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New sex ed books for six year olds sparks controversy

September 21st, 2008

Dr Petra

The FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) has launched a 12 page booklet for six to seven year olds to help them talk about physical development and provide positive messages about relationships with friends and family. The comic, entitled ‘Let’s grow with Nisha and Joe’ will be distributed in schools with the idea a child can take it home to complete and discuss with parents.

And oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth this has caused in the press. ‘Sex pamplet for six year olds horrifies family lobby’ howls The Times, ‘Now schools introduce a sex guide for your six year olds’ fumes The Mail, while The Telegraph reports on how the booklet has sparked off a row. (Read the comments in response to these features for a full range of parental responses to both the comic and the issue of sex education).

None of which should surprise us really, since there’s always media hysteria each time a pro-sex education organisation creates any sex education materials or suggests we might want to begin sex education from a young age.

All of this is very interesting, since journalists – or more precisely editors – make specific decisions on what news items they will cover, what their angle will be, what they will and won’t say, and what response they want to generate in their readership.

Which means all of the papers could have said ‘parents find it very difficult to talk to young children about sex, but young children have questions about their bodies and people’s relationships. A new comic has been designed to help guide teachers, children and parents’. Obviously that’s nowhere near as catchy as a more frothing at the mouth children-as-young-as-six-being-taught-about-sex! But isn’t it interesting that no paper ever decides to take a more positive line? You can spin the providing sex information to young people as making them better citizens or happier people. But clearly suggesting sex educators are all out to corrupt the young makes for better headlines.

And that’s irresponsible journalism. Parents are very anxious about talking to their children about sex since many weren’t given very good sex education themselves. They need all the help they can get. Scare stories in the media suggest that predatory sex educators (or their pernicious comics) will infiltrate the classroom and tell children terrible things about sex before they’re ready – and before parents get a chance to talk to their kids. This makes many parents very fearful of sex education, leads to them withdrawing their kids from school sex education, but also leaves them unable to adequately answer their children’s questions about sex and relationships.

We can’t just blame the media though. There have been countless times when sex education groups have launched campaigns or publications to the press without fully explaining what they’re doing, which has led to the kind of coverage that implies when we’re talking to children about sex we’re telling them about sex toys, anal sex and orgies. Charities and other sex ed organisations need to tackle their approach to PR and address the real fears parents have, and make it clear what they’ll be offering at different ages so people won’t turn against something that might be beneficial to their child.

The key complaints about the current book hinge around asking children to name body parts – or more specifically asking them to point out where the vagina or testicles are on drawings of a naked boy and girl. Opponents claim this is introducing too many adult things for young children to think about. Some columnists have even questioned why a girl should need to know the name ‘vagina’ when she’s six (although they haven’t said anything about boys naming their bodies). Other complaints include the focus on the book around naming the body means children won’t think of sex within the context of a loving/marital/monogamous relationship.

Looking at this from a parent’s point of view – why are they so worried about naming body parts? Some parents dislike using terms penis or vagina because they think it sounds too clinical, others worry it’ll make their child grow up too soon. Some are concerned if a child learns the ‘correct’ name for their genitals they might say the words in public – either shaming their family in the process or perhaps making them prey to a sexual predator. Still more think the words are too formal and prefer to use slang terms like willy or fanny. For some parents there is a concern if they talk to their child about naming their body parts this could lead to other questions about sex they don’t feel equipped to answer. Parents who’ve had little sex education themselves or who’ve been raised to think sex is bad or shameful find it particularly difficult to talk about sex and particularly name and discuss genitals.

Should we expect children and parents to name body parts? Yes we should. Children are learning from us all the time and if they are told the correct names for toes, ears, eyes, thighs and other areas of the body they will notice (perhaps subconciously at first) where a few parts of the body are either given euphemisms or are simply left unnamed. This is particularly a problem for girls as we’re more likely to say a boy has a penis or willy but we either don’t give a girl a name for her genitals, or we give it a coy description (like tuppence) or tell girls that boys have a penis, but girls don’t have one/anything.

Should we expect children and parents to use anatomical names for body parts? This is more of a debateable issue. I think learning biological terms can be important, but also using terms that are appropriate to your child (and their peer group) is essential. Children need to be able to describe the places where they urinate and defecate from in case of any problems, infection, if they need to convey they want to use the toilet, and to say if someone has tried to touch them there. Having a friendly word they can use also makes the genitals seem less scary/unpleasant which can lead to more positive views about the body and fewer sexual hang ups when they’re older. While your child is young it’s up to you whether you prefer to use willy instead of penis, fanny instead of vagina. It’s better to use commonly understood slang than more ‘made up’ vague terms, and better to use terms that you feel comfortable saying (whether they’re biological or slang). Whatever words you use, if you do it in a way that signifies distaste you can be certain your child will pick up on it.

Rest assured, naming your childs genitals won’t make you a pervert or them more prey to abuse. If you’re not sure what to say or how to talk about the body you can talk to other parents, your child’s school or nursery and see what words they use. And don’t buy in to this media myth that schools are there to teach your kids things about sex you don’t agree with and without your consent. You can talk to your child’s school about the messages they’re giving and you have the right to say how you feel about this. Hopefully if your school is doing its job you can work collaboratively so your child gets the same, helpful messages about sex from both of you.

Remember we’re living in a highly sexualised culture where our children are being exposed to sexual imagery from an increasingly younger age. Even if we don’t want to talk to our children about sex or only want to give them limited information there will be plenty of other places they’ll be hearing about sex from. You’ll hear the media and some anti-sex education groups tell you that our teen pregnancy and STI rates are down to us having school sex education, but actually it’s because we live in this sexual cuture and we don’t have adequate sex ed. Our children are growing up with confusing and mixed messages and the sooner we start giving them the life skills to negotiate this sexual world the better.

This means talking to our kids about their bodies, encouraging discussions about respect (for themselves and others), telling them about loving and caring for others, and explaining to them as they grow how their bodies will change. I’m guessing that all parents – whether you’re in favour of sex education outside the home or not – want their children to grow up to enjoy happy, healthy and safe relationships with someone they care about.

It’s is all about sex ed for parents – something the media is currently failing at badly. In letting pressure groups and anti sex messages spread fear in parents they’re distracting us from one important message. Which is this. If you teach your child to think positively about their body and give them a language where they can show each part of them is cherished you are giving them the gift of self respect, self protection and self esteem. What more could a parent offer their child?

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