Parents have an important voice

This week the Talk early, talk often series continues on the SAAM Blog with a guest post from sexaulity educator Alison Bellavance, M.Ed., CSE. 

As a sexuality educator, I'm often called upon as a resource for parents and caregivers. In my own family, I’m the resident sex ed expert. I regularly help my mom field questions from my internet-savvy little brother and help my sister explain boundaries to my three year old niece. Through my work at Planned Parenthood, I also receive countless phone calls from parents and caregivers asking for advice, resources and guidance on raising healthy and happy kids.  Often they are nervous asking about sexuality-related questions, but they realize the importance of having accurate information. Thinking about all of these parents, who often put aside their own potential feelings of embarrassment or discomfort to ask for help, is what led me to write this blog post.

Parental involvement is a key factor in helping children grow up to be sexually healthy adults. People often assume that sex ed is the health or sexuality educator’s job. While we educators play an important part, we need parents on board too. Parents are a child’s first sexuality educator and teach them (from a very young age) about the values and beliefs of their family. Parents are also there when a classroom teacher isn’t - on the weekends, when they are nervous about their first date, and when they are dealing with their first break-up. Parents have opportunities to demonstrate their own values and reinforce messages from the classroom, making them applicable to everyday life.

Kids grow up fast, and parents hope that they are prepared for the changes and challenges they will face. So often I hear adults say things like, “Well I’m sure my child learned about puberty in school, right?”  The best way I can answer that question is to encourage parents to ask teachers or administrators exactly what is being taught in their child’s school. Policies around sexuality education vary from state to state and district to district. Don’t assume that specific content is being covered or how it is being taught. As a parent, you have the right to know what information your children are (or are not) receiving about topics related to puberty, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, relationships, etc. Once you know what is being taught, you have the opportunity to advocate for the curriculum you believe should be in place. If you are unhappy with the current curriculum, make your voice heard.

While your child’s school may offer sex ed, it is also important for parents to know what messages about sex and sexuality your children are actually receiving.  Parents can find this out by asking their children about what they talked about and how they feel about what they’ve learned.  You may be thinking, “Okay, great but how do I bring it up?”  Parents frequently want to know how they can start a conversation around healthy sexuality with their children. Many feel unsure about their own comfort level and are uncertain about answering the questions their children may have. One way to address this is to organize a program for the parents in your circle. Sexuality educators are often willing to speak at PTA meetings, parents groups, faith based organizations, etc. about increasing parents’ knowledge and comfort level. This allows parents to practice answering questions in a safe and supportive environment. It also lets parents lean on each other as a resource.

Once you’re ready, start asking questions! Find out what they’ve been learning in health class. Look for teachable moments in everyday life.  Help them find more information and resources when they need them. Encourage your child’s school to participate in community-based efforts such as Let’s Talk Month and World AIDS Day. Before your know it, the conversations will become easier and your kids will have a strong sex-ed foundation for a healthy life.

Alison Bellavance, M.Ed., CSE is the Director of Education at Planned Parenthood of Northeast, Mid-Penn and Bucks County. Alison has specific expertise in the intersection between healthy sexuality and sexual violence prevention and provided consultation on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2012 & 2013 SAAM campaigns.  Alison is also an Adjunct Instructor at the Center for Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University. Follow her on Twitter at: @AliBellavance