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Sex and education can be a contentious issue, but I believe it doesn’t have to be. The more we discuss it, the better.

This isn’t just because the UK has one of the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe, but because it’s also a natural part of life. In fact, sexuality is a big part of who we are.

Over the years, sex education is definitely something that people have become more familiar with, more confident discussing, and hopefully more confident teaching. Gone are the days of putting condoms on vegetables – thank goodness! So why does it feel like we have some way to go before we have removed the stigma surrounding sex education?

Admittedly, the ‘facts of life’ is not an easy subject to teach. But whose job is it exactly, what age should we begin and how far should we delve?

A parent’s role in teaching sex education

Part of a parent’s role is to teach children to be independent, kind and respectful, amongst a million other things. A parent is a child’s first and, therefore, most important teacher. This means they are a teacher of all subjects. Yes, all – including sex education.

Even though cultural norms surrounding sexuality have evolved, it is still considered by many to be a taboo, especially with younger children. This is understandable and could be for any number of reasons, such as religious, cultural, preserving innocence, or fears that this could lead to greater sexual promiscuity with time.

However, research shows that the more information children have, the better off they will be. It seems that by teaching sex education we are safeguarding our children.

As adults, we have a duty of care and this duty of care covers a range of topics. One of which is to provide the knowledge to help them truly understand the nuances surrounding this subject. There is a growing movement pushing for a more comprehensive sex education, with Northern Europe at the helm.

The role of parents and schools

Of course, these days it is slightly more complicated and broader than the topics of puberty and reproduction. There is a whole range of ‘new’ issues that sex education now incorporates. But at what point should gender identity and sexual orientation be communicated? Is there a right time? Perhaps primary school is too soon for younger children?

What I have come to realise is that this is a completely subjective issue and most parents have such polarising views surrounding the topic (even naming body parts with special family names like “noo noo” or “foo foo” to avoid having to say “vagina” or “penis”) that it adds to the complication.

What I have also come to understand is that if we avoid certain topics, we need to be careful about what message this is sending to the younger generation. Sex education isn’t taught officially until secondary school, although some primary schools choose to include it in their curriculum. If this is the case, then you do have a right to withdraw your child. However, I would encourage you to take your time when making this decision. These topics are taught regularly, respectfully and, of course, sensitively.

Relationship and Health Education is now a compulsory subject in primary schools. Schools will mostly cover this in PSHE and science lessons. It’s taught in a safe and secure setting that ‘complements and reinforces’ (to quote the government) what is learnt ‘at home’. Schools must provide broad and balanced provision, taking into consideration different religious and cultural beliefs. So schools do their best, but parents have a paramount role to play, too.

Creating a less daunting approach to sex education

In my experience, we have a mixed bag of emotions regarding the subject of sex. We have the ‘no rush’ type, the ‘best leave that for the school’ type, the ‘I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t’ type, and of course the ‘too embarrassed, so must avoid at all costs’ type. Perhaps you’re none of the above, and you’re the ‘anything goes’ type (by this, I don’t mean promoting drugs, sex and rock and roll; rather, that you’re open and honest about the bigger issues), which one day your children might thank you for.

If you have resonated with any of the above, then it shows how varied our children’s attitudes might end up being regarding the subject, how differently they might view relationships, their bodies and how they should look, view sex, and consent even. This may also impact their understanding of fertility issues.

It doesn’t matter what group you are in at the moment and there’s certainly no judgement here. I am just hoping that by the end of this we may all be heading towards the same camp. By tweaking the title, like the Government did, it may remove some uncertainties and awkwardness. So instead of sex education, let’s think about it as, ‘Relationships, Emotions and Respect Education.’ It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but I feel it is a more accurate title for the subject at hand.

After all, physical, emotional and moral well being is the work of a lifetime and something that must be explored with young children. The topic incorporates so many things by focusing on understanding stable relationships, trust, gender, and equality to name a few. It also teaches children to stay safe and healthy. When you look at it like this, I hope it doesn’t feel like such a daunting topic of conversation, but one in which as parents you will have both knowledge and experiences to share.

How to approach sex education

By laying a strong foundation for children, and preparing them in a timely fashion, we hope that they will then be able to manage big changes and issues, such as puberty, contraception, gender and identity. Our understanding is constantly evolving which does make it quite complex and no one is denying that. But that isn’t a good enough reason to shy away from discussing it – it just means as adults we need to be more informed and prepared to ask for support if needed.

As parents we need to be the vehicle that guides them safely through these learnings, no differently to managing pocket money or road safety. This doesn’t necessarily mean, ‘darling come here, we are going to talk about where babies come from’ or ‘it’s now time to discuss body parts and puberty’ at five years old. It’s about age appropriate language, age appropriate content, it’s about openness and honesty. It’s about responding to their curiosity without embarrassment, shame or awkwardness.

It begins with calling body parts correct names, and letting them see you naked around the house, talking about differences and similarities during bathtimes. It’s about teaching them how to be body smart. A better, more informative sex and relationship education will keep them safe, as they will be better informed and empowered in their choices, and hopefully have better health outcomes.

I feel that sex education is something that shouldn’t be avoided but I know that this is easier said than done, especially for a new parent who hasn’t faced the realities of the ‘where do babies come from’ chat yet. I wonder if the stigma surrounding sex education could be a reflection of diversity and inclusion in society today? A society that’s come a long way, but still has some way to go. Ultimately as parents and caregivers we need to be committed to removing this stigma; the consequences of doing so can only positively impact wider issues, such as mental health, physical wellbeing and even bullying. 

