dismissed the positive role that parents can - and often do - play as their child’s primary sex educator.
Oliver stated, “No parent wants to talk to their kid about sex and no kid wants to talk about sex with their parents.”
Do Parents Really Want to Talk About Sex?
Not true, John. While the writers of this piece did their research when it came to sex ed programs in the U.S., they neglected to read the studies on the importance of parent-child communication related to sex and sexuality. If they had, they would have learned that children do, in fact, want to talk to their parents and that many parents want to be the ones educating their children.
He went on to say, “That is why when you’re watching a movie together and there’s a sex scene, everyone becomes motionless and silently begs for the merciful release of death.”
It’s true that in families where sex has never been discussed, it is likely to be uncomfortable for all if the subject is suddenly raised. This is why starting the conversation early and making it a part of routine family discussion is key. Because whether parents like it or not, they are the primary sex educators for their kids. This education starts from the moment children are born. When parents don’t talk to their kids about sex and sexuality, that silence sends a powerful message, one of secrecy, shame, and uncomfortable feelings.
Supporting Parents as Sex Educators
As with the state of sex education in schools, there are challenges faced by parents who want to talk to their kids about sex and sexuality. However, those challenges don’t include loss of federal funding or the need for pre-approval for their “curriculum.” Parents are pretty much allowed to say whatever they want to their children. This is the good news and the bad news. We know parents can do a lot of damage by sending sex negative messages to their kids or giving their kids misinformation. There's a real opportunity here to give parents the knowledge and confidence they need to do a better job. We could make a lot of healthy progress just by starting a conversation about it in this country.
What I most often hear from parents is that they want to take on the task of providing sex education to their kids, but they are unsure about how or when to start. If their child is still young, they worry about offering information too soon. If their child is older, they worry that the conversation will be unbearably awkward for everyone.
The reality is that if we offer more information than a child is ready for, they will filter out what makes sense to them and the rest will be stored away for when they are ready to integrate it. Education does not jump start one’s sexual curiosity; usually, hormones do that quite nicely on their own. Contrary to what some might believe, studies show that children who talk to their parents about sex and sexuality are more likely to postpone sexual intercourse; and when they do have sex, they are more likely to use protection.
As far as getting a late start on the conversation, it’s true it may be awkward at first. Awkward is not reason enough to keep our children ignorant. It is important that we do not confuse the concept of innocence with ignorance when it comes to talking to our children about sex and sexuality. Children have a lens through which they view the world. As they receive more information, they do not suddenly see things through adult eyes. (Learn more in Why I Decided to Tell My Six-Year-Old About Condoms.)
Providing Comprehensive Sex Education
Educating our children about their bodies and giving them the tools to understand the changes they will go through is their birthright. By not teaching them, we encourage a culture of secrecy which breeds feelings of shame. That shame is what I believe robs a child of their innocence.
I am a strong advocate of quality comprehensive sex education in the schools. I also believe that when done well, it is not just teaching about how to avoid STDs and an unwanted pregnancy. It’s teaching about love, trust, intimacy and affection. These are things that parents are already teaching to their children.
As parents, you are your child’s first experience of love. This early communication is nonverbal and it begins to lay the foundation for your child’s future intimate relationships. When you gaze into your baby’s eyes, when you feed them and bathe them with love and affection, they are learning about trust and about how good it feels to be touched and cared for in a gentle and loving way. Isn’t this what we, as parents, hope they will experience some day with a partner—a gentle and loving touch, feelings of trust and comfort?
So, parents and kids, next time you’re sitting together on the couch watching a movie (not sure if that even ever happens anymore in this age of hand held personal movie screens) and a sex scene comes on, remember that this is a teachable moment. Why not have a discussion about it? What a great opportunity to explore issues of sexual relationships including consent, safety, and pleasure. Were the characters in love? How well did they know each other before they decided to have sex? Did both people want to have sex? Did they use any protection? Did they worry about STDs or pregnancy? Did both people enjoy it? Did having sex change their relationship? Do you think they were ready to have sex? These are just a few examples of potential discussion questions and an opportunity for parents to show their comfort level with the topic and to impart their own personal values to their kids.
So, John, thanks for shining a light on the disturbing state of sex education in U.S. schools. Next time, do it without disregarding the important role that parents play as the primary sex educators for their children.