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How Are Our Children Learning about Sex? The Responsibility of Parents and Schools to Teach Kids about Human Development and How to Form Caring Relationships

Summary:
Some children get most of their information about sex from their peers, the Internet, or pornography, but these children frequently learn or assume misleading interpretations and use vulgar terms. Parents may want to pass on their philosophies about relationships, what they view as appropriate and good sex, but they may not know what words to use and how to hold such conversations. As well, they are concerned about early sexualisation of children being portrayed in the media. Schools with trained teachers have a responsibility to work with parents to prepare our children for healthy, rewarding lives by opening up discussions and teaching facts about human development that lead to respectful, sound intimate relationships. This paper discusses some suggestions for parents and teachers from child guidance specialists; it summarizes some of the findings about Sexuality Education in Japan. As examples of typical school programs, it gives a brief overview of the two volume The Ontario Curriculum Health and Physical Education, 2015 for grades 1-8 and 9-12, and summarizes the extract from a report written by a committee of the Japan Medical Association.

OBSERVATIONS - From early days children are aware that mommy and daddy have different roles and begin to notice body differences. My friend's two-year-old granddaughter remarked, when sitting on granny's lap, that granny's "boobs" were "empty" but mommy's were "big." Eighteen month old babies are using their hands to explore their bodies and have learned that cuddling and kissing and parts of their bodies are pleasurable. (1) One child in the kindergarten where I was a volunteer was enacting a family scene. At bedtime, she put the mommy and daddy dolls in the same bed in the dollhouse, and said, "Kiss, kiss, kiss." Little ones have pieced together more knowledge about sex than we realize.

When I taught hospitalized children, I learned that if the children came to the hospital classroom with a question, I might as well put aside my lesson plan and answer their queries. One day a former nurse on the children's ward brought her new baby to introduce to her friends and long-term patients. That visit spurred questions in seven-year-old Jamie's mind (names changed), and when a nurse wheeled him into the hospital schoolroom, he asked immediately, "Where do babies come from?" Peter, also age seven, who had older brothers, sneered at such an elementary question and pointed to his abdomen. "It grows in here." I was a bit uneasy about when I should enter the conversation and how much information I should give them, but knowing that children relate information to themselves I spoke up. "That's your abdomen. Mommies grow babies in a special place in their abdomens. Boys don't have a uterus to grow babies." Jamie gave this some thought and then said, "Well, how does it get out?" Before I could frame an answer, Peter spoke up, and pointing to his navel, said, "Here!" "Well," I said, "That's your navel. That's where a tube connected you when you were inside your mommy's uterus so that you could get food and oxygen to breathe." Both boys wrinkled their foreheads. I needed to give them more specific information. "There's a special opening between the mother's legs which gets big enough to let the baby be born when it's ready to come out." The expressions on their faces showed me that the boys thought that this was incredible. "What do we have?" Jamie asked, and Peter, who had ready answers, grinned and pointed to his crotch. "Boys and fathers have penises," I said, mentally preparing myself for a question that might follow; however, the boys spotted the guppies swimming in our fishbowl and the conversation moved to a discussion about whose turn it was to feed the fish.

The child's quest to understand human development is ongoing and each child needs to be prepared for what will transpire as he matures. My mother told me that she'd been told that babies grew from seeds, so when she swallowed a cherry seed, and a few days later her periods began, she was very upset because she thought that a cherry tree was growing inside her. When I taught in China some years ago one of my students came to my apartment to ask if she would get pregnant if she kissed her boyfriend. Kissing equals babies is not an uncommon association of many unprepared teenagers. My Chinese friend, Yue, who is presently a student at the University of Toronto, said that a girl might ask the same question today, that he became interested in sex just after middle school, that parents aren't comfortable talking to their kids about sex, that schooling didn't cover that topic. He learned from his friends, but felt guilty wanting to talk about sex.

My observations support the teachings of the specialists: that children are egocentric and relate what they see to themselves. They need to be told specific information in age appropriate language so that they don't make wrong assumptions. They process one thing at a time, and often are not mature enough to weigh motives, intentions and feelings. (1)


TALKING TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS AND SEX; SUGGESTIONS FROM CHILD EDUCATORS - Okay, so you want to talk to your kids, but you aren't sure when the talks should take place or how to begin.

