Is it premature to teach six-year-olds about sexuality?
In Ontario, educators grappled with this question recently in the debate over the province's new sex education curriculum. Interestingly, at Unitarian Universalist congregations, sex education begins at the kindergarten level. Children learn about their bodies, hygiene, relationships, self-worth, responsibility and social justice through comprehensive, age-appropriate pedagogy.
Our Whole Lives, known affectionately as OWL, is a program that teaches children very early in their religious education that they must learn to respect their own bodies and those of others. They also learn that sexuality is to be celebrated in its diverse manifestations.
As a liberal religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism eschews negative references to various sexual orientations. In so doing, it obviously represents a departure from more orthodox religious beliefs where homosexuality and bisexuality are vociferously condemned. In addition to delivering information about sexuality and relationships, OWL also strives to impart sound values to students that will eventually enable them to make the right choices about their sexuality.
Acutely aware of young children's vulnerability to sexual abuse, OWL also strives to teach children about possible dangers and how to overcome them from the beginning. The proposed Ontario sex education curriculum would have followed this philosophy. However, more orthodox religious groups have called for abandoning the curriculum due to religious considerations.
These groups fear that knowledge about sex will precipitate sexual activity in children. They appear to ignore statistics showing that, in fact, children who receive age-appropriate information on sex tend to abstain from it and are also better equipped to defend themselves against predators. The younger the children, the more vulnerable they are to being sexually abused. It is not unusual for a six-year-old girl or boy to have experienced the worst kind of sexual abuse. Therefore, the sooner children are taught that a certain type of physical contact is inappropriate, the better.
Many times, adults unconsciously communicate sexual information to children, without providing them with necessary follow-up explanations. Among conservative Muslims, for example, references to gender identities begin at a very young age. Often, children are separated according to gender with great emphasis being placed on gender roles. Little girls are unwittingly taught to cover up, lest they provoke sexual assault or molestation. Wouldn't it make sense to tackle such issues through proper education rather than fear-mongering?
When developing a sex education program, it is important to consider the risks children face at an increasingly young age. A scientifically developed program to forewarn children of such dangers is not only desirable, it is imperative.
For such religious groups, it is important to acknowledge that the danger of keeping young children uninformed is far greater than equipping them with appropriate information about sex.
Under the new curriculum, six-year-olds would learn about their body parts. They would come to understand that they themselves must be in control of their own bodies at all times. Anyone who touches them in a manner that makes them feel uncomfortable must be reported to an elder immediately.
Schools can serve as effective institutions in fighting the curse of sexual abuse. Lack of knowledge about the dangers associated with sexual activity is hardly a solution. While some religious communities have recognized this important dynamic, others must reevaluate their position on sex education with a view to aligning it with Ontario's sex education goals for young children.
Farzana Hassan is the author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today . She is a former director of religious education at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, Ont.