Slow This Freight Train Down: Ontario’s New Sex Ed Curriculum
Ernest Cheng, Ed.D.
The release of Ontario’s new sex education curriculum (Health and Physical Education (HPE) Curriculum, Grades 1–8) has attracted a wave of criticism from many corners of the public, particularly from ethnic and religious communities. As a parent and an educator, I would like to express my personal views on the purpose of sex education, as well as on its content and its implementation.
The Classroom Plays a Necessary Role in Sex Education.
In an increasingly dangerous world, the task of protecting our young has become a serious and complex matter. Schools need to work more closely with parents to help ensure that children stay out of harm’s way. For example, children need to be taught that their private parts are indeed private. Those body parts can never be inappropriately compromised in any way. Children also need to know that there are inherent dangers in the digital age, and with social media in particular. Sexting — the sending of sexually explicit electronic images or messages — should be avoided at all cost. Children also need to learn in a timely fashion lessons that will help them make sense of developmental realities like puberty, human reproduction and the potential pitfalls of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. To the extent that not every parent is willing and able to communicate these important lessons, schools must step up to fill potential gaps, correcting any misinformation that young people may have acquired from the other, often unreliable, sources around them.
While the provincial curriculum adequately tackles most of the technological and physiological threats, the curriculum errs in bringing in other topics that are not only extraneous, but controversial and potentially contrary, to the mission of protecting our children.
The Curriculum Contains Controversial Materials that are Unnecessary.
In my opinion, here are several examples of material that I think is unhelpful:
- Grade 3: When asked, the teacher need only explain to eight-year-olds that “family” can take many forms, and that everyone must be treated with respect. Specific mentions of “families with two dads,” “families with two moms” are unnecessary at this age level. If these forms are singled out for discussion, it’s unclear why we shouldn’t also include “communal families,” “foster families” — or, on the other hand, even “polygamist families.” The broader point is this: at eight years old, these children are simply too young for lessons like these that cover the complex sociology of modern families, in all their forms. In such discussions, potentially contentious values are unavoidable.
- Grade 6: Masturbation is akin to sexual fantasy, and objectifies an imaginary sexual partner. So why is it described in the curriculum as “pleasurable,” “common” and “not harmful”? (p. 174) These words legitimize and even encourage this activity. On a separate point, are our twelve-year-olds better served by learning about sexual orientations that may be foreign to him or her? I would venture to guess that most parents would find this education to be too early.
- Grade 7: Teaching abstinence is a position welcomed by all parents. However, when our 13-year-olds are taught to make sexual decisions based primarily on his or her level of comfort with a partner with respect to oral sex, vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse, the determining criterion has shifted to consent and protection, rather than abstinence. To sexually active 13-year-olds, this lesson may be relevant. But how will it help everyone else? Should teaching abstinence be placed directly alongside a wide range of forms of sexual engagement at this age?
- Grade 8: Encouraging 14-year-olds to think in advance about what their personal limits when it comes to sexual activity may seem like a worthy lesson. But it remains unclear whether the majority of children at this age are mature enough to make such decisions, since cognitive development is still incomplete for most at this age. What they need to learn is that both the home and the classroom are in agreement that they ought to wait. Sexual activity should be reserved until they are emotionally more mature.
Many parents have expressed their concern at passages like the ones that I’ve highlighted above. They are rightfully concerned that exposure to this kind of guidance, far from protecting children, may bring more discord into their families.
The Curriculum is Silent on Love, Commitment and Marriage.
The curriculum is conspicuous by its exclusion of the institution of marriage. The reader cannot help but conclude that the Ministry of Education sees marriage as a relic of the past. Marriage, premised on love, continues to play a vital function in society. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage and apart from love and affection reduces sex to an impulse of the moment. As parents, we want our children to be blessed in marriages that are built to last.
The Primary Role of Sex Education Belongs to the Parents.
Learning about sex should be a part of every child’s development. Ideally, this is a job for parents.
With very few exceptions, a child comes into being as a result of sexual intercourse between his or her father and mother. Every child is naturally curious about how he or she came to be, and this need must be addressed. A reasonable explanation should go beyond the sexual act itself and include the context within which the sexual act takes place — the “before” and the “after”, including love, affection, commitment, marriage and, for many, the Creator’s design and institution of marriage. By necessity, a satisfactory explanation will invoke personal as well as community values. If sex is taught in the absence of that context, there is a risk of reducing sex to merely a physical, even animalistic, phenomenon.
Because value transmission falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, a child’s parent(s) are the most logical teachers — and, to its credit, the curriculum does acknowledge this truth (p. 13) — but the reader is disappointed that the curriculum content seems to have disregarded the voice of parents.
Lacking Checks and Balances Puts the Curriculum on Perilous Grounds.
The new curriculum lacks the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the content hits the intended mark. With so much potentially controversial material, how can we make sure that boundaries aren’t crossed? Are there any possible unanticipated effects that we should be thinking about? Should a teacher harbor a certain moral agenda? A lesson that is meant to be descriptive and objective can often become prescriptive and subjective, and slip from a descriptive model to a model of advocacy. Given how hard it is to control the effects of instruction, we are forced to return to a basic question: are teachers, many of whom aren’t parents themselves, really the best agent to deliver these sorts of lessons to our children? Is the classroom an appropriate place for teaching concepts on sex? Would adolescents truly feel comfortable posing such intimate questions in a classroom environment?
Pushing this Curriculum Forward without Sufficient Parental Consultation Creates Resentment.
I am a proponent of sex education. We live in an imperfect world, and we must protect our children. First and foremost, I am in favor of parents assuming a primary role in educating their children. But the classroom, too, has a clear role: one that is supplementary and supportive. And it is important that the classroom does not usurp this parental role.
Here is my proposal:
- The content of the curriculum, particularly the passages that are particularly value-laden, needs to be drafted with extensive community consultation and input.
- The medium of transmission should switch from a teacher-led, classroom-based approach to presentations in which parents can take an active role. Content delivery by DVD or online streaming from the Ministry of Education, or from a school website, is just one idea that would offer parents a chance to take in the curriculum alongside their children. In this way, both parent and child can receive the same input, and parents are given an opportunity to follow up where necessary and elaborate on the lessons.
- Arguably, parents are in the best position to know whether and when their children may be ready for the lessons prescribed by the Ministry of Education, and for how much of it. Parents are also assured of their right to reject the lesson. After all, it is the parent’s prerogative.
- Lessons should be given in a language of the family’s choice, and thus tailored to the needs of Ontario’s multilingual population base.
While the proposed curriculum offers parents the right to exempt their child, in reality exemption puts the child in a disadvantaged position. The child may not want his or her parents to exercise that right, and may end up receiving misguided “lessons” from their peers. For that reason, the classroom may not be the best place to be delivering these lessons. Will adolescent students really feel comfortable asking questions about sex in front of their friends and classmates? How will class participation impact a student’s self-esteem? Would it not be better for this type of lesson to be delivered by parents at home?
Ontario deserves policies that respect the values of her citizens and the communities from which they come. This can only be achieved with great care and with extensive consultation. To launch a controversial curriculum just months before its implementation violates the very pledge that the Ministry’s document so clearly made: that parents should be the primary educators of their children. Today’s grassroots uproar could have been easily avoided. And now the Ministry has heard from many of its constituents. What it should now do is slow down this freight train, sit up and pay attention.