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Updated 31 August 2016

Sex education for children – why and how?

Many parents are confused about what they should tell their children about sex and when and how this should happen. An expert has advice.

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“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” - Derek Bok

Why you should educate your children about sex

Many parents are confused about what they should tell their children about sex and when and how this should happen.

Parents are also concerned that sexual information might heighten children’s interest in experimentation but many studies have shown that information and education do not encourage sexual activity.

On the contrary, well-informed children make better and informed decisions regarding their sexuality when they feel that no subjects are considered taboo at home.

Some parents are concerned that their children never ask any questions of a sexual nature. Children pick up subtle cues and have probably realised that the topic makes parents feel uncomfortable and therefore steer clear of it.

The threat of pregnancy and Aids

Previously, the threat of unwanted pregnancies and STI’s were the main reasons parents talked about sex. Many never did. Sex was made out to be something terrifying that could lead to scandal and disaster and social ostracism.

Nowadays, the terrifying rise in HIV infections in South Africa lends an added urgency to the need for proper sex education.

A report released jointly by the SABC and LoveLife in 2005 stated that more than four million South Africans are infected by HIV. This number is expected to have exceded 10 million in the next eight to ten years.

The report also found that the majority of new HIV infections occurred between the ages of 15-20.

Interestingly enough, the report also found that teenagers in countries that maintained a conservative stance to sex education were more sexually promiscuous than teenagers who lived in countries where information was readily available.

In 2011, Mpumalanga’s then MEC for Education Craig Paddayachee announced that 300 000 school children could die from Aids in South Africa in the next ten years if something drastic is not done to curtail the spread of the virus. He also said that this could become a reality if sex education in schools is not taken seriously by education authorities.

Does sex education in schools tell children what they need to know?

In a study by the US Kaiser Family Foundation it was found that while sex education in 89 percent of American schools covered topics such as reproduction, pregnancy and Aids prevention, many programmes lacked skill-based instruction. These included topics such dealing with the pressures and emotional consequences of sexual activity, talking to parents or partners about sexual health issues and getting medical help.

A newly released study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute also found that sex education in public schools was often aimed at encouraging abstinence and that students are denied the information they need when they do choose to become sexually active. Indications are that this is also a trend in South African schools.

But is sex education only the responsibility of the schools? Do South African parents not owe it to their children to equip them with knowledge, not only to develop healthy sexual attitudes, but also to form a first line of defence against the spreading of HIV? The question is how it should be done.

Telling your children about sex

“I blame my father for telling me about the birds and the bees. I was going steady with a woodpecker for two years.” - Bob Hope

It is important to make children feel good about their sexuality from the beginning. This will make it easier for them to ask questions about it throughout their lives.

Very often straightforward questions by a five-year-old need a simple answer, not lengthy explanations. If a child never asks any questions, they have realised that this is a problematic topic for parents and therefore never broach the subject.

1. Remember that sex education is an ongoing process - Questions should be answered naturally and in age-appropriate fashion. A question on pregnancy from a five-year-old should be answered differently from when it is asked by a twelve-year-old.

2. Be a good role model - Model the lessons you want to teach your children through your own behaviour, expectations and messages. Children learn more from what they see you doing than from what you say.

3. Know your facts - Even if it means reading up, then do so. If asked a question you do not know, say that you are unsure and go and do some research.

4. When asked for facts, give facts, not your own ideas or values - Children are not always able to distinguish between facts and beliefs. Do not let your personal belief system influence what you answer to a factual question. While there is room for imparting your values, this is not it.

5. Encourage curiosity and self-confidence in your children - Curious children end up being better informed generally and self-confident children overcome peer pressure more easily. Praise is the best way to teach self-confidence.

6. Listen carefully to what’s being asked - Guard against overkill. Answer what is asked, without going into unnecessary details and don’t jump to conclusions about your children’s sexual activities. Their questions may spring from something they heard on the playground, not because they are experimenting themselves.

7. Foster positive feelings about sexuality - Young people who have positive feelings about sexuality are more likely to be able to protect themselves against STI’s, unintended pregnancies and sexual abuse.

8. Be patient - Sometimes some of your children’s questions could upset or embarrass you. Try not to criticise, lecture or nag. If you do, you won’t be asked questions again.

9. Assure your children that they are loved and that they are normal - Let your children know that you are proud of them and that they are lovable. It will help to build their self-esteem. Also stress that it is normal for everyone to be different and that you do not find their questions strange in any way.

10. Keep your sense of Humour!

 
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