Recently I was with my sister and her two young grandsons. Peggy needed to use the restroom and the boys joined her. Two-year-old Jack said, “You don’t have a penis, right Grandma?” To which my sister replied, ”No, I don’t.“ Then Jack said, “You have a vulva because you are a girl, right?” My sister said, “Yes, I have a vulva because I am a girl.” Her daughter had obviously explained this to Jack previously. 5-year-old Parker said, “Wait! What is a vulva? How does Jack know what a vulva is, and I don’t?!” The likely answer to that is that Jack asked, and Parker did not.
Children are naturally curious about their bodies and often ask questions about them. The topic of sex education can be a difficult one for families to navigate but these are exactly the types of conversations that begin to build an age -appropriate dialogue with children. Laying the foundation for sex education should start at a very young age but it is often challenging for parents to do so on their own. Often adults do not want to navigate the more difficult topics that should be presented as children enter adolescence.
Most parents believe that sex education should be taught in schools. Polling has found that 96% of parents support providing sex education in high school and 93% support sex education in middle school. Currently, only 30 states require sex education in schools. There are no sex education mandates in the State of Illinois, so it is up to each individual school or school district to determine the appropriate programming for their students. That is potentially about to change. A bill requiring updated sex education standards in Illinois public schools has advanced out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on School Curriculum and Policies in the Illinois House. If the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children’s Health Act, or the REACH Act, becomes law, Illinois would become the 31st state with sex education mandates. The curriculum under the bill would vary depending on grade level, but the information that the students would be receiving would be medically, scientifically, and academically accurate.
We, at Candor Health Education, believe that this REACH Act is critical to the health and personal safety of children and young people. Components of the REACH Act include education for students in kindergarten through second grade which would focus primarily on personal safety. Topics such as puberty, sexual orientation, and gender identity would be included starting in third grade. From sixth grade onward, consent, sexual harassment, and pregnancy prevention would be among the topics covered.
The REACH Act will also provide school personnel with training to help them to identify and report on child sexual abuse. We know that prevention of sexual abuse, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections can be avoided by providing this type of education. Many teen mothers drop out of high school or go into the welfare system. Prevention education can help ensure that teens stay in school and provide the start they need in reaching their long-term goals.
Kids are naturally curious about their bodies and they should be given accurate information about them. Sex education should start early, as with two-year-old Jack learning the appropriate terms for body parts, and continue through puberty, human reproduction, healthy relationships and sexual health. It is wonderful that the State of Illinois is taking steps to move forward with providing school children scientifically accurate, age-appropriate information and will hopefully encourage more conversations on these topics at home as well.
There are some fantastic resources available online for parents to learn the proper information about how to talk to their kids about sex education. Candor offers many on our website: https://candorhealthed.org/parent-information/family-resources/
Written by: Barb Thayer-Executive Director, Candor Health Education