Following the rollout of its new sex-ed curriculum, the Ontario government finds itself in a bit of a situation. Parents from across the province are unhappy with the curriculum and have launched protests, with many of them removing their children from school.
Unfortunately for these Ontario parents, they haven’t had the best of luck with PR. Many people think that parents are protesting the mere idea of educating their children about the birds and the bees. However, the situation in Ontario runs much deeper. It is not about whether or not children should be taught about human sexuality, but rather about who should be teaching them, and when, what and how they should be taught.
Catholic teaching on these questions is pretty clear and is articulated in the aptly titled Pontifical Council for the Families document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family. Parents have a “duty and a right” to educate their children about human sexuality, and the best thing for children is to be educated on these matters within their own family, where chastity can be modelled for them in real relationships.
I am willing to admit that my readiness to embrace this teaching stems from its success in my own life. My sex-ed was predominantly handled at home, where I felt very comfortable talking with my mother about pretty much everything. I believe my mother’s one-on-one approach was successful for me because my education was carried out within the context of our relationship. Sex-ed wasn’t a two-hour timeslot at the end of the day; it was ongoing throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood. We addressed the topics I needed to discuss when I needed to discuss them, and it has taken me a long time to realize what a tremendous gift that was. (Thanks, Mom!)
As I was researching this column, I thought it would be prudent to look into whether or not my situation was unique, so I asked a number of people about their experiences with sex-ed. As it turns out, not everyone’s mom used puberty to evangelize the wonders of natural family planning. There also seems to be a lot of people out there who do not feel comfortable talking about sex with their parents. Who knew?
While I support the duty and the right of parents to teach their children, I also see that there are many children whose parents are not rising to the challenge. This creates a conundrum: We know the best thing for a child is to receive their sex education from someone with whom they have an ongoing relationship (ideally a parent). However, we also know that for whatever reason a good number of children do not have access to this type of relationship in their lives. So what do we do for these children?
This is extremely challenging for many faith communities. How do we offer children something that is second best in the best way possible? Can we do more to engage parents and encourage them to be involved in guiding their children, particularly in our technological age? Can adults outside a child’s home take on more of a mentorship role? Can our schools develop programs that present Catholic sexual teachings positively, stressing the personal responsibility that each of us has to cherish our own sexuality and that of others? How can we show our children that human sexually is beautiful and meant to be shared in healthy, committed relationships when so much of the world is intent on clouding this message?
If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that when it comes to human sexuality, there are a wide variety of opinions about what is good and healthy. So whose opinion will take precedence? The protests in Ontario have been widespread not because parents are in denial about the realities of sex in the modern world. Rather it is because the Ontario government has oversimplified these realities, neglected the role of parents, and overstepped its bounds in trying to answer questions that the government has no business trying to answer.
I have avoided going into specifics about the parts of the Ontario curriculum that I like and the parts I would change because I think the real challenges are much bigger than these specifics would suggest. Sex-ed cannot be taught in an unbiased way. More importantly, even if it could be taught without a moral lens, it shouldn’t be. Human sexuality has a moral dimension, and children deserve to have support from someone they trust as they navigate the increasing number of challenges awaiting them in adolescence and adulthood.
This is a call for parents and communities to step up to the challenge of being positive role models for children not only in matters regarding human sexuality, but also in all aspects of human relationships. Human sexuality is more than a physical act; it is a calling to deeper relationships.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.