Elena Merenda is the assistant program head of the Early Childhood Studies program at the University of Guelph-Humber and has more than 10 years of experience in early childhood education, early learning, therapeutic play and settings, and supporting families with children who have special needs.
Sex-education is education about the reproductive system that later leads to lessons on sexual intercourse. Sex-education teaches children about their bodies, providing them with the correct language to describe parts and functions. It teaches them how to care for themselves and how to express their emotions when something doesn’t feel right. Sex-education empowers children to control what happens to them and decide who is or isn’t allowed to touch them. And most importantly, sex-education teaches children about differences. They learn about love, gender identity and family composition, all of which are important aspects of inclusive education.
The goal of Ontario’s Well-Being Strategy for Education is to enhance mental and physical health by achieving all of these things. It defines well-being as “a positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that is felt when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met. It is supported through equity and respect for our diverse identities and strengths.”
The modernized sex-education curriculum is a crucial component of Ontario’s Well-Being Strategy. The goal is to shape the learning environment into a safe place where children can be who they are, ask questions and form opinions. It aims to correct misconceptions children have about sex, gender and sexuality; and most importantly, it strives to teach children that everyone is different. Having an understanding that we are all different and there are people in the world who are grappling with sexuality and gender identity not only instills a sense of empathy in children, but it encourages them to feel proud of who they are. It can encourage children to talk about their feelings and fears that might otherwise be oppressed. Longitudinal research has also proven that sex-education decreases the occurrence of bullying amongst children, and increases childrens’ willingness to intervene when they do witness LGTBQ name calling.
A key component of the modernized sex-education curriculum that was not emphasized in the 1998 curriculum is the lessons on consent. In 2012, there were approximately 14,000 child and youth victims of sexual abuse in Canada.
Many of these victims were harmed by someone they knew well. A sex-education curriculum that teaches children that their consent is necessary before anyone, including family members, makes physical contact, is important for reducing the occurrence of sexual abuse and increasing reporting rates when it does happen.
Reverting to the old sex-education curriculum would be a step backward in ensuring the well-being of children. It would put them at greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse and physical harm.
Educators, parents and certainly the government, have a collective responsibility to create positive learning environments for children to ensure their well-being. The role of the educator is to provide children with facts, while encouraging them to be critical thinkers and develop ideas and opinions of their own. Parents are also responsible for providing children with facts, but their lessons are draped with their own values and morals. Often, parents are uncomfortable talking to their children about sex-education because they believe children are too young to understand, and they are conflicted by cultural and religious beliefs that sex is shameful and should not be discussed. This discomfort can lead to incorrect and inconsistent messaging from parents.
Educators and parents can work collaboratively to support children.
Educators should inform parents about what the children are learning. Parents can continue the conversations at home, while giving consideration to their cultural and religious beliefs.
Children learn about their bodies and sex from multiple sources including social media, television and from each other. They will have a lot of questions about the conflicting messages they receive, and they require a safe place to ask those questions. A place with adults they trust and by whom they don’t feel judged. Using correct language and terms related to sex, body parts, gender identity and sexuality ensures that children receive consistent messages at home and at school, reducing the possibility of them forming misconceptions that lead to prejudice and discrimination.
The modernized sex-education curriculum supports a collaborative relationship between parents and educators, a relationship that empowers children to have control over their bodies and encourages them to appreciate differences.