The recommendation made yesterday from the education select committee calling for children to be taught age-appropriate sex and relationship education as a statutory subject in both primary and secondary schools seemed to receive a mixed reaction. On the one side, teachers; social workers and child protection specialists were largely supportive of the idea and on the other, some parents and those who oppose Nanny-state tendencies were more critical.
As someone in the relationship field, you would not expect me to be anything but supportive and you would be right; I am. Knowledge is power, and ‘power’ is something which is particularly important when it comes to child protection and abuse issues. A healthier narrative about sex and relationships that competes with the narrative of an abuser could be mighty powerful indeed. Even if it doesn’t stop the abuse; it may prevent the long-term normalising and internalising that can ultimately be more damaging to survivors than the abuse itself.
Fortunately not all children need to be worried about protecting themselves from outright sexual abuse. Parents of these children may understandably believe that children should be children, and should not have to think about ‘these matters’ until they matter. The problem is that in an increasingly sexualised culture, where 50 Shades of Grey is now considered a cultural phenomenon and a sellable brand, these things do seem to matter sooner.
Even parents going to great lengths to ‘protect’ their children from sexualisation by limiting their kids access to pop videos, the internet, social media use and so on, cannot protect them from outside influence. And arguably the more protected they are in the home, the less able they are to be able to process such content when unfiltered and unexplained outside the home. Why not get some help from the education system to help kids make sense of this?
Where I might criticise the initiative is not in its intent but in its reach and effectiveness; teachers can only take it so far. Experience in the therapy room tells me time and time again that children learn about relationships certainly, and sex perhaps more indirectly, through family and parental behaviour. The adults I see in therapy today are yesterday’s children and their parents’ own relationships and their attitude to sex has more often than not provided a template (healthy or otherwise) for their own relationships.
Knowledge may be power but experience is powerful.
Perhaps then parents should also think about going ‘back to school’?