  1. Begin at an early age. Teaching about relationships and sex is a continuous conversation. When you are bathing your baby and teaching him/her the words "eye, ear, arm, leg," continue naming "penis" or "vagina." So you are embarrassed to pronounce these words. Before the lesson, practice saying the words out loud to yourself over and over until they sound familiar. Later you will be using such words as "condoms, STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease)." Use correct terms. When your kids are older you can bring up the subject in a casual atmosphere such as when taking a walk together, driving in the car, washing dishes--a time when you aren't looking at each other in the eye. (2) (3)

  2. As a parent or teacher you have the chance to pass along information when a question arises. About the ages of four to five boys and girls become interested in specific gender differences, and they want to see each other's genitals. In Japan where families take a bath together, children have an opportunity to observe each other. In many cultures families dress and undress in front of each other or leave the bathroom door open at all times, but in other cultures the children will find their own opportunity to satisfy their curiosity.

    Recognize your child's non-verbal gestures, curiosity and feelings. My friend told how her daughter tried to open the bathroom door while her husband was using the facility, and then she found her daughter and the neighbour boy undressed in her bedroom. How you as a parent react will influence the child's future attitude and behaviour. (3) If there's a baby in the neighbourhood, your child can observe a diaper change. Picture books can be used to show the difference between the genitals of boys and girls. When parents take a group of kids to the beach, changing into swim suits may offer a legitimate opportunity for boys and girls to see each other.

  3. The discussion about meaningful relationships and specific sexual liaisons needs to happen early, before hormones change the body's drives, and opportunities for sexual encounters arise. Find out what your child already knows so that he/she feels a part of the discussion and isn't left confused. Let kids know that they are loved and that their bodies are precious, that you are available for discussions at any time. What do you want your kid to know about being loved, respected, having a trusted partner? What do you want your young person to know about birth control, about STD, about sexual exploitation? (2) (3)

    You might begin the conversation with something like, "I started remembering what it was like when I was your age, and I want you to be better prepared than I was. Did your health class teach you about...?" (2) My friend Burt (name changed) described a conversation with his two sons. "You did that to Mom twice?" the older boy asked. "Yes, twice," the dad explained, seeing the incredulous look on his sons' faces and knowing that his sons would laugh and remember that scene in years to come.

    Levin and Kilbourne describe disturbing questions kids asked their parents which set off alarm bells. Seven-year-old Eva asked her mom the meaning of a "blow job," and Henry (age seven) commented that he was "about to get laid." In the U.S. by the age of nine, one in three girls and one in seven boys has been sexually abused. (1) The parent will want to know what the child thinks those terms mean, where they heard those words, and the parent will want to explain the meaning and give warnings about abusers. Turns out that Henry had heard high school boys using that term in association with getting a phone call from their girlfriends. (The author didn't explain where Eva heard those words.)

    When parents set an example of a caring and trusting relationship, openly discuss changes in human bodies, discuss friendships, dating and sex, call attention to gestures and signs of predation, the child is likely to avoid exploitation, unplanned pregnancy, the spread of STD and emotional problems.


JAPANESE STUDIES -
  1. Chieko Ishiwata, 2011, has collected data and made recommendations regarding sexuality education (SE) in Japan. Girls experience their first menstrual period at ages 10-14. The incidence of chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes is increasing. HIV and AIDS between partners of different genders and partners of the same genders are increasing at the same rate. The mother-to-child rate of HIV infections has been reduced because of preventive medication and early Caesarean sections. Sustained human papillomavirus (HPV) infections can lead to uterine cervical cancer, and the rate of pre-cancer conditions has risen. A vaccine preventing HPV has been devised and is given in more than 100 countries, many of which pay for the inoculation through insurance or government funds. It has been used in Japan since 2009, but currently it is paid for with personal funds.

    "National data from the Japanese Association for Sex Education showed that in 2005, 27.0% of male high school students (ages 15-18) and 30.0% of female high school students had had sexual experiences. The rate increases to 63.0% for boys and 62.0% for girls by the time they reach college age (about 18-19)." "Women under the age of 20 accounted for 16.5% of all abortions, but 28.3% of all mid-term abortions." She writes,"...men who bear half of the responsibility suffer no physical impact, and there is no social penalty."

