For some parents and caregivers, broaching the topic of sex with their children isn’t just awkward. These conversations can be confusing, poignant, even humbling.
How is a mother who had children as a teenager supposed to support her son as he starts to form relationships — while preventing an intergenerational cycle of unplanned pregnancy? How is a grandfather supposed to talk to a young grandchild he suspects might have been sexually abused — especially if that child doesn’t have the terminology to describe what happened?
A Family-Centered Approach
One approach that we’ve investigated, spearheaded by a small organization in Jackson, Mississippi, is to teach sexual education to children and families together. For the last several years, Growing Up Knowing has been hosting sex education sessions for preschoolers, elementary schoolers, and middle schoolers, accompanied by a parent or caregiver. By learning together about sexual health, the consequences of risky behavior, and how to prevent sexual assault, pregnancy, and STIs, these workshops increase communication between families and their children around the most fraught topics.
Conversations like these are important everywhere, not just in states with strict sex education laws or high rates of STIs and teen pregnancy. Children and teens are actually more likely to base their sexual decisions on their families than they are on their peers, according to Power to Decide: The Campaign to Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy. And when it comes to issues like preventing teen pregnancy and sexual assault, working across generations can lead to more sustainable change.
We spoke with Growing Up Knowing to find examples of practices for implementing a whole-family sex education curriculum — at schools, afterschool programs, faith institutions, and community organizations. Many of these examples may useful for designers and facilitators of sex education programs elsewhere.
Suggested approaches for younger children:
- Start talking about consent early. Have children create a list of ways that they do and do not like to be touched. For example, do they always enjoy hugs? Are there ways of playing tag that are fun, and others that are uncomfortable?
- Growing Up Knowing places an emphasis on empowering children to say no and to tell an adult if anyone ever bullies or touches them in a way they do not like.
- One good rule of thumb for young learners is the bathing suit rule: that any part of your body that would be covered by a bathing suit is a private, personal area.
- Avoid slang words and use the correct names for body parts with children. Research shows that this helps build self-esteem and strengthens communication within families.
- Above all, practice speaking with young children about their bodies and their relationships so that it will be easier to have conversations around sex when they are older.
Approaches for middle schoolers:
- Growing Up Knowing also focuses on empowering youth to think about their futures to help them avoid making risky decisions. Have students speak with caregivers about future scenarios that could come up — how they could be impacted by an unplanned pregnancy or contracting an STI.
- Teach beyond abstinence-only education. Research shows that abstinence-only curricula is both ineffective and counterproductive when it comes to changing sexual behavior in teens. However, it is still important to discuss abstinence: what abstinence means in practice, and how to protect yourself if you decide not to remain abstinent.
- Use educational tools that are grounded in research. Demonstrations and interactive games help students learn. For example, in order to teach about contraceptives, Growing Up Knowing does condom demonstrations and has interactive games that help students learn body parts and understand how STIs spread.
- Ensure that middle schoolers know the anatomically correct names of body parts by discussing the proper names of reproductive organs.
Approaches for working with families:
- Ask families and children to speak with each other, not just to facilitators. Growing Up Knowing asks families and middle schoolers to co-design a contract on what kind of sexual behavior will and will not be allowed at home. Both agree to honor it and continue to re-visit in the future.
- While learning together is important, adults need some time to learn separately from their children. Especially when working with middle schoolers, effective sessions divide caregivers and children into separate rooms for a portion of the workshop, allowing them to ask questions and express concerns without fearing judgement.
- Use inclusive languages throughout all sessions and communications materials. Not all children will attend with a parent — some may come with a grandparent, aunt, or other caregiver. Facilitators need to indicate that families of all types are welcome.
- Caregivers are busy — and for those who are low-income, it may be especially hard to take time off work to attend sessions. Consider whether there are incentives — serving dinner, offering gift cards — you can provide to families for coming.
Above all, sex education should empower students and families to seek and provide affirmative consent. Young people and their caregivers should feel ready to face the uncertain futures of dating, sex, and relationships ahead of them.