It is recommended to teach children about relationships and sex from an early age. The arrival of a new baby or the care of a pet will prompt children’s questions, giving parents a chance to introduce simple ideas like male and female and how to care for other living things. Once the child starts school they will learn more about their body in the context of the natural world: how it works and how to look after themselves as they grow, as well as understanding how animals and plants reproduce. In this way, the topic forms part of their broader education rather than something special or difficult.
With many children experiencing signs of the onset of puberty during primary school, it is important they learn about what is happening and why. In discussion with parents, schools can tailor the curriculum for children at different ages and stages. Children should know the basic facts about puberty and human reproduction before they go to secondary school, for their own safety and wellbeing.
Sex and relationship education (SRE) is not compulsory in primary schools. The biological aspects of reproduction have to be taught as part of the science curriculum, then it’s up to individual schools to develop an age-appropriate SRE programme. A good primary school starts with what makes a good friend, how to care for other people and to respect yourself. SRE includes important life skills, too, such as the ability to say no and ask for help. Starting early will help to protect children and keep them safe.
Researchers have found no evidence that SRE encourages early sexual activity, and some evidence it can delay it. Young people who have had good SRE are also more likely to use contraception when they first have sex. A national SRE framework would dispel much of the misunderstanding about what’s taught in primary schools. It’s not putting condoms on bananas but value-based education. If people could see what’s going on in the best classrooms, they would be reassured rather than alarmed.
The age at which children should be taught about sex is a matter for parents to decide on a child-by-child basis. There is no set age by which a child needs to know x, y and z, so it’s vital that a centralized sex education curriculum is not imposed upon all schools. Introducing sex education at an early age runs the risk of breaking down children’s natural sense of reserve – children do have a sense of embarrassment and protection towards their private parts. Far from being a hindrance, these natural inhibitions are healthy and provide a necessary safeguard against sexual abuse and casual attitudes towards sexual intimacy later on.
Sex education as it is taught in many schools is part of the problem of our sexualised society, not the solution. Adding more sex education to the curriculum at an ever-earlier age will only exacerbate the problem. There’s very little that children need to know. The most important thing is to develop the character of the child so that they learn self-restraint.
Parents don’t need to have a formal talk with children about sex, but children do observe things. If parents have a blasé approach to sexual issues and allow television programmes and music with high levels of sexual content at home, their children are likely to view sexual intimacy as something cheap and will act accordingly. However, if parents speak about sexual matters with modesty, and exercise control over sexual content in the media, then their children will see sexual intimacy as something valuable and worthy of respect.
IF YOU want to talk to your kids...
… here are some good starting points:
Talk to your child’s school to find out what they are teaching and when. Then you can be prepared for any questions from your children at home. The school can provide extra support and materials for you to use at home.
You know your own child, so talk to him or her when the time feels right. Take the opportunity when relevant situations arise, such as when your dog has puppies or when you are both collecting eggs from chickens.Some parents may worry their child is learning about same-sex families, but this is a fact of modern life. Some children in your child’s class may come from same-sex families – use the opportunity to talk about all relationships and acknowledge that there are different sorts of families today.