Why sex education? Why now?

What do your kids know about sex?

It’s often hard to say, particularly around those middle school years and the first years of high school.  Much before that, and as a parent you can assume that they’ve learned everything they know either from you, their school, or some other place that you’re aware of.  Towards the end of high school and into college, and you can assume they’ve heard of pretty much everything, even if they don’t yet know the knitty-gritty.  But in those sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth grade years, there’s so much variation.

This is much of the argument that Dr. David Elkind uses in his book The Hurried Child as a basis for why sex education should wait until teenagers are older – say, seventeen or so.  Because before that age, you run the risk of exposing the teenager to information and ideas that they have not heard of or thought of themselves.

I talked about Dr. Elkind last Wednesday, and today will be about expanding on what I said last week, and specifically talking about why we must begin sexuality education – why it is a best practices educational decision, why it is the safest and best route as parents, and it is a civil rights issue for our children.  Although not necessarily in that order.

First, here is what Dr. Elkind says on the matter:

The problem is, of course, that what may be appropriate for seventeen-year-olds may not be appropriate for younger children.  Inevitably, however, the conviction that “earlier is better,” which so dominates today’s educational climate, means that such programs will be and are being used with preteen and young teenagers who may be given more information than they want or need.  The real question is not whether sex education should be provided in the schools but, rather, whether what is offered in the name of sex education is meaningful and useful to the age groups for whom it is provided.  Unfortunately, the answer is often “no,” and many young people are exposed to programs and information that reflect adult anxieties about teenage sexuality much more than the very real concerns and anxieties experienced by the young people to whom the programs are directed. (pg. 65)

And I absolutely agree with Dr. Elkind, hands down, that kids should not be given information before they are ready for it or before they need it.  And yes, each individual is different, and each group is different, which is why a pre-set curriculum rarely works.  Where I think I part ways with Dr. Elkind is that I have actually talked with middle school students, gained their trust, and they have talked with me honestly about sex.  What they have said and what they know might shock Dr. Elkind.  Middle school children are simply not as innocent as their same-age counterparts were thirty years ago.  And while it might be nice if they were – we might wish that for them – it is not a reality, and burying our heads in the sand will not make it so.

(Do you manage to keep Victoria’s Secret from mailing you catalogs?  Because if you do, I want to know how.  Sometimes we even get two copies.)

America has deemed the various school systems to be the proper, primary avenue for education.  Ideally this means that a child’s school endeavors to help each individual child be a well-rounded, articulate, life-long learner.  The goal of a school system should not be yearly benchmarks, but rather an adult who is able to function effectively and meaningfully in society.  And that includes functioning sexually.  Schools cannot ignore that sexuality and sexual interactions comprise a meaningful portion of our adult lives and therefore bypass helping children and adolescents grow into highly functioning people in this area of their lives.

Parents and schools alike must head the message that I hear from children, teenagers, and adults from middle school through college: I cannot talk to my parents about sex.  I cannot talk to my teachers about sex.  I cannot talk to my friends seriously about sex, and I don’t trust their answers anyway.  They come to me with questions, with topics that range between sweet, innocent, outrageous, and painful.  Who can they go to for answers?

It is our duty as adults to provide a resource for children and teenagers that meets them where they are – not where some out-of-touch researcher thinks they are.  It is every individual’s right to know what is going on inside their body.  It is every individual’s right to have sexuality de-mystified for them so that they are not drawn to it out of curiosity, but rather out of respect for it’s beauty.  It is every individual’s right to know how babies are made and how to keep them from being made so they don’t become a parent by accident.  (And I include not just abstinence, condoms, and hormonal birth control in that category, but also the relationship and interpersonal skills to be able to make the best decisions and make sure that both they and their potential partners stick by them.)  And each individual has the right to learn these pieces of knowledge and skills before they need them.

I tell parents this: The ideal time to sit your child down and talk with her about a difficult topic is about 48 hours before they will need that piece of knowledge for personal reasons or before someone else tells them.  But how possible is that?  How reasonable is that?  Completely impossible and completely unreasonable.  So you just have to make a best guess for sometime before – because learning the correct information about sexuality in a safe setting, under adult supervision is far, far more valuable than you might believe.  And most kids aren’t coming to their parents or teachers to talk about these things.  So most parents and teachers don’t know what teenagers know or talk about with their peers.

Which is why it is absolutely critical to have an adult designated to talk about sexuality – who is open to any topic or question that any kid or teenager brings to them – who has the parent’s blessing to have a completely confidential relationship with their offspring – and who through these rare attributes can have the rare honor of being completely trusted by young people.

I am beginning to wander a bit here (eh…I say wander, you say rant…).  Please pardon me.  I was away all weekend, and I’m still a bit tired.  Not quite ready for the week to start.

My main point is that sexuality education saves people’s lives in many ways.  Yes, it should be age and developmentally appropriate and targeted to the individual.  OF COURSE!  These qualities of a good, comprehensive sexuality education program are givens.  But Dr. Elkind has presumed these qualities to be out of reach by qualified, educated, caring sexuality educators, and that indicates a vast misunderstanding and misinterpretation on his part.  One man’s ignorance of (1) real middle school students and (2) a field that is not his own should not be given much credence.  I am so disappointed that Dr. Elkind overstepped his knowledge base and his area of expertise in this way.  It has seriously diminished what is otherwise a very good book filled with information and advice that could go a long way towards moving our society to a a saner, more wholesome approach to parenting, children, and our lives in general.

And thus marks the end of my two-day discussion on Dr. Elkind.  I promise to only bring him up again if someone specifically asks me about him!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I really hope that, as my own kids and small friends get older, they will trust me enough to ask me questions. I also hope that my kids will have other trusted adults they can talk to. I plan to avoid the hole of misinformation I fell into as an adolescent, which happened mostly because everyone assumed someone else was giving me the right information. I didn’t take sex-ed in school, my parents handed me a book and told me to ask them any questions. I didn’t have any close adult friends, and my peers were being a bunch of horny idiots. Most of what I know I learned from wading through many internet sites, trying to find reliable info. All that to say that I agree with you on the importance of parents in being pro-active when it comes to talking to kids about sexuality and all that it entails. Your perspective helps me to reflect on how I want to teach my kids. Thank you.

    (RE: Victoria’s Secret. Check out catalogchoice.org. You can register with them and request that VS stop sending catalogs. It’s worked for me!)

  2. My kid isn’t three yet, and when I picked her up at school today she was lovingly squeezing the foot of her friend’s baby brother. She said to me, “Mommy, that baby came out of [friend’s] mommy’s tummy!” I don’t even know how she knew [i]that[/i], as young as she is, although I did take it as an opportunity to teach her the word “uterus.”

    And yeah, as a former teenager myself, I certainly agree with the feeling that there was no one to talk to. (And this was before the Internet!) I also can’t figure out how kids over the age of nine or ten could possibly be harmed by hearing about what their bodies do, how babies are made, how babies are prevented, and how people relate to each other emotionally.

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