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OPINIONParentsSeptember 11, 2020

Emily Writes: Why parents needn’t fear the new sex ed guidelines

School students in class working with tablets
Photo: Getty Images

The new sexuality education guidelines aim to teach kids about healthy relationships – and what sort of parent wouldn’t welcome that? 

On Tuesday, new sexuality education guidelines were introduced in New Zealand schools. The long-awaited changes include a greater focus on consent, gender and pornography. These guidelines have been years in the making and parents and students have been asking for them for a long, long time.

The resource teachers were working from was “Sexuality Education: A guide for principals, boards of trustees, and teachers”. It was created in the year Uptown Funk was number one. It’s well and truly past its prime. In 2018 the Education Review Office put out a damning report on the state of sexuality education in schools. It’s taken until now to actually revise the original 2015 document it was based on.

The Education Review Office had last reported on sex education in New Zealand in 2007. That evaluation found many schools were not meeting the needs of students: in particular, Māori and Pasefika students, international students, students with strong cultural or religious beliefs, students with additional learning needs and students who were gender-diverse or LGBTQIA+. They found that sex education was inconsistent and schools were still not meeting minimum standards of compliance with current requirements.

We are well, well, well overdue a sex ed reboot. That’s something all parents can agree on. Maybe you’re concerned about things you’ve read by groups with special agendas – they’d have you believe the end is nigh because children are getting support with their health and sexuality questions at school. It might help to look at what will actually be taught and why these changes are important.

High-quality sexuality education is critical to children and young people’s development and wellbeing – that is something all experts in the area can agree on. Writing for The Spinoff back in 2018, Amanda Hargreaves, a teacher and parent, said, “Sexuality education is far more complex than the mechanics of sex or talking about pornography. Relationship and sexuality education should start early – the simple mantra of ‘my body, my choice’ can be taught from a very early age. Talking about friendships and caring for our bodies is something many parents are already doing with their children. Schools and the wider community can, and should, support this kaupapa.”

While you might see people telling you that parents are going to be shut out by these guidelines, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Teaching our children about life is a not something we do in isolation. Our children learn from everyone around them – their parents, their siblings, their cousins, their aunties and uncles, their teachers, their librarians, their friends, mentors… And now, in 2020, they learn from TikTok, PornHub, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat too. This needs to be recognised, and it is in the new guidelines.

Nothing has changed since Hargreaves wrote: “Parents have a powerful voice in this discussion. We can ask for better resources, more funding and support for our teachers, and a collaborative and community-driven approach to relationships and sexuality education. Teaching our tamariki about healthy relationships is a collective responsibility. As parents, we can talk to our children about their needs, our board of trustees or teachers about what they’re delivering, and our communities about how to support this kaupapa.”

The new resource says very clearly that the aim of the guide is to enable “schools to deliver effective, quality programmes covering relationships and sexuality education (RSE) to their ākonga. It describes a school-wide approach to RSE focused on the idea of wellbeing.” It then says it is “essential” that programmes are planned with school communities. This is required by the Education and Training Act 2020. Anyone who tells you differently, and insists you won’t have a say, is lying. They have an agenda.

Ultimately, whatever your views on keeping children safe, we must be led by the young people who are actually learning. They’re telling us loud and clear what they want. Listen to their voices from the 2018 ERO report, in which survey respondents said they wanted their school to:

  • Teach us more about the emotional impacts of a physical and emotional relationship with another person and to be open minded.
  • Cater to everyone’s needs whether it be religious or cultural beliefs.
  • Cover the emotional parts of it as well as the physical.
  • [Use] more realistic scenarios, all the videos and much of the coursework was way outdated.
  • Take safe sex within LGBT communities seriously and enforce nondiscriminatory attitudes within the classroom as well as theoretically.

The report said: “While the basics were covered, it was the bare minimum. The way it was taught was made to scare students instead of inform them.”

As parents we have a responsibility to know better and do better. There are few parents in 2020 who believe the sex education they received as teenagers was of a high quality or even adequate. I remember being told I was a toothbrush. The toothbrush was passed around and we were then asked – “Would you put it in your mouth now? After everyone has touched it?” That should cause outrage.

What is absolutely not outrageous is calling a student by their preferred name. As an adult I’m often asked, “Do you prefer Em or Emily?” This is common courtesy and it’s something we already did at my school in the final years. Yes, it relates to gender, but it’s not hard to extend respect to children who are gender diverse. To not do that is to explicitly say, as an adult, that you want to hurt a child by not granting them the simple respect you provide others.

Much has been made of the idea that we allow young people the right to determine their own identity in relation to their sexuality or gender. If as a parent you’re willing to accept and love your child only on the proviso that they remain exactly as they are at birth, or insist they are exactly as you wish them to be even if it causes them deep pain, then you should probably have looked at getting a dog rather than having a child.

When you hold your baby in your arms after they’re born, you make a promise to them. To always love them, to always protect them, to always care for them. You do not put caveats on that based on their gender and sexuality. We know there are many parents out there who are not safe for children. We should not cater sexuality programmes in schools to them. Just as we should never be our child’s first bully, we should not design education around the whims of bullies.

The guidelines are not plucked from the sky. They acknowledge Aotearoa New Zealand’s international legal commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).

If you feel that your parenting is not in line with literal human rights then I’m sorry, but your parenting is the issue, not sexuality education guidelines.

Ultimately, these guidelines are all about relationships. Your relationship with your child is a blueprint for their future relationships. And just like any relationship, now is the time to trust and listen. The kids are telling us what they want, and what they need. We need to listen. We need to trust them.

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