Early Education

It’s not about sex: Teaching young children where babies come from (and other stuff)

Comprehensive sexual health education, which covers friendship and families along with babies and bodies, is rare in America’s elementary schools even though experts say it’s critical

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sexual health education

Kids’ antics, like when they decide to “play doctor,” as illustrated in this still from an “Amaze, Jr.” video, can embarrass parents and make it hard for them to know what to do next.

Kids’ antics, like when they decide to “play doctor,” as illustrated in this still from an “Amaze, Jr.” video, can embarrass parents and make it hard for them to know what to do next.American parents today grew up with gender-bending pop stars like Prince on center stage and moms who kept “Our Bodies, Ourselves” on the living room bookshelf. So why is it still so hard for them to answer their preschoolers’ questions about where babies come from?

Mostly, it’s because few grown-ups feel ready to talk about sex with kids younger than 10, said longtime sexual health educator Deborah Roffman.

“As soon as adults think things have to do with sex, they lose their common sense,” she said.

Here’s the thing though: “[Kids’] questions are not about sex,” Roffman said. “They don’t know anything about it. They are asking about their origins.”

And since young children are the ultimate egoists, wanting to know everything they can about themselves and their surroundings, both parents and teachers should be prepared for lots of questions about who can touch who, what the body parts between our legs are called, why Sammy gets to have two mommies and, yes, where babies come from. Experts say offering age-appropriate answers to kids’ questions about humans as social and sexual beings lays the groundwork for those important (if still cringe-worthy) conversations about puberty and sex the kids will need when they’re teens. Yet, like everything about raising and educating children, it’s one thing to know how you intend to handle a situation and another to actually handle it.

To help parents learn how to talk to their kids about sex-adjacent topics without losing their cool, there’s a new online video series called “Amaze Jr.” (There’s also a well-watched series for teens called “Amaze.”) Ten of the animated YouTube videos, which are produced by a trio of nonprofits, are for young kids and another 11 are aimed at adults.

In one of the videos for 4- to 9-year-olds, a chirpy cartoon grandmother explains to her grandson and granddaughter: “You two are very similar, but also different. Boys have a penis between their legs and girls have a vulva between their legs!”

sexual health education

In a still from an “Amaze, Jr.” video for kids age 4 and older, a grandmother walks her grandkids though the medically accurate names for their body parts.

In another video, two glum-looking kids say they’ve just been teased by their peers for liking the “wrong” things for their gender. A confused cartoon bird asks: “Why should it be an insult to call a girl a boy or a boy a girl?” When no one has an answer, the problem is more or less solved.

Kids are often satisfied with fairly simple answers to their questions, Roffman said, and parents shouldn’t feel the need to dive into the history of sexism when answering questions about boys and girls, or the issue of infertility when answering questions about reproduction.

Roffman said 4-year-olds want to know about geography (Where was I before I was born?); 5-year-olds want to know about transportation (How did I get from in there to out here?); and 6-year-olds want to know about cause and effect (How did I get in there in the first place?). So when a kindergartner asks how babies get here, Roffman advises answering that babies “grow inside their biological mom’s body in a special place called a uterus,” and that they arrive in the world when they are pushed out through a “connecting space between the inside of the uterus and the outside world” called a vagina.

sexual health education

A mother gives an age-appropriate answer to a child’s question about rape in these two cropped stills from a video about how to handle it when the wider world introduces your child to a topic she’s not ready for.

That short script on birth is provided in one of the “Amaze, Jr.” parent videos, which Roffman authored, while others tackle even thornier questions, like how to handle a kid hearing about rape on the news or what to do when your child embarrasses a friend by pointing out her vulva.

Yes, sometimes it would be easier to shut these questions down. But kids who are taught about sexual health early are better prepared for the related challenges they’ll face as teens and young adults, sexual health educators say. Boys who understand that everyone is in charge of their own bodies could be less likely to confuse drunkenness for consent. LGBTQ teens who know there are others like them living healthy and productive lives could be less likely to consider suicide. And children who have been educated about their bodies and who can touch them — research proves this one — are more likely to speak out about sexual abuse.