    Many adolescents in Japan do not know how to calculate the days that the girl will ovulate, that genital herpes, genital warts and hair lice cannot be prevented by condoms, nor do they know about emergency contraception when a woman is raped. "...the educational function of the family is declining..." "Given the need to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies, encourage HPV vaccination, and address sexual crimes, sexual education should be introduced from elementary school, before children begin to have sexual experiences."

    The Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has set curriculum guidelines and limits which the teachers must follow and stipulate that " in consultation with the schools, doctors who specialize in these sexual related problems should go beyond the restrictions to provide the knowledge that students need." (4)

  2. Tashiro et al. report on their studies: "Only 23% of 2734 respondents (parents or guardians of 10-15-year-olds) reported providing SE at home." "In recent years, the sexual behaviour and consciousness of children and youth in Japan have undergone major changes. ...the age of first sexual intercourse has decreased, the number of sexual partners has increased, sexual behaviour has diversified, the period of association before engaging in sexual relations has shortened, the gender gap in sexual behaviour has reduced and the proportion of prostitution in the younger generation has increased."

    In schools, SE is not a designated subject but is incorporated in other subjects. "The average time spent by each grade in SE classes was 3.08 hours at the elementary school level and 2.93 hours at the junior high school level." "In Japan, the class hours of SE are much more limited than in other countries." (5)

    These researchers conclude that human Sexuality Education should incorporate the physical and anatomical aspects of sex, the psychological and social aspects of human relationships, and child-rearing.


RELATIONSHIP AND SEX EDUCATION IN ONTARIO SCHOOLS - In many communities describing what sex education comprises, and whether the local schools should be involved, are controversial issues. Tony, presently a librarian, was a reporter interviewing teachers and parents in a rural area of Ontario when the local school board proposed to introduce sex education into the school curriculum. He said that many parents opposed this move, saying that their kids were too young to be told about sex; however, one teacher told him that parents should hear the kids talking at recess. "They have witnessed copulation of animals and the birth of animals on the farm. They know everything, and they use vulgar words to discuss what they've seen." In the past, sex education focused on menstruation and pregnancy, avoiding other aspects of human development and sound relationships. In 2015 the Government of Ontario introduced revised Health and Physical Education curricula, which deals with all aspects of boy and girl relationships and is accessible on line. (6) (7)

As a teacher I found that many students found it easier to discuss personal questions with "an outsider," someone who wasn't intimately related to them (their parents and siblings). In a classroom, the group setting allows students to get answers to questions they are too shy to ask. I am one of the proponents who believe that children need information about relationships and sex early and that schools as well as parents have a responsibility to delegate prepared teachers to teach programs dealing with sex education.


EARLY SEXUALIZTION OF CHILDREN IN THE MEDIA - Levin and Kilbourne quote the Kaiser Family Foundation and write that "many children spend more time involved with the media than anything except sleeping." Through video games, toys, clothing promotions, and gestures, the "sexy look" is exhibited as the way to popularity. "Forty-nine percent of parents report that their biggest worry is how to protect their children from negative social influences." (1)

Young children can't distinguish between what is pretended on the screen and what is real. By age six or seven a young girl realizes that what she eats contributes to her size and many young girls blame themselves for not being "sexy" (slender) and popular. (1) I've noticed that in Toronto and Tokyo, even when the school the girls attend has a dress code, after the girls leave the school grounds many of them roll up the waists of their skirts to a mini-skirt length and unbutton the top buttons of their blouses so as to look sexy.

Many parents limit the time their kids can watch TV, limit the programs and movies they may watch, watch TV with their children so that they can discuss real life situations. In addition parents can encourage hobbies, direct their kids to meaningful activities involving sports, music, art, drama and other real life experiences with family and friends. Parents often feel guilty when they aren't allowing their kids the freedom of choices. They fear outright rebellion of their teenagers. (1) Hopefully the examples the parents portray, and the way they have shown their love and respect will encourage their children to make good choices and learn from their mistakes.

