People who support the reversal of Ontario’s sexual education curriculum have made one thing clear — it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach children about sex-ed.
But sex-ed has changed since the days of “the birds and the bees,” and includes everything from consent to cyberbullying to sexting — topics that will no longer be covered by educators under the reversed curriculum.
“Our knowledge about sexual health has progressed and improved over the past two decades,” says sexuality educator Nadine Thornhill, based in Toronto. “Using material from a curriculum that’s 20 years out of date means giving youth information that’s factually incomplete and in some cases inaccurate.”
She argues that while some families will take the responsibility to teach their children these excluded topics, not all children have this opportunity to learn.
“There are youth in our province who don’t have the benefit of caring, or informed families who are willing to provide sex education at home,” she explains. “These youth will miss out on critical information about consent, healthy relationships, sexual health, and identity and it puts them at greater risk for abuse, sexual illness and mental health crises.”
On Wednesday, Ontario’s Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced the government would revoke an updated version of the sex-ed curriculum (the last change was made in 1998) that was introduced by the previous Liberal government. The changes, which sparked protests and debates across groups in the province, prompted the idea that children were too young to learn about some of the changes, including topics around same-sex marriage or the correct terminology of genitalia.
What is a parent’s role?
Thornhill agrees that parents and families play a critical role in their children’s sex education, but they shouldn’t feel pressured to take on all of these topics in one sitting.
“It can be an ongoing conversation that happens over the course of their childhood and adolescence,” she says. “Be kind, be compassionate, answer questions that come up as well as you can.”
If you’re a parent and you don’t know the answer to a child’s question: be straightforward. “If they feel uncomfortable, they can be honest about that and say, ‘This is awkward, but it’s important so let’s talk about it anyway.'”
Speaker and educator Jam Gamble adds sex should be a part of multiple environments.
“At home, parents can have more intimate conversations with their children which may include who can/can’t touch them and also model for them what different relationships look like,” she says.
But at school, she adds as an educator, she has regular conversations with students about consent, digital citizenship, sex, and puberty.
WATCH: Parents were consulted on Ontario’s sex education curriculum, says Former Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne.
“A few months ago, a Grade 9 student came to me to help her because she just got her period for the first time. She said her mom hadn’t shown her how to change her pad and I stood outside the door talking her through the steps,” she recalls. “A few weeks later, the same student came to me concerned why her period hadn’t come back and wondered if this was normal. I reassured her as best as I could and encouraged her to talk to her mom.”
She adds, while she is not a health teacher, her students constantly have health-related questions or concerns. “I have to be prepared to help them — with or without the curriculum.”
Thornhill adds if a parent is feeling unsure on how to speak on the subject, there are several videos or online resources to help them conduct a conversation.
The risks of not talking openly about sex-ed
The World Health Organization previously reported there is no evidence that shows comprehensive sex-ed curriculum encourages more sex,” NBC reports.
But Thornhill argues youth who lack education can have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. “Sexual predators are more likely to target children who don’t use the correct names for their body parts or come from families that don’t discuss sexuality, as those children are far less capable of reporting abuse,” she adds.
“We also know that LGTBQ youth who endure bullying and other forms of harassment have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and higher rates of suicide. The 2015 curriculum contains information that can literally save children’s lives.”
It’s awkward to about sex-ed, but parents need to make it happen
And with the risks involved in not teaching your child about these topics, Gamble argues it can lead to poor decision-making around sex.
“They can feel ashamed or confused when it comes to puberty. It’s absolutely essential that they are being educated so that they can make informed decisions when it comes to their life,” she says.
She adds that while she is not a parent, the best approach to take would be being honest. “If you’re uncomfortable, admit it. Talking about sex doesn’t have to be scary,” she says. “Humanize it, show your children that you’re there for them.”
“Teens are engaging in sexual activities more and more at very young ages, and puberty has an earlier onset especially for girls, compared to years ago,” she tells Global News. “It’s important for teens to understand their bodies, what their bodies can do, and what happens during sexual intimacy at all levels,” she says.
“As tough as these conversations may be, they’re important to have, and important to continue.”
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