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Learning About Sex Before Learning to Read? Yes!

Before I became a sex educator, I taught children in the early grades how to read. One of the first things I learned is that development is key. You can’t teach children to decode or learn to recognize sight words and phrases unless they feel comfortable in their own skin. They need to have a sense of who they are as human beings.

This is why I support age-appropriate sexuality education for children that starts in kindergarten before formal reading instruction begins. I think it’s a good way to help them feel secure about their bodies and themselves. When adults hear about sex education taking place in kindergarten, many have no frame of reference. Some may recall the topics they learned as teens and shudder at the thought of little ones learning about condoms, contraception, abortion, rape and other explicit topics.

Recently, this topic was the center of attention in a TV ad in which Republican presidential candidate John McCain accused his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, of supporting sex education in kindergarten. The narrator says darkly, “Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

The McCain forces obviously believe that throngs of Americans will be shocked and outraged that anyone, particularly a presidential candidate, would consider talking about sexual health with five-year-olds who haven’t learned to read more than a stop sign.

This is a far cry from what quality, early sex education should cover. Young children are developmentally very egocentric; they want to know about themselves, particularly their bodies. They want to know about the parts they can see, as well as parts they can’t see. This is why it is perfectly fine to teach them about their sexual body parts and the correct names.

Young children know from looking at themselves, siblings and classmates that boys and girls have different body parts. They need to know about the different holes and what comes out of each of them. In teaching young children about their bodies, it’s important to convey the message that it is OK for them to touch these parts in private, but their bodies are off-limits to grown-ups (with the exception of mom, dad and the doctor).

Young children are also fascinated with the birth process. They want to know how they got on this earth, and they won’t be traumatized if a teacher explains to them in a straightforward, gentle manner about conception. Some kids simply take in the information without batting an eye. Others may have questions, and teachers need to be prepared to respond in an age-appropriate manner without being embarrassed. Fortunately, there are some great books that make this part of the discussion much easier.

Perhaps the most difficult—yet necessary—subject to discuss in kindergarten is child sexual abuse. The intent is not to scare young children, but they need to be aware of the potential danger. Pamela Wilson, M.S.W. (no relation to me), author of Teach & Talk: The Subject Is Sex, suggests teachers preface the discussion by saying: “Most people in your life would never want to hurt children, but there are some people who try to do bad things to children.”

Wilson offers four warning signs children should know:

  • Someone (male or female) wants to look at or touch your body for no good reason (a good reason is giving you a bath or a check up at the doctor’s office).
  • You get a funny, “uh-oh” feeling inside that something’s wrong; and your parents would be upset if they saw what was happening.
  • The person is bigger and stronger than you—a bigger kid, a teenager, or an adult.
  • The person tells you to keep what they did with you a secret.

Wilson’s warning signs, simple as they are, show that introducing young children to concepts of sexual health are probably more difficult and highly charged than teaching them to read. As a society, we haven’t embraced the idea that sex education is just as important as the three r’s.

Like reading, sex education requires teacher training and a high degree of confidence. Schools and parents need to be partners in supporting early instruction. I applaud the brave politicians who understand that sex education makes good sense if we want to protect young children and help them to grow into sexually healthy adults.

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