Sex education in the Helena elementary schools has put Montana on the map. Fox News, "The View," MSNBC and the New York Times have all featured stories and opinions about what children should learn and when they should learn it. Parents are naturally concerned that their children receive age-appropriate information that won't be too much too soon. As a parent of children in elementary school, I can understand those concerns. We all want what is best for our children and we want to protect them to the best of our abilities.
The 2009 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that 17 percent of our youth have their first sexual experience by the time they are 14 years old and 16 percent reported having four or more sexual partners before they graduate high school. We can do better by our children. Families, schools, and faith communities can provide a much-needed filter for our children by helping them to understand that what they see and hear in the media is not realistic and to help them to make responsible decisions about their health.
Recently, I had a great teachable moment while my children were watching "iCarly." The episode showed a scene where Sam and Freddy kissed each other in order to get their first kiss "over with." The show provided me an opportunity to talk to them both about my hopes and values. As parents, we need to start early in setting those expectations for our children and build on basic concepts. This is the same approach as what is being taken in the Helena Public Schools' updated health enhancement curriculum.
Children need to learn numbers and basic addition and subtraction in elementary school before they can read and understand trigonometry in high school. Children also need to have a basic understanding of their bodies and how germs are spread so that we can build on these concepts as they grow older. While you can try to go over trigonometry in grade school, children will probably tune you out pretty quickly. The same is true if you try to teach more complex issues around relationships and disease prevention - if it gets to be too complicated and they aren't ready to hear the information yet, children will tune it out.
Children are developmentally able to filter the information that is relevant to them. A good example of this is the young boy who asks his father where he comes from. The father goes into great detail about how babies are made and when he finishes his son says, "That's great dad, but Billy says he is from California and I was just wondering where I was from."
On the flip side, we don't want to introduce trigonometry in high school until students have an understanding of the basics of math - the same is true for human growth, pregnancy and disease prevention.
Many parents feel ill-equipped to answer their children's questions about their developing bodies, human reproduction, relationships and disease prevention. Many adults did not receive good education about these subjects as they were growing up and have not had good role models showing them how to handle these situations with ease.
This is where your local Planned Parenthood can help. We offer a variety of services, workshops and materials for parents and other caring adults to become better prepared to communicate about sexuality issues. Together we can make a difference in our children's lives and help them to become healthy adults. For more information, please visit www.planned parenthood.org/parents or call your local Planned Parenthood.
Jill Baker of Great Falls is director of education for Planned Parenthood in Montana.