Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot takes “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton to task for her assertion that children do not need sex education, especially not in schools. 

College may be too late to effectively change the deep-seated attitudes that some people, especially men, learn about sex and other people’s bodies. That’s what makes early sex education so vital. Patton seems to draw a false distinction between sex education and teaching children not to touch people’s bodies without their consent:

I think what we’re talking about here is body awareness or bullying or verbal harassment or recognize what somebody else’s space is and don’t violate it and don’t touch it, and keep your hands to yourself. This isn’t sex ed, these are manners.

Teaching children about consent does not necessitate describing sex and rape to them in graphic detail, and nobody is actually suggesting that we do this. In fact, “developmentally appropriate” is a term that gets used a lot in these discussions, and while it can be a slippery concept to define, it’s clearly being taken seriously by advocates of early childhood sex education.

Teaching consent does necessitate explaining to children that only they get to say who can touch their body, and that it is wrong to touch someone else’s body without asking them first. Parents can model this in a number of ways, even with very young children—for instance, by asking them if they would like to be tickled, stopping immediately if the child says to stop, refraining from forcing their child to hug or kiss relatives, and reminding the child to ask other children before hugging or touching them.

However, it’s not enough to hope that parents will do this. Although Patton claims that this type of education has no place in schools, not all parents agree that they should teach it, either—and, crucially, not all parents have the capability to provide the frequent supervision and feedback that it might entail. Some parents are single parents. Some work two jobs.

This is where schools come in: teaching children the things they need to know to eventually become responsible, capable adults. In this regard, respect for consent and bodily autonomy is as important a lesson as reading and writing. Without it, there is no way to be an ethical person.

Read the rest here.

Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

10 thoughts on “Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

  1. 1

    This has been an interesting experience in my house, because my oldest son (8) is not a touchy/huggy person and my middle son (5) is part barnacle. (I am also not super physically affectionate, which is another complication.) He’ll come up and just lean on me and start petting my leg just because. That has necessitated a lot of “private areas” and “please ask” and “I need some space” discussions. Since that’s how he expresses love, affection, and general happiness, I want to make sure he knows it’s not the physical affection in itself that’s bad, just the unexpected surprise part of it.

    I am super grateful that his teachers are on top of this, too, with getting permission for hugs (they’ll always say yes, but he has to ask first), and keeping an eye out for kids all up in each other’s space. So, YES to having school help on this! At my kids preschool/elementary (Montessori) they talk about this even with the tiny toddlers. (“Can you ask John if he wants a hug?” And providing words if they can’t quite form the question yet) Repetition, repetition, repetition, and hopefully by the time they old enough, it will have become second nature.

    1. 1.1

      Wow, I’m pleasantly surprised that this is such a big area of conversation/instruction at your children’s school. (Maybe Montessori schools are ahead of the game on this, though.) That sounds like exactly the sort of approach that might help make things better.

  2. 2

    Montessori schools generally have the goal of making children into “citizens of the world” and our school takes that really seriously, for which I am so grateful. My oldest has a lot of trouble with naming and controlling the bigger emotions, and his teacher has prioritized that as his big educational goal for the year. He can memorize the state capitals whenever, but being able to recognize and recover from big destructive feelings will be much more important as he gets older!

    With the littler kids, their classrooms have 5 main academic areas, and permeating all of that is what they call “Grace & Courtesy” which is where all this how-to-be-a-functional-person-in-society comes in. Honestly, I feel like that’s the most important part of the classroom. I’m not worried about my kids memorizing their times tables, they’re smart, it’s practically inevitable with just the smallest encouragement, but active listening and conflict resolution are much harder skills and and just as important!

    1. 2.2

      Ugh, I wish “grace and courtesy” were part of non-Montessori schools. Everybody imagines you’ll pick up this social stuff through cultural osmosis (and to a certain extent most people do) but just like any learning, it doesn’t come as easily to everyone! PLUS the fact that people have different boundaries to navigate – arithmetic is arithmetic the world around, but every single personal interaction is unique.

  3. 3

    I think it would be interesting for Americans to realize that in some cultures the fact of sex is taught to kindergartners and even younger children as a matter of course and isn’t considered in any way developmentally inappropriate. This makes sense when you consider that there is no other branch of knowledge, let along knowledge of the human body, especially let alone one which they’re inclined to ask about, which is systematically kept secret from children. And in practice, it seems to work out just fine.

  4. 4

    Former preschool teacher and Nanny, here.

    This is a great conversation, and you are so right- we teach consent through the lens of developmental appropriateness. In addition to the great things you’ve already discussed, part of that process is teaching children the anatomically correct names for body parts. That’s because there are age specific goals we are trying to meet- preventing children from feeling ashamed of their bodies, and being able to articulate their boundaries.

    Teaching them the correct words helps a child to tell an adult when, and how, their boundaries have been crossed. In terms of the shame, the correct words demystify the body. The correct words also enable adults to guide children in socially appropriate behavior. I have said these words out loud many times, “If you want to take your pants off to play with your vulva, that’s okay, but that’s something you need personal space for. You may play with your vulva in the bathroom.”

    “Please take the bear out of your pants and put it in the laundry basket” was a fairly unrelated but amusing statement as well.

    (Fun anecdote- During potty training the kids use toilets that can be observed by the teachers for safety reasons.I once had a boy who was circumcised point to another little boy who was not circumcised and ask, “Penis backwards?” So, everyone’s body is different, and that was a great beginning of a pretty cool biology lesson.)

    1. 4.1

      As a parent of 3 boys, there are so many bizarre things I end up saying. “Please don’t put your penis on the cat” was a particularly memorable one.

      And yes to the correct names. It helps immensely when your child can tell the doctor “my urethra stings and my foreskin is sore” instead of “my wee wee hurts.” Of course then there are the well-checks when your 3 y/o starts gleefully telling the doctor all about the times his “penis sticks up!”

  5. 5

    My little one and her preschool group set themselves rules on how to interact with each other. Among the “don’t hit, don’t take away toys” they themselves (kids aged 3-6) came up with “ask before you give somebody a kiss”.
    Yep, sex ed is a compzulsory topic in German preschools, though conservatives still get their knickers in a twist over it.
    As for parents, I think many of them need to get their own shit together first. Because many of them will actually feel rejected when their child does not want to hug/kiss them and therefore act hurt and disappointed. If you need to get your validation from the fickle temper of a toddler, you’re doing it wrong.
    Nope, no forced hugs or kisses here and no dissapointed pouches on adult faces. We open our arms, the kids can lean into, we purse our lips, the kids can move their cheeks towards us, we ask “do you want to/can I give a kiss” and then we just smile and say “that’s okay” if the answer is “no”.
    There’s a reward: Your children’s (and all the other children with whom you’re interacting) displays of affection will be more sincere.
    Another thing is that no, intent isn’t magic. When kid A wants to give kid B a kiss because they genuinly want to do kid B some good, but kid B doesn’t want to, many adults will chatize kid B for being “rude” (especially if kid B is a kid G) instead of dealing with explaining to A that they meant well (and you can praise them for wanting to be nice!) but that they need to respect B’s boundaries. If not they’re teaching A that their intention is the most important thing in the universe and that it override the reality that they’re actually hurting B.

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