When we were in school, sex education was on a "need-to-know" basis. The teacher spent a few minutes stuttering through the basic birds and bees, leaving the students with little more than an overwhelming sense of embarrassment and a few basics routinely taught at weekend sleepovers. But the times are a-changing.
In January 2012, The National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES) released the nation's new bench marks for sexual education. Today's sex ed will discuss much more, much earlier. Topics like bullying, gender identity and body image issues are included to engage kids by talking about what they need and want to know. Opening an early dialogue at school helps cure some of the taboo and embarrassment that may keep your child from asking for help later on down the line. Here are a few of the topics your kid should expect to learn about in class, and tips for kickstarting these conversations at home.
- Different strokes. By the time he's 11, he should know about Adam and Eve and Adam and Steve. A great way to start a conversation about different kinds of sexuality with a little one is with a kid-friendly book like And Tango Makes Three, Mommy Mama and Me, or The Family Tree. Don't panic—instead of talking sex, these books breach the subject of gay couples and families in age-appropriate ways. Afterwards, answer his questions about differences in an open, accepting way.
- Bad touch. It's never too early to learn about keeping your hands to yourself. By 5th grade, teach him that he has a right not to be touched in a way that makes him uncomfortable. Use a doll to point out danger zones, and practice screaming together like loonies to teach him what to do in case of danger. You'll frighten the neighbors, but you'll keep the mood light. Dr. Anthony Caruvastra, of the NYU's Child Study Center says that your job is to build the self-esteem that will encourage him to come to you if there's trouble.
- Abusive relationships. Domestic violence starts earlier than you may think, and has attracted attention from youngsters with high-profile cases such as Chris Brown and Rihanna. At 3, they know that hitting is wrong, but they may have trouble in the grey areas. By eighth grade, you and your kid should have addressed other kinds of abuse like put-downs, sexual pressure and possessive, isolating partners. The details are less important than opening the dialogue. Knowing you're there and you're listening will give him the strength he needs to avoid hooking up with a loser.
- Contraceptives. Your middle schooler still giggles at the mention of condoms, but he needs to know how to use one. According to "Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among American Youth", a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ten million 15 to 25 year olds contract an STD every year, so it's best to inform him before high school hits. One night, take a deep breath and ask him to tell you everything he knows about protection. Fill in any blanks and try not to look horrified by how much information he's already gleaned from TV, music and pals. For a more in-depth explanation, take him to a health clinic. Doctors can answer any questions he has, and can share horrifying images that are sure to impact decisions about sexual protection down the road.
- Bullies. Wedgies and swirlies don't have to be this generation's fate. By fifth grade, give your kid the tools to take action against a bully. Advising him to "tell the teacher" won't always work as he gets older, and he'll need to practice handling a situation when an adult isn't present. Use online resources to come up with a list of options he has, such as walking away or firmly saying "no" to the perpetrator, then have his friends over to organize ways to intervene in bullying that don't involve a knuckle sandwich. Role-playing will help him build the confidence and conviction he needs to stand up for himself or other bullied victims.
- Body Image. You'll have a self-conscious, angst-riddled teenager on your hands sooner than you think. A 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics Study found that an average of 59 percent of young girls struggle with body image issues—some of which are accidentally transmitted by parents. Avoid making cracks about that actress' bulky body, complaining about your own weight woes or pinching his baby fat after extra pancakes at breakfast.
Taking a cue from the national standards can mean opening important lines of communication that may last a lifetime. Keep your cool and sense of humor and he'll learn that you're someone he can confide in, no matter what's going on. The NSES says, "The most effective strategy is a strategic and coordinated approach to health that includes family and community involvement."
The benefits of knowledge, family dialogue and self-confidence don't stop at home. The NSES's studies show that "academic achievement and the health status of students are interrelated." Give him the tools to make healthy decisions and he'll be well on his way to succeeding at school and in life.