To keep our children safe and healthy, we teach them never to run with scissors. We put bike helmets on them. We ensure they floss. We make them eat broccoli and try to limit the sweets. Isn't it equally important that they are well-informed about sexual health?
This is the intent of sexual education in our schools and Ontario's Ministry of Education has finally updated the Health and Physical Education Curriculum, largely unchanged since 1998.
The curriculum is divided into four sections for each grade, and I'll summarize the Ministry's words:
- Living Skills: understanding themselves, communicating and interacting with others, learning to think critically and problem solve
- Active Living: physical fitness and safety
- Movement Competence: body awareness, and learning movement skills
- Healthy Living: learning about health and making healthy choices
The Healthy Living section includes Human Development and Sexual Health. Sex ed will be taught alongside other concepts to promote healthy living, such as covering your mouth when you cough, watching out for others when you play on the monkey bars, and that smoking is bad for you. It's all quite banal, really.
Or so it should be. This is all in the name of keeping our kids safe and healthy. But there has been intense public outcry amid accusation that the syllabus only serves to promote sexual promiscuity among teens. Some parents have even kept their kids home in protest. Some allegations are downright hateful in their criticism of curricular objectives that explain that some kids have two mommies. Other assertions are downright false, such as that students are taught how to have sex -- utter nonsense! The curriculum teaches students facts in the context of their well-being and safety; it isn't a how-to manual.
Sex ed is not new to the curriculum, as it has been taught for many decades. However, kids have access to information like never before. We teach them media literacy to help them navigate our digital world. They now also must be educated in a contemporary manner with accurate information about sexual health to protect them from potentially dangerous and inaccurate material found online and shared through social media. There is plenty of misinformation out there, along with stereotypes and bias that must be debunked. The curriculum is a good document, and it has been updated with the aim to do just this.
Learning about sexuality is an element of human biology, and our children have the right to know. Learning about sexual behaviour, its consequences, avoiding diseases and infections, the emotional dimension of sex, what consent means and the right to refuse, are about healthy living and our children absolutely need to know.
What exactly is in the sex ed portion of the curriculum? Here's a quick look:
- Naming body parts accurately
- Stages of development
- Physical and emotional development
- Personal hygiene
- Reproductive system
- Understanding stereotypes, bias and assumptions
- Delaying sexual activity
- STIs and pregnancy prevention
- Sexual health and decision making
- Sexual orientation
- Relationships and intimacy (including how to end relationships)
- Thinking ahead, consent and personal limits
- Mental health
- Proactive health measures
The theme of the new curriculum is physical and emotional health and safety. Healthy relationships and mutual respect now feature prominently. The message is to delay sexual activity. Isn't this what we want? Kids get into trouble when they don't have the facts. When we arm them with knowledge and a strong sense of self, along with the awareness of society's expectations for their behaviour and how they should treat others, they are better prepared to think critically, avoid risky activity, and just be better people.
It's one thing to debate at what age we should teach these issues, but it is another thing entirely to argue that we shouldn't teach certain subjects at all because some parents personally disapprove. We live in a liberal society and bigotry and homophobia are unacceptable in Canada. Same-sex marriage is legal, and students have the right to know about and understand sexual orientation because it is a fact, and it is first introduced in the context of respecting differences. In schools in many communities in Ontario, it is likely that students will have encountered kids with two moms or two dads long before the issue is addressed by a teacher. I believe that teaching children tolerance and respect for diversity at a young age bodes well for our nation's future.
In addition, acting like controversial issues don't exist is not a good strategy for empowering our children to make the right choices. It's an educator's responsibility to ensure that students have the information and strategies to steer them through what can be a challenging coming-of-age in the digital world. Online porn, sexting, peer pressure, bullying through social media, and the pervasive sexual images and negative stereotypes found in the media are not going away. Accurate and current information will help youth make sound decisions and engage in healthy relationships, and that's good for everyone.
I've taught puberty to my grade 5 girls (boys went with male teachers) for many years. It wasn't at all about sexual activity, it was strictly about puberty and their changing bodies. I ensured a relaxed and safe environment, and it was apparent that they craved the attention of an adult with whom they could speak openly and honestly. They had so many thoughtful questions, and I was glad to be there to answer them. Our kids need and deserve that.
For accurate information about the new curriculum, visit the Ministry of Education's website which breaks down the enormous document into an excellent summary.
Author: Stacey Cline is an elementary school teacher and educational consultant. She is a regular contributor to Her Magazine. Stacey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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