When most people think about the great sex ed debate, the topics that come to mind are abstinence vs safer sex practices. It’s no secret that some parents are uncomfortable with the idea of schools teaching their children about sexual health and sexuality, however, this focus on the “sex” aspect of this type of education leaves out many other factors that play a role in our health. Experts say that people – particularly younger children – should be getting the building blocks to sexual health as a whole sooner rather than later. Topics like the human body, puberty, and healthy relationships are now being recommended for children in elementary school.
Kids these days are starting puberty much younger than they were a few decades ago, which means there is a growing need to learn about their bodies at an earlier age. With bullying and mental health in mind, experts recommend teaching children about the physical, social, and emotional changes of puberty as young as second grade, when these changes begin for some students. Many children, however, are not learning about puberty until well after it’s started making noticeable changes in their bodies. Only around 20% of elementary students receive puberty education as a requirement, compared to roughly 50% of middle-schoolers, and 66% of high school students.
As it turns out, elementary-aged students are already being introduced to sexual concepts – often outside of the classroom and family. Children are increasingly learning about sexuality through highly-sexualized media, porn, and through their social media apps. This is another reason pediatricians and psychologists recommend broadening elementary programs to include bodily autonomy, personal limits, respect, and healthy relationships as part of human development. These experts report that children who understand their bodies will also have a better understanding of what is safe and age-appropriate.
Yes, puberty is the time when the human body gets ready to reproduce, but pediatricians want parents to know that puberty does not mean their children are emotionally ready for sex or romance. The goal of introducing sexual health education in elementary school isn’t to gauge sexual readiness, but rather to build and maintain self-esteem and positive body image through understanding human sexual development. In this, we can begin to evaluate body literacy – not just delayed sexual debut and reduced teen pregnancies – as a goal of sexual health.