Yesterday a friend told me that she was having conversations with parents about Dr. David Elkind’s The Hurried Child and what he has to say about sexuality education. Being the voracious and insatiable reader that I am, and as influential as this book is, I ran right out and bought it.
Within 30 seconds of flipping to Dr. Elkind’s section on sexuality education I was stomping around and fuming at the unfortunate three adults who happened to also be in the store.
Dr. Elkind calls his section on sexuality education “Sex for Beginners.” The implications that live in that phrase are insulting to high quality sexuality education programs and the teachers who work in those programs the world over. Here is a phrase that cannot be stated often enough: “Sex ed is not the same as driver’s ed. Most importantly, you don’t end up with a licence to have sex at the end.” A class called “Sex for Beginners” sounds like something that provides the student with explicit instructions about positions, techniques, and more. It sounds like there are practice sessions, with a required 10 hours of experience having sex, before you graduate. Give the instructor an orgasm for extra credit. This is not what sexuality education is, and subtly suggesting through a section title that it is, is irresponsible and disrespectful. I am surprised and disappointed at Dr. Elkind’s glib approach.
Now, I want to be sure and point out before I go any further that The Hurried Child is a book I’ve been meaning to read, because I thought I would like it. I thought it would support my approach to parenting my own children. And mostly I think I was right. I certainly agree, hands-down, with Dr. Elkind that embryos are already doing everything they should be doing, and that attempting to make them start learning while still in the womb is bizarre and unnecessary. I could go on at length, but I’ll leave that to another blog. And more broadly, I basically like and agree with Dr. Elkind’s thesis that we’ve gone too far, way too far, in hurrying our children into “enriching activities” and adulthood.
Nevertheless, I am disappointed by Dr. Elkind’s scare tactics. He distorts statistics, quoting them to prove his points. (Okay, so most people do this. But it still disappoints me when an academician with credentials like his selectively quotes to prove a point rather than present a balanced view.) And the most disappointing point here is that it is completely unnecessary. Children’s schedules are spiraling out of control – sticking to the facts will get your point across quite nicely!
So let’s move on to what Dr. Elkind actually has to say about sexuality education beyond his inappropriate title.
It is critical to point out that this book was revised most recently in 2001 (and then re-released, but not revised in 2008) – and the worlds of sexuality education and adolescent sexuality have been flipped on their heads since then. We cannot make the same statements about “most sex education programs” since President Bush pushed abstinence-only-until-marriage down America’s collective throats. So Dr. Elkind’s statements about the “new” sex education in America only apply to the state of sex education in America seven years – and a whole world – ago.
So now let’s focus on Dr. Elkind’s assertions about sexuality education and how it should interacts with age-appropriate child development.
The four pages that focus on sexuality education can be well summed-up in the last paragraph:
So there is far from total agreement as to whether sex education in the schools is beneficial to any age group, much less to young people approaching adolescence. One has to conclude that sex educaiton in the schools reflects adult anxiety about young people’s sexuality. The “prejudice” that early sex education will produce children with “healthy sexuality” is open to serious question – even if experts agreed what healthy sexuality is, which they do not. Sex education in the schools, given at ever younger ages with without clear-cut theoretical or research justification, is another way in which some contemporary schools are encouraging their pupils to grow up fast. – The Hurried Child by Dr. Elkind, pg. 66
Let’s parse this out a bit. First, there is a general consensus that sex education in the schools reduces sexual activities. Stunningly, even Fox News agrees, so it has to be true. Furthermore, the rates of adolescent sexual activity, pregnancy, births, and STD rates all suffer from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, while comprehensive programs show the opposite effects. I am making generalizations here, of course, but they are generalizations that are firmly grounded in research.
So Dr. Elkind, we DO have clear-cut theoretical and research justification for high quality sexuality education. This might not have been fully clear when you revised your book seven years ago, but it is now. Comprehensive sexuality education delays sexual activity and provides serious support for safer sex when sexual intercourse does occur.
Comprehensive sexuality education saves lives, both literally and figuratively. And in that context, Dr. Elkind’s throw-away approach to it is truly surprising and reprehensible.