Over the past few weeks, Scarsdale’s fifth graders received a special visit from Emelie Sciarpelletti, the district’s retired health coordinator, or as my daughter said, “we are going through puberty this week.” On the agenda: age-appropriate sex education, complete with a “goodie bag.” According to the Guttmacher Institute (as of May 1, 2012), 21 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. Interestingly, New York state has only an HIV mandate, not one for sex education.
In Scarsdale, sex education has been part of the fifth grade health education curriculum since the early 1960s, with only one or two families opting out each year, usually for religious reasons. According to Sciarpelletti, the material taught is updated continuously to incorporate new research findings from experts in the field and addresses current issues. For example, although “sexting,” specifically has not been included in the curriculum at the fifth grade level, there is discussion about the transmission of images through social media and what the children should do to protect themselves. Likewise, while gay marriage is not discussed (although it is legal in New York state), the children learn that as they get older and start expressing their sexuality, they may find themselves drawn to one gender or the other, and that this experience is normal. Above all, they should be kind, considerate and compassionate to those who are different from them.
I asked Sciarpelletti what she wanted parents to know about their children at this age regarding their sexual development. She said children, despite all the giggles, already know considerably more than their parents might think. They are constantly bombarded with sexual imagery and information (sometimes totally incorrect) from youtube, their friends, music, books and magazines, billboards among others. Research has shown consistently that children want to hear the information from their parents, in addition to learning about it in school, and they want their parents to help them make sense of it all. So, take the time to talk with your kids even if you think that they are not interested. “The Talk” can be broken down into brief conversations and take place when appropriate. It can be as general or specific as you want, guided by your child’s interest level. And perhaps, most important, well-informed children with correct information make better-informed decision, which is what all parents want, isn’t it?