Teaching sex education at home

Our role at home is more about opening dialogues and developing maturity, which will help remove stigmas around this potentially awkward topic. With the right knowledge and understanding we will enable children to make positive choices and informed decisions. We will give them confidence – the confidence to be able to stand up and express themselves. We will enable them to have safe, stable relationships based on respect and equality. With this knowledge, we hope they will be safe and responsible in all areas of their life, on- and off-line. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t started ‘sex ed’ at home yet; don’t worry if you have and it went horribly wrong, and please don’t worry if you have knowingly buried your head in the sand or haven’t even thought about it at all. I just want to encourage you to consciously think about it. It’s never too soon if it’s done age appropriately and it doesn’t need to be intimidating, intense or overly serious. There is so much you can do, and so many amazing resources available, beginning with your school setting.

Just in case you needed any more encouragement to start now, here it is: children are curious beings and they will always have questions, so perhaps a scarier thought is that they can easily access the internet these days, despite passwords or wifi blockers. We cannot control where they are and who they are with all the time. Unfortunately, this means what they view online outside their homes. Children will learn about this from a young age, even if we choose to not discuss it with them. Some of these things could cause confusion, or might be factually incorrect, and this can be frightening for them to deal with (younger children tend to internalise their thoughts). So it is important that we control the situation and are part of the conversation, to help them make sense of it all in a safe place.

Children of all ages need to know that when they are curious you’ll answer their questions, when they ask for help you’ll be there, and when they feel worried or scared you’ll reassure them. Starting discussions around sex early will actually protect them and it also means we have more control over how and when we want to share information. Over the years, I realised that if you take away the mystery from something, it can help, be that ‘toilet talk,’ swear words or body parts. Children can respond better if you discuss something honestly, give a little context, keep to the facts, don’t make a fuss, and move on. When things are out in the open, they can lose their fascination – although perhaps not entirely if we’re talking about 5-7 year olds. And if all else fails, then you can always rely on the safety of a book– often books have all the answers. 

12 tips for talking to your child about sex education

1. Prepare to be honest and open

If you are prepared to be honest and open, you will help create an environment where your child feels like they can ask you anything. Hopefully they will be happier coming to you with their worries, problems and queries. You could even think about what exactly you would say in response to any questions, or start to think about a script. Keep your language and answers simple; you don’t need to give endless detail unless you would like a long discussion.

2. Know their lessons timeline

Knowing when your child will be learning about this topic will mean you can engage with them. This is a good opportunity to ask them about their lessons and any questions they may have. It could also be a good chance to discuss your views and values, and consolidate or address any misconceptions. Try to give context when you can to answer their questions.

3. Trust your schools

Listen to your child’s teacher and school about their policies and lesson structures; they cover these topics sensitively. They will always use age appropriate content and language in lessons. They have a duty to ensure it is also culturally appropriate and inclusive of all children. Do not, however, hesitate to talk to your child’s school or teacher if you have any concerns or worries about anything, especially if they begin taking about a topic which seems inappropriate and you are not sure where this came from.

4. Subject knowledge

It helps to know what is and isn’t appropriate for your child’s age. Having big families with older children can make this more difficult. If you are aware of what your child needs to know and what may be considered inappropriate, and if it does come up naturally due to having older siblings, you can help them understand that there is a time and a place. Explain that it may not be something that is appropriate to discuss in the playground (and you may also want to give your child’s teacher a warning about this too!).

5. Speak to other parents

Do bring this topic up with other parents – it helps to take away the ‘taboo’ from the subject. And you never know, you may be able to really help each other.

6. Books can help

If you are someone who isn’t confident with where to start when discussing this topic then using books can be a great way to begin ‘tricky’ conversations. Please always read the book first before reading with family/children to check you are happy with the language, wording and the story content.

7. Everyday opportunities

Take advantage of times in your day to discuss this topic. Bath times, toilet time, dressing or changing, or even watching a film or reading books can all be good opportunities to talk about body parts, gender differences, the facts of life, and respect. 

8. Being naked

Be aware of how you are in your own skin and don’t be afraid to be naked in front of your family. If they never see you naked, having a bath, or dressing, how can they know what to expect as they grow up or what adult bodies may look like? Being comfortable naked creates less stigma. Children are naturally curious so think about what message you are sending your children if you are not open with yourself.

9. Be sensitive

Each family will have different ways to approach this topic. Their approach may be due to cultural reasons, or it may just be the way they choose to do it. Each way is their ‘correct’ way as there is no set way to discuss this topic. Be sure to highlight the fact that your friends and family may talk about these things differently, and that’s okay! 

10. Remove mystery

If you take away the mystery of genitalia then it can help to lessen the taboo. It is important to have clear labels for all body parts. As cute as family nicknames can be, try to avoid using them – e.g. ‘bimby’ for nipples, ‘noo noo’ for vagina or ‘winky’ for willy. Instead, try to use correct names where possible, e.g. penis, vagina, breasts, etc. Even though it may seem too ‘grown up’, it actually removes embarrassment, taboos and immaturity going forward. By using correct body parts it also keeps our children safe, as you will immediately know what they are talking about and there can be no misunderstandings. It can also help from a health perspective as it can be confusing if they say ‘private parts’ ‘bum bum’ or ‘it is itchy down there’. We name all other body parts correctly – if we call genitalia inaccurate names then it can encourage the taboo!

11. Love and reassurance

Ensure that your child understands that you are there to love and support them no matter what. You will answer any questions they might have, especially if something has come up at school which concerns them. Listen carefully to your child and their views and questions as and when they arise. Avoid brushing off their curiosity or ‘awkward’ questions, hoping that school will deal with this or follow it up with them.

12. Teaching respect

It’s never too early to teach your child about respect and being ‘body smart’ and safe. You can start with the basic ideas such as boundaries and what being safe looks like in different scenarios (linking mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing). Help them understand that they can exercise their voice, that it is their body and it belongs to them.