There was an uproar in New Zealand recently about sex education when a father told the NZ Herald he had pulled his son out of sex education because the teacher had told his class that anal and oral sex were alternatives to intercourse and that it was okay to play with a girl’s private parts as long as she consented. The boy was only 12. His class was also told to lie on the floor and imagine that the whole word way gay. Other parents came up with their own horror stories.
It is complusory for New Zealand schools to provide sex education, but the programme is up to each school and is supposed to be worked out in consultation with the parent community. Parents can withdraw their children from classes. However, it is clear that parents do not know the half of what is presented in some programmes.
Of course, education about sex is the parent’s task first and foremost, and when I looked at research I had filed, it was clear that parents recognise this. Moreover, their kids want to hear it from them — and, it is more effective coming from them when done properly. Here is part of an op-ed I wrote for the Herald, which they declined to publish:
No parent will be surprised to find that international research shows parents have the greatest influence on the decisions their children make about sex. A 2007 United States study with federal grant support found that youths aged 13 to 17 were much less likely to have initiated sexual intercourse if their parents taught them to say no, set clear rules, talked about what is right and wrong and about delaying sexual activity. If they were already sexually active, they were more likely to use birth control if they had been taught at home about that as well as about delaying sexual activity.
Parents themselves believe sex education is primarily their job. A study of 1600 parents in Minnesota, published early this year, found that 98 per cent thought young people should receive most of their information about sex from their parents, while 58 per cent thought teachers should also play an important role. That is what they thought should happen, but only 24 per cent believed it actually did happen; 78 per cent believed kids got most of their information from friends, and 60 per cent saw media as the main source.
Studies in the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe confirm the major role of friends. Clearly there is a preference gap — and an accuracy gap — to be addressed here.
It’s not that young people do not want to talk about sex with their parents. There is ample research showing that they do. In the US, once again, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy regularly surveys teenagers and adults on this subject and the answers are consistently in favour of parental influence. The National Campaign’s 2010 report, With One Voice, shows that teens aged 12 to 19 were more than twice as likely to nominate parents as having the most influence over their decisions about sex compared with friends (46 per cent as against 20 per cent). All other influences, including teachers and educators (4 per cent), together were nominated by only one-third of the teens. Among younger teens (12-14) the preference for parents grew at the expense of friends (57 per cent as against 14 per cent).
Also in that report, eight out of ten teens said it would be much easier for teenagers to delay sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about sexual topics with their parents. Six out of ten wished they could talk more openly with their parents about relationships.
These results are consistent with research in other countries. A year 2000 British study by public health experts at two leading academic institutions and involving more than 11,000 participants aged 16 to 44 found, in the words of the authors’ summary: “Parents and schools are the preferred source of further information. We need to enable parents to provide information to their children, especially their sons.”
Recent research the Philippines involving around 4000 teenagers in public and private schools found that although their main source of information about sex was friends, they valued their parents’ opinion and wanted to talk with them more. In particular, they wanted to know more about the emotional aspects of relationships and sexuality — things like, how to manage one’s feelings and sexual drive, the meaning of “falling in love”, how to know if the person one is dating is the right person, and how to tell the difference between desire, sexual attraction and love.
These important topics, involving values and individual differences, are clearly best dealt with in ongoing, one-to-one conversations between parent and child. It is what parents and children want. As a matter of principle, parents are the first educators of their children, especially in everything to do with values, morality and the formation of a child’s character. And, anyway, the evidence shows they are more effective.
If there is a role for the school, therefore, it ought to be worked out in close collaboration with the parent community. To avoid any misunderstandings the school could have parent evenings each year where the teachers present the proposed content of their classes, including any equipment and sound effects to be used. Anything they would be embarrassed to present to parents is certainly not fit to offer children.
What are your ideas on school input on this subject? Does it have a place?