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curriculum showdown

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.

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.

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 "I think some parents feel control is being taken from them, but I also think some parents are a bit outdated on how quickly children are maturing these days."

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.

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.

And it is this access that has prompted provinces across the country to reassess what they are teaching and when. Mary-Lou Donnelly, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, says topics that would have once been raised in junior high are now regularly discussed by students in elementary school. "The curriculum that has been developed" in Ontario, she says, " is age-appropriate for our times."

Of course, parents should play a role in effective sex education. Ms. Spring says that by the time children are in Grade 3, they should already know what to call their genitals and that it is socially inappropriate to touch them in public.

"The hope is that parents are talking to their kids about this from the word go," she says. "The reality is that some parents do and some don't."

And young children must be prepared for certain realities, she adds, even if their parents aren't comfortable discussing them.

Some religious communities were upset that same-sex orientation would have been introduced in the proposed Ontario curriculum in Grade 3, but teaching children to understand and accept diversity does not mean that teachers are offering a "how-to guide," Ms. Spring says.

Likewise, oral sex is introduced in the discussion of safe sex, not because the curriculum is promoting it as an after-school activity. (Young people need to learn, for example, that new cases of genital herpes in Canada are largely caused by HSV-1, which comes from cold sores.)

When sex education is handled properly, Ms. Spring says, children handle it maturely. That doesn't mean kids don't laugh when she talks about sex, but they certainly listen. Concerns that introducing sex ed at an early age will result in earlier experimentation, she says, are misguided.

"The World Health Organization is very clear about that. The research is done," she says. "When children get comprehensive sexual-health education from an early age, they are more likely to postpone the higher-risk activities."

Indeed, while puberty is happening to them younger, teenagers across Canada have not responded by having sex at earlier ages.

The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, a research project that has been funded by the McCreary Centre Society since 1992, shows that while the most common age for first sexual intercourse is 15, by the end of Grade 12 fewer than half of Canadian teens have had sexual intercourse even once.

The teen-pregnancy rate has been falling steadily for a couple of decades and is at an all-time low.

'It's never too early'

In the Netherlands, for example, sex ed is introduced to children as young as 5. The average age of first intercourse there is nearly 17.

"People's biggest fear is that sexual education will stimulate children's sexual behaviour too early, but that is absolutely not the case," says Sanderijn van der Doef, a Dutch child psychologist. In the past 20 years, she has published six books on sexuality for kids aged 3 to 11, and is considered a pioneer of sex education in her country.

"It's never too early," she says of sex ed. "Research has shown sexual development starts from birth."

On the cover of Ms. van der Doef's book for five-year-olds, two toddlers kiss on the lips. Inside, children can read about how sperm travels inside the body and why humans lie on top of each other during sex, but animals do it from behind. The book for 11-year-olds describes the birth control pill and menstruation, and includes an illustration of a young girl looking at her genitals in a mirror.

When Ms. van der Doef reads these books to audiences of four- and five-year-olds, she says, they stare up at her with big eyes, hanging on her every word. A sense of embarrassment about sex develops only later, she says, when children are 7 or 8. At that age, they will often laugh when she talks about same-sex relationships.

"I explain that it's nothing to laugh about, it's normal," she says. "I'm very convinced that if you start talking about it early, that you normalize homosexuality for children."

This, of course, is the problem for some parents. As Mr. McVety puts it, "I doubt you could get 10 parents in a room that would agree to teach their eight-year-old 'gender identity.' There's no way the majority of parents in this province are going to agree."

But Ms. van der Doef said religious objections toward same-sex relationships have been addressed in the Netherlands at a legislative level. "You tell children that in our country we have a very important law, and that law says you can't discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual identity," she says. "You don't have to agree with it personally, but you have to respect it in your behaviour."

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) introduced international guidelines for sexual education that recommended children learn about sexual health and identity beginning at the age of 5, and receive more detailed information starting at 9.

"When they published these guidelines, they got so much protest and resistance, especially about explaining masturbation to young children," Ms. van der Doef says. "But they kept it in."

Alex McKay, research co-ordinator for the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, believes it is better to use the word "masturbation" than to rely on euphemisms. "Masturbation is very common during puberty. I'm not sure there's any benefit in pretending it doesn't occur," he says. "Knowledge is preferable to ignorance."

This is the attitude Melanie Frost has applied to her kids' sexual education.

Her eldest daughter, 11-year-old Sara, began her first real sex-ed course this week in her Grade 4 classroom and has already learned about anatomy, reproduction and safe sex.

"I feel much better knowing that the kids will have the facts," Ms. Frost says. "The sooner they start learning, the better."

So what did she say when her four-year-old informed the grocery store where babies emerge?

"I told her she was right."

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