Not a day goes by when we don’t hear about another school screwup in the news. This time, it’s a New Jersey middle school that has come under scrutiny for issuing an assignment about herpes, drinking and one-night stands to an eighth-grade language arts class.
Amy Loper was the first parent to complain about her 13-year-old son’s “inappropriate” assignment at Powell Elementary School in Lawrence Township, New Jersey. Loper feels the assignment, in which students were asked what they would do if they contracted herpes after a night of drinking and hooking up, was more suited for sex education than a language arts class. Loper allowed her son to skip the assignment that, in her opinion, made unprotected sex “OK.”
This mom may have a point. The STD-themed assignment may have been better taught in a middle school sex ed class instead of a language arts class.
But there’s a lesson in here that parents can’t ignore.
We already know that our culture is scared of sex. The fact that countries like the Netherlands start sex education as young as age 4 is mind-blowing for most American parents. Whenever S-E-X comes up among children in our prude-leaning country, we normally see it handled one of two ways, in polar opposite reactions.
First, there are those who try to make the sex talk more comfortable by making it a casual and even flippant part of conversation for young kids, as this middle school teacher was accused of doing. Most parents, like Loper, are offended by this approach because it desensitizes kids to an adult topic. And in the other, more common approach, we see parents who try to make sex disappear. Instead of figuring out a way to talk to kids about the birds and the bees at an age-appropriate level, most parents clam up and assume kids will figure it out on their own. (That’s what the Internet is for, right?)
It’s pretty easy to see the major flaws in both of these approaches. Dropping TMI sex “bombs” without providing any educational context will do nothing to prepare kids for the real world — a world that includes STDs and unplanned pregnancies. And trying to wish sex away because the topic is too squirmy is even worse. A child who never hears about safe sex from their parents might as well be handed the keys to the car without being taught to drive.
There has got to be a better way! And there is. It’s called the middle of the road, and it’s a nice, comfortable and accommodating place that will merge both of these ineffective sex education strategies together.
We can’t make sex too casual for our kids, and we also can’t make it a taboo topic. What we can do is use any and every opportunity, like an unsettling school assignment about STDs, to continue a lifelong conversation — about protection, pregnancy, consent and self-respect. We know the states that practice abstinence-only education have the highest teen pregnancy rates, while the latest research published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that just talking to kids about sex makes them more likely to use condoms and birth control.
Here’s what could have been the perfect happy ending for yet another shocking school story. The teacher who assigned the herpes question could also educate the class with STD statistics and age-appropriate instructions for safe sex (which she may have done, since we heard only the mother’s side of the story). The mother who opposed the assignment could have taken one for the team by talking to her teenage son about the very real possibility of STDs caused by unprotected sex (which she may have done after complaining to the school about it).
Sex exists, and our kids know that as well as we do. Just chalk this up to yet another unpleasant part of parenting, along with sleepless newborn nights and dirty toddler diapers: We have to have these uncomfortable conversations to equip our kids to make their own healthy choices.