For seven years, in what now feels like a distant and previous life, I worked to support primary schools with their sex and relationships education (or SRE). My role included training teachers and governors, speaking with parents and carers, and providing numerous resources. While all of this was helpful, in a nutshell, my job was really about managing people’s— often irrational— gut reactions to the idea of sex education.
“Won’t it encourage them to experiment?” “Won’t this disturb them?” “My daughter still believes in Santa Claus; I don’t want to talk to her about body parts.”
The reality is, we often have a response to talking about the body, sex and relationships in a way that mimics the attitudes held by the adults in our childhood. Once that reaction is unpicked a little, it doesn’t take much to help resistors of SRE see that, in actual fact, it’s always a good thing.
There are several reasons why it’s good for children and young people to have trusted adults who are prepared to talk about gender, body parts, puberty, reproductions, and sex. Here are some:
- A Trusted Source of Information:
Without adults that are prepared to give children and young people accurate information and help them develop positive and realistic expectations about sex, our young people will flounder around with absolutely no understanding of what sex should or should not be about (or worse still, use pornography for information). It makes sense that children and young people who have never learnt about sex and relationships are more likely to ‘fall prey’ to negative sexual experiences.
- Safety is the Number 1 Priority:
Having sex is potentially life altering or dangerous. (Think pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections or exploitative relationships.) Crossing the road is also dangerous. Imagine if talking about crossing the road safely was embarrassing. Would that stop you teaching your child how to cross the road safely?
- Not Harmful When Discussed Sensitively:
Parents and carers who have told their children how babies are made at a very young age would argue their children are no less innocent for having this information.
- Encourages Trust Between Parent and Child:
Talking openly about sex early in a child’s life teaches them that adults are prepared to discuss these topics and that there are people they can turn to for help and support.
- Sets Realistic Expectations:
Children and young people are bombarded with information about sex, relationships and gender from a variety of sources (for example: TV adverts, graffiti, shop displays, posters, the internet, computer games, pop videos, TV programmes, their school friends, older brothers and sisters etc). Some of the messages children receive from these sources are not accurate or realistic and in the absence of adults to help them process this information, they are often left confused or with ‘unhealthy’ ideas.
- Inconsistent SRE at School:
School SRE varies considerably in quality and quantity. Parents and carers cannot assume their child will receive comprehensive SRE at school. This can be illustrated by the fact that 10 % of girls in the UK start their periods without knowing what is happening to them because nobody has told them anything. This can be an extremely worrying experience for a girl.
For me personally, telling my children in simple terms at a young age how babies are made seemed the right thing to do. They knew as soon as they were old enough to understand. They were also still young enough not to have picked up anything about these topics being embarrassing or awkward for some people and they simply showed an innocent interest in what I was telling them. They always felt they could ask questions knowing they would get an honest answer. I think I ultimately equipped my children to feel comfortable accessing support in this area.
I strongly believe conversations about these topics between parents, carers and their children only have a positive impact. That’s why I wrote, Let’s Talk About the Birds and the Bees. The book is quite comprehensive and aimed at young children. It explains how boys, girls and adults’ bodies are different; it explores the idea of safe touching; what’s appropriate for public and what needs to be kept private; the changes of puberty; how a baby is made and that sex is not just about reproducing. It also explores pregnancy and birth, what love is, what is involved in parenthood and why some parents’ relationships go wrong. The simple language is enhanced with wonderful illustrations and the only euphemism is in the title! I never used euphemisms with my children. If I had written this book when my children were young, I certainly would have used it!