When you have kids, the last thing on your mind is the ubiquitous sex talk. But as your kids begin to grow, sex and sexuality become important topics that beg your attention. Young children may ask questions about their body parts, and by the time kids hit middle school, the discussion changes.
In one Massachusetts school district, the sex talk is getting a heavy spotlight right now. The Associated Press recently reported that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is pushing the superintendent of the Provincetown public school district to revise a recently approved policy that would make condoms available to all students in the district -- regardless of age or grade level. The policy provides that the condoms be given for free and without parental notification or consent. Students would, however, have to be counseled about sex and abstinence before receiving the condom. The governor objects to both the breadth of ages covered by the policy and the lack of parental consent. While that policy is now under review, this brings up bigger questions: who should be talking to your kids about sex ... and when?
Sex ed in school has been making students blush for years and years. But the Provincetown policy would allow this touchy subject to potentially be discussed with kids as young as 5-years-old. Parenting experts say that it's important that sex ed be appropriate to a child's age-level. "I strongly believe schools should provide comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education that is developmentally appropriate. I also believe that parents are the primary sexuality educators of their children," says mom Amy Johnson, MSW, a Personal Life and Parent Coach and author of Parenting by Strengths: A Parent's Guide for Challenging Situations.
Many still believe sex education in school is good, since professionals are trained to know what to say -- something that isn't always the case for parents. "In a perfect world, we'd all know all the information we needed to give our kids and we'd all do it. But since that's soooo not the case, it's important for schools to be a part of the education process, and for parents to be aware of what's taught when, and incorporate their values into what their children are learning in school," says Johnson.
What about parents? Where do they fit into sexual education? Parents and experts agree -- sexual education begins at home. "I think parents are and should be the primary teachers of sex education for children," says mom Laurie A. Gray, JD of Socratic Parenting, LLC. But it's important that parents be realistic in their message. Telling kids simply that they should just wait to have sex or minimizing their questions doesn't enforce those points. "The result is that kids aren't any more comfortable talking to their parents than their parents are talking to them and you end up with adolescents and teens who have more hormones in their bodies than understanding in their heads," Gray said. Kids need to understand the risks and concerns of being sexual active.
So, what about the condoms? The fact is that young kids don't need them -- elementary school kids aren't and shouldn't be thinking about sex, so the policy does over extend a bit.
"It's not developmentally appropriate for children that young to be engaged in sexual behavior," says Johnson. "While it's important for them to understand puberty, and for older elementary students to have a good understanding of sexual issues before heading off to middle school or junior high, I think that in order for me to be behind giving out condoms in an elementary school, I'd need to see that they were having a significant issue in the community with disease or pregnancy in children that young, in order to justify it."
However, it doesn't mean that kindergartners will be getting the talk at school -- they only will be if they ask for it. Gray says that while condoms shouldn't be given to anyone who cannot legally have sex (some states have age-related laws on the books), kids who are of age should have access to them "But I do think that kids who can legally consent to engage in sexual activity need more information and access to condoms through guidance counselors and/or health professionals who are prepared to talk with them about their proper use and why abstinence is preferred for young adults," says Gray.
Further, kids who do know about sex need to hear about contraceptives, experts say. "If a child does not know what sex is, a condom will mean virtually nothing to them. However, if a child does know what sex is, then shouldn't we start introducing the concepts together? Sex shouldn't be thought of without condoms," says sexual educator Melyn McKay.
Beginning in September, the Provincetown School Committee will allow any student — regardless of age — to ask for and receive a condom.
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