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How times change: A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs in a scene from 'Human Growth,' a sex-ed film shown to Oregon junior-high students. (� Corbis)
How times change: A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs in a scene from 'Human Growth,' a sex-ed film shown to Oregon junior-high students. (� Corbis)

Curriculum showdown

When it comes to sex ed, the kids aren't all right Add to ...

Melanie Frost was in the grocery store in Hines Creek, Alta., with her daughter, Janet, when a pregnant woman walked down the aisle toward them.

“The baby's going to come out of her vagina,” the four-year-old announced.

The mother of five has grown accustomed to her children (the oldest is now 11) filling her in on the sexual and reproductive realities of the world around them.

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So she was surprised by the debate that flared up in Ontario this week over a revamped school curriculum that was to introduce sexual education at an earlier age, and by Premier Dalton McGuinty's abrupt reaction of postponing it indefinitely.

“Kids know way more than most people give them credit for,” says Ms. Frost, 33. “I think some parents feel control is being taken from them, but I also think some parents are a bit outdated on how quickly children are maturing these days.”





Advocates say sex education is not introducing young children to sexuality, but simply contextualizing information to which most already have been exposed.




Criticism of Ontario's proposed curriculum focused on the discussion of sexual orientation and masturbation with kids in Grade 3.

Across the country, other attempts to modernize provincial sex-ed classes have been met with similar opposition, as a vocal population of parents resists any change to what children learn and when – even though the proposed new curriculum in Ontario was the process of two years of consultation with 700 students, 70 organizations and more than 2,400 people.

The last time the Ontario sex-ed curriculum was updated was 12 years ago. Sex-education professionals say the very notion of what is age-appropriate has shifted dramatically – both biologically, as kids continue to reach puberty faster, and culturally, as the Internet opens up a filthy new world of information at the press of a Google search button.

Critics of the Ontario proposals regard this as a kind of capitulation to the current culture of sexualization. “There's no doubt that children are exposed to hostile sexual material more than we even dreamt of in our youth,” says Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College in Toronto. “But that doesn't mean our teachers should be the exposers.”

Advocates say sex education is not introducing young children to sexuality, but simply contextualizing information to which most already have been exposed.

Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor of adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, says that as the age at which boys and girls enter puberty has declined, many girls now enter the first stages of puberty at the age of 8. Practically, that means they need to learn about pubertal development – “what's going on down there” – in primary school.

She adds that preparing children for such a big change requires talking about more than just plumbing: Children must also understand the fundamentals of healthy relationships, how to avoid the pressure to have sex and the dangers of sexual assault and exploitation.

“We need to have those conversations by age 11 or 12,” Dr. Saewyc says. “If you want to hear explicit, listen in to the conversations in the schoolyard and online. There isn't anything explicit or shocking in the curriculum.”

At least nothing that isn't already being discussed.



GlobeCampus.ca



Kids ask explicit questions

Lyba Spring, who works in sexual-health promotion with Toronto Public Health, often fields anonymous questions submitted by elementary-school classrooms. “The questions they ask are very explicit,” she says. “Is oral sex okay? Can you get pregnant with oral sex? They'll ask about HIV and anal sex.”

Three decades ago, this knowledge would have been gleaned from pornographic videos, magazines or the overheard whispers of older siblings. Now, much of it is coming from the Internet.

Ms. Spring will ask children if they have ever seen a graphic image on the computer that they didn't understand. In every Grade 5 classroom, at least two-thirds of students raise their hands. “Kids have always had access to sexual images, but now they have more access,” she says.

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