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Parents don’t know if their kids are having sex

November 27th, 2006

Dr Petra

Well whaddya know, a new ‘survey’ out today suggests ¾ British parents don’t know whether their children are having sex or not. Probably making them like most other parents in the world.

The study, commissioned by Teachers TV is designed to attract attention to a forthcoming debate the TV station has planned on sex education on 6 December (at 9pm if you’re interested). There’s nothing wrong with debating this issue, but you’d have thought a channel devoted to good educational practice might have consulted the literature on this topic first, which tells us the following…

- Most parents would like to talk to their kids about sex but don’t know what to say, or how/when to introduce the topic
- Most parents approve of schools delivering sex education (although not always about the range of topics that could be covered)
- Parents often feel they should wait until their kids come to them to ask for sex advice, rather than initiating sex education when their children are young
- Some parents lack basic sex education themselves so may provide incorrect or misleading advice to their kids
- Parents may fear talking about sex encourages sexual behaviour
- Some parents, particularly from ethnic minorities or more conservative communities feel discussing sex is the same as having sex, so whilst they want their child to ask about sex they also feel it’s appropriate to punish the child for said interest
- Not all young people want to learn about sex from their parents and both parents and kids agree some taboo topics (e.g. anal sex, blow jobs etc) are probably not what they want to talk about together
- Parents are often more keen to talk to girls about puberty, periods and pregnancy but assume boys are ‘naturally’ sexual so fail to offer them advice or help
- Young people feel school sex education focuses too much on the mechanics and biological aspects of sex and not enough on emotions, feelings and how to negotiate relationships

Sadly Teachers TV instead decided on their own survey that revealed
½ (or 44% depending on which part of the release you read) had never talked in detail about sex with their child
74% didn’t know if their child was sexually active
63% of parents did not want their children to have sex education lessons until they were over 11 years old and only 30% were happy for them to be taught about sex between 7 and 10 years of age.
86% felt secondary school kids should be taught about contraception, 80% were happy to discuss emotional aspects of sex, and 83% approved the mechanics of sex being taught
77% disapproved of dogging, bondage and cruising being taught (although some reports have claimed over ¼ of parents want ‘kinky sex’ taught to kids)
27% did not want homosexuality covered

Nothing particularly groundbreaking there, but let’s just look at the quality of this data. Simply asking parents if your child is having sex is very likely to produce a fairly honest ‘don’t know’ answer. Whilst parents with teenagers might hope their child isn’t having sex, most may assume they might be at least thinking about it. So this doesn’t really show a deficit in knowledge. Without analysis of answers by the age of the parent’s child the data also is meaningless since a parent with a very young child is far more likely not to know if they’re having sex than an older adult. And this study implies they were only given ‘don’t know’ or ‘yes’ answers since there’s no indication parents said ‘no’ to the statement about their child having sex in any great numbers.

It’s also difficult to take this at face value since a parent may well not want their child taught about contraception or sexual activity before puberty, but may be happy for them to know about gender differences, how babies are made and how to be confident about your body which comes under sex education and can be taught to younger pupils.

Whilst it’s normal to think parents would disapprove of bondage or dogging being taught, this study implies such topics are on the national curriculum. Not only is sex education still not mandatory, and is delivered in a hit-and-miss way, but topics such as dogging or cruising are not routinely taught in schools and this only serves to stir up anti-sex education arguments.

So we know that Teachers TV can’t use evidence, but it seems they also can’t interpret their own study data. The station’s chief executive, Andrew Bethell, claimed his research showed parents weren’t doing enough to get to grips with the problems of underage sex: “Our research shows that parents have their heads in the sand when it comes to their child’s sex education and expect teachers to deal with even the emotional and relationship aspects of sex…We need to wake up to the situation of increasing teenage pregnancies, particularly amongst the very youngest, and recognise that a child’s sex education has to be the joint responsibility of parents and teachers.”

Now within these findings there’s nothing to say that parents aren’t being responsible. They were asked their views about school sex education and they gave them. There’s nothing in these answers to show a ‘head in the sand’ mentality (although no doubt amongst some parents it exists). Whilst evidence shows parents need to play a role in sex education, without support or training this is unlikely to happen. Research indicates parents and teachers alike can be good, or really bad at delivering sex education. Rather than it being either schools or parents who are responsible, both groups need to deliver sex education, although unless we tackle wider cultural issues of media sexualisation and peer pressure sex education from home/school alone will not be enough

Okay, so Teachers TV can’t use evidence, don’t understand how surveys work and can’t interpret data, but press coverage also showed they can’t add up since the survey was promoted as based on a sample of ‘nearly 1000 parents’ but additional news reporting showed it was actually of 800 people and even with my dreadful maths skills I can tell that’s 200 less than 1000!!

So Teachers TV, before you plan your TV debate or other promotional activities stay behind after school and write out for me 1000 times ‘I will learn how to use evidence, understand surveys and add up correctly’.

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