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Is Five the Right Age to Start Sex Ed

Last week, word got out around my neighborhood about an incident at a local restaurant. A seven-year-old boy entered the bathroom, alone, and was approached by a stranger who touched him inappropriately. I’ve been praying for the family ever since. The very thought of it sends shivers up my spine.

Some poor parents sent their unsuspecting child into the restroom of an establishment they might visit regularly, and he came out forever changed. What’s worse is that this sort of thing can happen anywhere, to any one of our children. We start to let them out into the world, just beyond our reach, and someone can steal their innocence in an instant.

All week, I’ve been thinking about how we can protect our children. Even if we decide never to let them step foot in a public restroom unattended again, they’re still at risk every time they’re out of our sight. Plus, statistics show most sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone we know.

With so much to fear, the question becomes not how we can protect our children, but how can we teach them to protect themselves?

I had this boy in my thoughts when I came across a piece on PBS NEWSHOUR about “The Case for Starting Sex Education in Kindergarten.” The provocative title had me curious, especially since my oldest daughter will be celebrating her fifth birthday in just a few weeks.

I discovered that in the Netherlands, there’s a fully established curriculum on “sexuality” that begins with students as young as four! It’s a program that was developed so children:

  • “are better able to respect themselves and others
  • “are aware of their own and other people’s feelings, wishes, opinions and capabilities
  • “can make better decisions in the area of relationships and sexual health”

That all sounds empowering, but what does one even say to a four-year-old about sex?? If you watch this clip, you can see the class discussion is pretty innocuous:

It actually reminds me of a lot of the conversations I have with my own child about relationships: What does it mean to “love” someone? Who can we hug and kiss? What parts of our body is it okay for friends to touch? Of course, the goal of these conversations is to grow a child’s awareness of what’s appropriate when it comes to her body.

What’s interesting is that organizations like The Mother’s Union (a Christian charity based in the UK) actually encourage early dialogue on the subject of sexuality, when children are both curious and comfortable seeking their parents’ advice:

Talking to your child will help them to grow up feeling good about themselves, sex, sexuality and relationships. Not talking on the other hand will send a strong message that sex is scary, dirty and shouldn’t be talked about. (What Should We Tell the Children)

It’s a good point: This is the time in our children’s lives when we have the most power over their way of thinking. If we wait to talk to them about their bodies, we risk their feeling shameful. We risk their not feeling comfortable talking to us in years to come. We risk their not understanding when an adult is taking advantage of their innocence.

So do the Dutch have it right? Should we be teaching our children about sexuality from kindergarten on?

The case for starting “Sex Ed” early is especially compelling when you read statistics like these:

On average, teens in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries or in the United States. Researchers found that among 12 to 25 year olds in the Netherlands, most say they had  “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences. By comparison, 66 percent of sexually active American teens surveyed said they wished that they had waited longer to have sex for the first time. When they do have sex, a Rutgers WPF study found that nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraceptives the first time, and World Health Organization data shows that Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill. According to the World Bank, the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, five times lower than the U.S. [emphasis my own: take note abstinence-only proponents] Rates of HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases are also low. (Source: PBS NEWSHOUR)

So what’s the drawback to starting the discussion early with our kids? Discomfort. Our own feelings of shame. Our inability to break things down into age-appropriate subjects. But what if our schools were helping us with the conversation, even in kindergarten? And what if it had an effect on our kids’ safety, as studies have shown?

Would you be in favor?

Far too few children and young people receive anything approaching adequate preparation for a safe and satisfying adult sexual life. Open discussion of sexual matters with trusted adults is usually absent at the very time when it is most needed. This, in turn, is compounded by the pervasive, confusing and conflicting (and predominantly negative) messages received by children about sexuality and gender. In turn, these may contribute to creating and sustaining vulnerability to coercion, abuse and exploitation [emphasis my own]. Effective sexuality education is therefore essential in order to redress this balance. (Council of Europe, “Sexuality education and the prevention of sexual violence“)

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4 thoughts on “Is Five the Right Age to Start Sex Ed?

  1. I think this is a wonderful idea. All children should be taught about physical boundaries and personal space, along with appropriate and inappropriate touching. They also need to know about “private” parts and activities/behaviors that should not happen in public (masturbation). We, as a society, are so afraid to talk about bodies and sex for fear we will encourage our children to have sex. Instead of preparing them for what will inevitably happen we hide it. They are then scared to come to us and ask questions when it really matters.

    My children are 4 (daughter) and 2 (son). Right now my daughter is asking questions about childbirth. She has not asked yet how babies are made but I anticipate that happening soon. I will be talking with my children about sex early on and often (age appropriate) as I want them to hear the correct information from me.

    Although help from schools would be nice, I do not see this country embracing the topic. Americans like to bury their heads in the sand and pretend their children will never have sex.

    1. I’m with you all the way, Jennifer! I thought it was so interesting that all the information I found pushing for early “Sex Ed” is coming out of Europe, not the US. And I’m unlucky enough to find myself raising my girls (5 and 2.5) in Texas, where abstinence-only seems the norm.

      My friends who grew up here say they received virtually no sex/sexuality education at all in their public schools, and that scares me! In Massachusetts, where I grew up, we started with the whole “our bodies are changing” talk in the fifth grade and the dialogue continued through high school, where we had a 9-week sex ed class as sophomores. We discussed anatomy, birth control, signs of pregnancy, abstinence–all of it! I guess I’ll be explaining all that to my kids myself…

      1. Here in AZ, abstinence-only is the LAW. They are not permitted to teach anything else in the public schools. Seems so crazy to me as I think back to my teen years.

  2. I am strongly in favor of age-appropriate conversations with young children about their bodies, their boundaries, and their right to say “NO” to anyone older who makes them uncomfortable. There are just too many stories like the one about the boy in the restaurant – too many children being violated to stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best.. We need to guard our children’s innocence by empowering them to recognize that they have control over their bodies!’

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