Parents in their late thirties, like me, grew up in a time before sexting, the World Wide Web or the near-constant surveillance of camera phones. My sex education was primarily ripped from the pages of Judy Blume novels in an age when transgender people were trotted out as entertainment on daytime TV, AIDS was supposedly a disease of homosexuals and state-sanctioned same-sex marriage wasn't something anybody expected to happen.
It's clear that today's sexual cultural landscape is now as far removed from what I grew up with as the sanitary belts Blume wrote about. Ignoring these changes in our kids' education makes as much sense as ignoring the reality of climate change. Even so, I'm not surprised that so many parents are taken aback by the new sex ed curriculum, set to be rolled out in Ontario this fall, which will include lessons on same-sex relationships, gender fluidity, sex and technology, and anal and oral sex. We certainly didn't learn about those things in school; well, at least not from the teachers.
Opponents of the changes are often framed as right-wing caricatures screaming about another Liberal attack on family values. But despite those catchy sound bites, I suspected that the resistance to the curriculum was more nuanced than it first appeared. I decided to talk to some of those parents to try to understand their hesitations.
None of the parents I spoke with were extreme religious fanatics. None were motivated by hatred or intolerance. Their reasons for distrusting the revised curriculum were personal and varied, but they all thought the Ministry of Education could have done more to include them when designing this essential part of their children's educations.
Sarah Allen is a stay-at-home mom and part-time retail clerk who lives in Ingersoll, Ont. She has been airing her concerns about the new curriculum in online forums. Her worry is that the new lessons extend beyond what is appropriate to teach in a classroom.
"They are pushing this curriculum too fast and taking away the innocence of kids," says Allen, who has four children between the ages of two and 12. Allen is confident, outspoken and more than happy to talk about her dislike of this curriculum with anyone who will listen.
She says she actually likes a lot of the new program, particularly the emphasis on Internet safety. Her concerns lie with some of the more sexually explicit subject matter that will be addressed in Grades 7 and 8. "Everybody's talking about the anal and oral," Allen says. "And, yes, I know that we're in a different age. But I think that if we normalize some of these topics, then it will make it seem like it's not a big deal."
Then there are her Christian values. Allen is careful to emphasize that while she worries about the inclusion of same-sex relationships as a teaching point, she is not homophobic. Her kids know that homosexuality is part of society, but same-sex marriage and different gender identities are subjects she prefers to discuss at home. "It's such a hard topic," she says. "I grew up in the Baptist church. I identify as Christian. My parents always taught us that marriage was a man and a woman and that, biologically, man and woman fit together. And that's what we teach our kids. Not that you hate gays."
Amanda Goetz's foremost concern is the emotional maturity of her eight-year-old daughter. Goetz, a mother of four and graphic designer who lives in Kincardine, Ont., takes her time discussing her unease, careful to distinguish the needs of her daughter from those of students as a whole.
"I actually like the curriculum," says Goetz, who's pleased that students will learn the same information at the same time. "I think it's going to cover a lot of topics that some parents are uncomfortable talking about. I like the consent and learning about homosexuality. For my daughter, it's just too much, too soon."
Goetz's daughter has an auditory processing disorder that makes it difficult for her to process speech, especially in environments with a lot of background noise. Goetz says her daughter struggles with academics and is emotionally more on par with a six-year-old. "I wonder if exposing this to her now when it doesn't seem naturally ready for her will just confuse and upset her."
When more explicit topics come up in Grades 7 and 8, Goetz expects her daughter will still be emotionally younger than her peers. The curriculum allows for some personal accommodations, but Goetz points out that many children with special needs are often unidentified.
Quite apart from individual needs, Ontario's diverse population comes from all kinds of cultural and religious backgrounds. Is it even possible to accommodate all of them? "Some of the updates to sex education are alarming for some people," says Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator who offers classes and workshops for families and teachers. "So I think it's important that the ministry be able to support their choices with well-researched evidence."
That evidence shows that early conversations about sexuality, gender and sexual diversity have a positive impact on physical and mental health. Peers still have the most influence over teens' views on sexuality, Thornhill says. "Plus, there's a lot more unfiltered information out there they can get to," she says. "Now, kids have access to Google." One bonus of the new curriculum is that when kids start researching sex on their own and discussing it with each other, at least they will all be armed with the same basic facts.
At least some of people's concerns come from a general fear of sexuality as something dangerous and corrupting. Some parents think talking about sexuality with children means broaching adult topics, like how to have sex. But that's not what sex ed in school is, says Thornhill. Parental involvement is meant to be a key part of the new curriculum's rollout: The Ministry of Education has published a parent's guide to the revised program as well as providing access to the learning objectives set out in the full curriculum. "We aren't teaching sex ed in schools because we want to take it away from families," Thornhill says.
But are all families equally equipped to have that talk? This is the main concern for Manan Gupta, a father of two living in Brampton, Ont., who immigrated from India 11 years ago. "Coming from South Asia, I know talking about sexual topics is a big taboo," he says. "Students don't leave their questions in the school. Those kids might come home and try to find information on the Internet or ask their parents and those parents won't want to listen to those questions. Where does that student go?"
Gupta calls the current curriculum a "mixed bag" and appreciates that it was past due for an update. He recognizes there's no escaping sexualized images and other external influences on children. "Our goal is to keep our kids safe and that they should lead a healthy sexual life and being given the correct information at the right time," Gupta says. Still, he worries that many parents will be at a loss over how to support that learning.
All of the parents I talked to expressed a desire for more clear, detailed information that would allow them to possibly opt out of certain lessons for their children, or at least continue the conversation at home. They have read the curriculum already, but they still don't know exactly what to expect or, most importantly, when to expect it.
More than anything, the introduction of this new curriculum highlights that children will learn about the ins and outs of human sexuality one way or another – and that's hard for some parents to face. Some will probably become more comfortable after a little hand holding, so best of luck to teachers on the front lines in the next couple of years.
Ultimately, attending public school in Canada means learning to be productive members of a tolerant and diverse society. Part of that includes exposing children to all kinds of ideas and values, and teaching them to evaluate those ideas independently. Figuring out how to do that is probably the best lesson of all.