Sex Education Should Start in the Early Years
It makes no sense to withhold the knowledge children need to be aware of their own bodies and develop loving, respectful relationships, says Hayley Room…
- by Hayley Room
Sex education has long been a hot topic amongst both professionals and parents – the age from which it should be taught being the most contentious issue, particularly with the latter.
Parental concern would perhaps be allayed if the subject was given a different title, as sex education isn’t just about having sex, and the idea certainly isn’t just to teach children about ‘the birds and the bees’!
Let’s call it ‘human sexuality’, or ‘relationships, emotions and respect’ and overtly demonstrate that sex education is part of a much bigger topic taking in everything from love and trust, to gender, equality and staying safe and healthy.
Early years settings should be tackling these concepts as soon as possible – particularly in light of detrimental advertising pushing ‘perfect’ body sizes, the portrayal of violence towards women on TV, and social/cultural gender stereotyping.
Children are vulnerable at any age, so why wait to teach them about relationships, respect, body ownership and appropriate touch? It’s vital that they are aware of their own bodies, that they feel that they are not passive objects that can be touched or abused.
They must understand that they can say no, that they have a voice – but to do this they must have the vocabulary and emotional literacy to share concerns/questions, and we must remove taboo and embarrassment from the issue.
How are we doing?
Five years ago, a study funded by the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research, noted that “Although sex and relationship education (SRE) represents a key strand in policies to safeguard young people and improve their sexual health, it currently lacks statutory status, government guidance is outdated and a third of UK schools has poor-quality SRE.”
It took four more years, however, before then education secretary Justine Greening announced that SRE would become compulsory in UK primary and secondary schools (though parents can still withdraw children).
Today, we continue to seriously lag behind countries such as the Netherlands, where compulsory sex ed. in primary and secondary has been the norm for many years, and which has the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the EU.
Its approach, known as ‘Comprehensive Sex Education’, starts as early as four: eight-year-olds learn about self-image and gender stereotypes; 11-year-olds discuss sexual orientation and contraceptive options.
Germany also begins to teach sex education at seven years old, while Finland’s change to compulsory sex education has meant that the number of teenage girls there having sex later, and using contraception, has risen dramatically.
The evidence is clear, yet the UK approach lacks commitment.
Earlier is better
We at Dandelion believe that Finland has the best approach. Age seven is not early enough.
By this age children have been bombarded with stereotypes of acceptable gender behaviours, unmonitored internet exposure and damaging media imagery. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, confusion and a sense of taboo is already ingrained.
We welcome opportunities to challenge stereotypes, openly and honestly discussing the ‘birds and the bees’ and ‘appropriate touch’ without embarrassment.
Language matters: we use high levels of vocabulary and never ‘dumb down’. We use words such as vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum, anus and breasts.
It was very early in the Dandelion journey that we decided to use the correct terminology, and the decision has been welcomed by parents. I’ve worked in high schools where these words caused mild hysteria in SRE/biology classes.
These maturing young individuals are fearful of asking questions – embarrassed that they will be labelled if they show knowledge, and this results in them lacking vital information as they become young adults.
Teach children the words and appropriate usage in the early years, and we’ll remove the embarrassment and immaturity at the stage when young adults should be having more mature dialogues about love, relationships and keeping safe.
The Dandelion approach is not only impacting dialogues at the setting, but also conversations at home.
One child, just turned three, was at home with his mother – she asked him to tuck his ‘willy’ into his pants and he responded by saying, “Hayley and Emma said it’s a penis. So it’s not a willy, it’s a penis!”
Why wait to teach the correct terminology? Why be embarrassed?
The topic of sex education coincided conveniently with a role-play scenario at Dandelion, in which body ownership became incredibly relevant!
Our scripted approach empowered a child who told us that she didn’t like a game that was being played. She had the vocabulary to tell us, and knew that we respected her and her ideas, and would take the incident seriously and help her to resolve the problem.
Following the incident, we created a ‘safeguarding through play’ policy and invented our own Dandelion song to teach very young children about body ownership and body awareness.
This has been used by parents at home. We have given children a voice to be heard, the words to use and the confidence to speak to all people of all ages without shame or fear. They have the self-respect and knowledge to convey their own wants and needs.
This was again reflected in a recent philosophy session; we discussed the belief that there are girls’ and boys’ games, and girls’ and boys’ clothes, following a tale of one our past Dandelions (a boy) who loved pink clothes and wearing dresses to play in.
He went to primary school and was told that pink was a girl’s colour, and he stopped wearing pink.
As I recounted the tale to our children it sparked a wave of sadness.
Our four-year-olds shared their feelings about this, which ranged from confusion to one boy shouting, “That’s not fair, I love sparkly clothes and I will get married in a dress!”
One girl proudly told us that she would “Go into shops where they have signs that say ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ clothes, and rub the words out!” because she preferred blue to pink.
A positive message
Ultimately, we should be teaching children that they own their own bodies, that there is appropriate touching, that boys can cry and wear dresses, and that girls can use power tools.
Children are intelligent with understanding far beyond our assumptions, and one day they will enter the adult world.
Some may, sadly, be very young and enter it for reasons that they shouldn’t. It is our duty, therefore, to empower them with the knowledge and skills to deal with what they encounter.
It is our duty to educate our children so that they are able to build loving relationships, where respect is reciprocal; where tolerance, understanding and equality forms the bedrock of their world.
If you too have been thinking about the SRE you offer in your setting, you may find the following websites useful:
Hayley Room is a qualified teacher and co-managing director of Dandelion Education. To find out more about award-winning Dandelion Education, visit dandelionsnorfolk.com.