Related: A little girl’s school helps her deal with trauma at home

Parents are expected to take on most of this education, but they often don’t — or don’t know how. Few schools are stepping in to help. While some school districts prioritize the topic, only Oregon, Delaware and Washington, D.C., require that comprehensive sexual health education be provided by public schools starting in kindergarten according to Jennifer Driver, the state policy director at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a nonprofit focused on improving sex education in America. In fact, a SIECUS review found that only 31 states require sex education at any grade level (mostly in middle and high school).

As of 2016, a median of 14 percent of middle schools and 38 percent of high schools per state taught all 19 topics identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as critical sex education topics, according to their most recent school survey data. There were huge differences between states. For example, zero high schools in Utah taught all 19 topics, while 40 percent of schools in New Mexico did.

With so few schools required to teach these topics, experts say many kids who most need medically accurate, inclusive sexual health education aren’t getting it. And even if an elementary school teacher got administrator approval and parent support to offer sexual health classes, he or she would find that curricular resources for the early grades are severely lacking.

Experts interviewed for this article identified just three available curriculums aimed at elementary-age children that they felt hit on the main components — sexual abuse prevention, healthy relationship skills, medically accurate information about bodies and reproduction and material that is inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations — recommended in the National Sexuality Education Standards.

sexual health education

This cartoon by Michael Emberley documents the moment of conception and appears in a book on sexual health for child ages 4 to 7.

This cartoon by Michael Emberley documents the moment of conception and appears in a book on sexual health for child ages 4 to 7.Rights, Respect, Responsibility was developed by Advocates for Youth and includes free lesson plans for all of the elementary grades. Our Whole Lives: Lifespan Sexuality Education (OWL) was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ and includes inexpensive 8- and 10-lesson units for grades K-1 and 4-6 respectively. The curriculum is secular. FLASH was developed by the Family Planning Program of Public Health – Seattle and King County and includes $75.99 workbooks for grades K-4 and grades 4-6, as well as free lesson plans for grades 4-6. All three organizations offer teacher training on request and for a fee.

Former elementary school teacher Anil Oommen is grateful that his K-8 charter school in Eugene, Oregon, purchased the OWL curriculum and trained him to teach it. “It’s almost like it’s too late by the time they’re in eighth grade,” Oommen said. “They’ve already been socialized in so many ways.”

False information and pornography representing unhealthy sexual practices are prevalent and easily available online to many young teenagers. One recent poll conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, found that the average age of boys’ first exposure to pornography was 13, when many would not yet have had sexual health education classes that could help them add context to what they were seeing. And, of course, kids today are no better than their parents at avoiding that prolific and age-old source of false information about sex: one’s friends.

Oommen’s former first and second graders had a more reliable source: Oommen. Now an assistant professor of education at Pacific University, a small liberal arts college near Portland, Oommen believes in the power of teaching that sexuality is just another part of what makes us human, like curiosity and creativity.

Hiding behind cutsie words or just not answering kids’ questions, Oommen said, is a symptom of adult fears and does nothing to help children. “Why is an elbow an elbow but a penis is a wee-wee?” he asked. Not talking about sexual health topics, including the true names of body parts, he said, teaches children “a hidden curriculum: shame.”

Oommen choked up as he recalled some of the family reactions he got to his lessons. A father from a conservative family said he appreciated Oommen’s inclusion of adoption in a lesson on how families could be created. Another parent liked a story Oommen wrote about artificial insemination so much that it became that family’s primary tool for explaining their kids’ origins. A third parent told proudly of her son explaining to his twin sister (who attended a different school) that there was nothing gross about penises and that “Mr. Oommen said our bodies are beautiful, and I believe him.”

Related: Will new standards improve elementary science education?

In another instance, at the end of the OWL series, a child Oommen feared was being abused said, “Thank you for teaching me OWL.” (All teachers are mandated to report any kind of suspected child abuse to Child Protective Services, and Oommen said this was a case in which he made that call.) Oommen paused to compose himself as he remembered his former student’s thanks. “You never know” what might help a child, he said.

Most children never get the chance for that kind of help before they reach middle school. While 37 states have some required instruction for young children under “Erin’s Law,” named after a sexual abuse survivor turned advocate, only two states and D.C. require more. (Erin’s Law mandates instruction on sexual abuse prevention strategies but does not require teaching the other sexual health topics that would be part of a comprehensive curriculum.)

sexual health education

The “Amaze, Jr.” videos aimed at young children encourage the idea that boys and girls need not follow strict gender-based behavior rules.