CONCLUSION - Sex education includes teaching kids to assume responsibility for their own actions, how to form caring, respectful relationships with a partner, gender differences, sexual acts, and parenting. Japanese and Western studies about sex education come to similar conclusions: that children are not getting timely, adequate information. Our young often get knowledge of sex from their peers, the Internet and pornography, but they usually learn vulgar terms and often form faulty conclusions. Frequently parents find it difficult to teach about human maturation, about the physical and psychological aspects of sex. Sex education starts early and is continuous throughout the child's maturing years. Teaching the correct terminology enables the child to explain his questions and problems clearly. In conjunction with the parents, schools have a major responsibility to further education about sex and critical thinking so that our kids grow up to lead healthy, responsible lives and avoid unwanted pregnancies, STD, and psychological problems. Parents should protect young children from the over-sexualisation of youth in the media, and together with the school should teach children to look toward the future. Examples of school curricula regarding sex education comprise the revised Ontario school curricula (2015) and a summary of an extract of a report by a committee of the Japan Medical Association dealing with sexuality education in Japanese schools.

APPENDIX A
The following is a rough outline of The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 HEALTH AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION REVISED 2015 and The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9-12 HEALTH AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION REVISED 2015.

Grades 1,2,3. Children learn the correct names for their body parts so that they can communicate distinctly when they have questions. They also learn how their bodies work, about good hygiene, how to show respect to others, to socialize and form healthy relationships with others and become aware of their feelings as well as how to ask for help.

Grades 4,5,6. Females usually enter puberty between 8 and 13 years of age; males enter puberty between 9 and 14 years of age. They learn about physical and healthy interpersonal relationships, about reproduction. They explore the stress that comes with puberty.

Grades 7,8,9. Children learn about food choices, body images, bullying, fitness for life, safety, emergencies, and are shown cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques. They discuss delaying sexual activity, sexual health and decision making including contraception, consent and personal limits, STD and pregnancy prevention, mental health and stress, warning signs, relationships and intimacy, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Grades 10,11,12. Children learn ways to have holistic health, healthy diets, lifelong physical activity benefits, skills and strategies, positive social and ethical behaviours including critical thinking and communication skills, forming good work habits, technology including consumer advertising and texting, leadership skills and personal competence, safety including community resources available for support, sexual health including pregnancy and STD prevention, dating and consent, mental health and stress, forming healthy relationships. And they learn about people with special needs and volunteer opportunities. (6) (7) (8) (9)

APPENDIX B
A summary of Ishiwata's report: Health Education Subjects for children and students according to stages of development, 2011, extracted from a report of the Japan Medical Association's School Health Committee, School health committee report of 2010.

Kindergarten Lower grades (age 5-8) - Value of life, self-respect, empathy (interacting with elderly and disabled), interacting with babies, health (nutrition, sleeping, hygiene) cooperating, physical measurements.

Middle elementary grades (age 8-10) - Origins and importance of life, gender and genitalia body differences, secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, pubic hair, menstruation, voice changes), interacting with adults (Internet, etc.)

Upper elementary grades (age 10-12) - Secondary sexual characteristics, male and female emotions, getting correct information, interactions with friends, sexual contact. Preventing STD, HIV, PHV, avoiding becoming a victim of sexual molestation.

Middle school (ages 12-15) - Continuous teaching about menstrual problems, preventing sexually transmitted diseases, sex, pregnancy, contraception, masturbation, gynecological checkups, costs of childbirth, parenting, artificial abortions, dating violence, mobile phone dependence, media literacy, marriage, worries about sexuality, homosexuality, gender identity.

High school (age 15-18) - STD, fertility and infertility, respect, romantic relationships, contraception, overall reproductive health.


Teachers must explain to parents and guardians what they will be teaching from the middle grades of elementary school onwards, and students should attend a lecture from an obstetrician/gynecologist during upper elementary school and first year of middle school. There are differences of opinion about when certain subjects should be covered. (4)



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Marlene_Ritchie.jpg Marlene Ritchie
For her writing Marlene Ritchie (née Archer) calls upon her experiences of teaching in the U.S., Japan and China, as a nurse and assisting-founder with Emma N. Plank of the Child Life and Education Program, which addresses the non-medical needs of hospitalized children, as a cofounder of Ritchies, a Toronto auction house, about growing up in a small Ohio town and about being a mother. Currently Marlene is a freelance writer and tutor living in Toronto, Canada. For the past 10 years she has contributed to CRN.
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