I was fortunate that the schools my kids attended did a very good job teaching sex education. The program was spread over several years, moving from puberty information in fifth grade to progressively complex topics into high school. There was age-appropriate material on making good choices in all kinds of relationships, including romantic/sexual ones, plus sound information on birth control, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and other aspects of biology.
But not every school district does such a good job. The 900 young adults who filled out my survey reported huge variation in sex-ed quality and comprehensiveness. Some programs were great, but many others were dreadful—uninformative, frightening, embarrassing, and/or shaming. If no other adult steps up with better information and support, kids often decide that adults are worthless as sources of information about sex.
The best school sex-ed programs:
- Are held over several years, not just once.
- Are led by a knowledgeable teacher or health professional who can answer questions in a matter-of-fact way.
- Thoroughly cover biological aspects of development and sexuality, including puberty, conception and childbirth, contraception, and STIs.
- Address the emotional effects of puberty and relationships.
- Acknowledge that sexual feelings are normal, although we may not act on those feelings.
- Explain the wide variety in “normal”—for example, that people hit puberty at many different times, and that some people are interested in dating by middle school and others not until college, and that’s all OK.
- Teach kids about making choices that are right for them; resisting peer pressure; respecting that other people may want different things.
- Are non-shaming and cover more than “abstinence only.”
If you’re a parent, find out what your kids’ schools are teaching about puberty and sexuality. If they do a great job, that’s wonderful—you can build off that by talking about your own values and helping your kid make healthy choices.
If your local schools don’t do a good job covering sexuality, much more responsibility will fall to you for providing accurate information. Young people need to know the changes that will happen to their bodies in puberty. They need to know the truth that sex feels good, but also that the risk of pregnancy and STIs is real. (Not to mention the heartbreak that can come when sexual relationships go badly or end.)
If your kids are young: Research your school district’s sex-ed program now. If it’s weak, start lobbying for improvements so your child—and everyone else’s—can get better information in middle school and beyond.