Even in the later grades, requirements for sexual health education often aren’t comprehensive. Twenty-one states do not even require sex education be medically accurate, according to a review by SIECUS. And seven states either require that teachers portray people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or queer negatively or ban teachers from mentioning LGBTQ people at all, according to the same review.

In recent years, the #MeToo movement has led to more comprehensive sexual health education in schools, said Jennifer Chou, a reproductive justice and gender equity attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Chou has worked on legislation in California that requires all middle and high school students to receive a comprehensive sexual health education and lays the groundwork for expanding that education to the earlier grades.

“I have gotten a lot of educators and parents who ask me if it’s something we would consider,” she said of proposing an amendment that would mandate sexual health education in elementary schools. “It’s exciting to see educators are starting to realize this is important for the younger years.”

That nascent interest is not widespread, however, and educators interested in changing things face an array of obstacles. Even in Oregon, which has required sexual health education in elementary schools since 2009, only a handful of districts are actually providing it, suspects Sasha Grenier, Oregon’s sexuality education and school health specialist. “The hesitation to talk about it affects compliance,” Grenier said.

Teachers and school board officials in Oregon often feel more comfortable when they realize the state’s standards include pretty noncontroversial things, she said. For example, kindergartners should know how to “list potentially unsafe bodily fluids and objects to avoid” and “recognize that everyone has the right to say who touches their body, when and how.”

sexual health education

Young kids often have pretty straightforward questions about babies, said children’s book author, Robie Harris. This illustration, which appears in Harris’ book on sexual health for 4- to 7-year-olds answers one of them: “How do babies eat before they’re born?”

“We’re not teaching anal sex for third graders,” Grenier said. “We’re talking about bodily consent and friendship.”

Even motivated educators can have trouble complying with the state’s standards, however. Barriers include the lack of curriculum options, the lack of funding earmarked for sexual health and the lack of effective teacher training. To address the first issue, Grenier plans to create the state’s first in-house curriculum in any subject. It will meet all the state’s sexual health education standards and be free to any Oregon teacher, school or district that wants it. The Oregon Department of Education also offers free teacher training sessions to any school district that requests them.

Related: Teachers go to school on racial bias

Meanwhile, the demand for curricula like the K-1 portion of OWL remains low. Just 446 of the K-1 teacher booklets were sold in 2018, according to data provided by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Many school leaders would be interested in offering the lessons if they didn’t worry they’d be seen as attempting to replace parents, said Amy Johnson, a commissioned minister for sexuality education at the United Church of Christ.

“I can tell you that there’s nothing we can teach in eight or 10 sessions that’s going to undermine parental values or parental input,” Johnson said. To gain support for the classes, she advocates telling parents of young children exactly what will be taught. Waiting, she said, is not a good option.

“It has to start in kindergarten with respecting each other’s bodies and each other’s space and each other’s property,” she said. “You can’t just grab something you want, whether it’s a crayon or someone’s body.”

At the current pace, it could be a long time before sex ed starts in kindergarten. For those raising or teaching young kids who won’t wait, here are some tips from experts about how to handle their questions as well as possible:

  • Prepare. Watching the “Amaze Jr.” videos or reading Deborah Roffman’s “But How’d I Get in There in the First Place?” will give parents useful phrases and concrete information about what kids need to “It’s Not the Stork!” and “Happy Birth Day!” by Robie Harris are succinct and accurate books about reproduction and other sexual health topics aimed at kids. They come with detailed (and sometimes funny) illustrations by Michael Emberley.
  • Practice. Begin using anatomical terms, like vulva, penis and testicles, before your kids can even speak so that you get used to saying them. Still having trouble? Say “penis,” or whatever word is tough for you, in front of a mirror 20 times or until you can do it without cracking up.
  • Pause. Try answering your child’s question with just a sentence or two, and then ask: “Did that answer your question?” If so, stop talking. If not, try again. This method assures you’ve addressed their concerns and also guarantees you won’t go off on a tangent about things they don’t care about or aren’t ready to hear.
  • Perspective. Your kid likely asked you why the sky was blue yesterday and will want to know how SpongeBob breathes underwater tomorrow. Keep in mind that, to them, questions about babies, bodies and birth are in exactly the same category. Answer them accordingly.

This story about sexual health education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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