Sex Education is Still Parents' Job

School programs may take the pressure off, but you may not life what happens next
1998-06-18

I haven’t made anybody mad lately.

No angry letters to the editor, no indignant faxes, no outraged e-mail. That always makes me a little nervous. I like to know you’re all out there. And besides, if I’m not stirring things up, I’m not sure I’m doing my Christian duty. Remember what Christ said about those the world loves? Well, today I’m bound to stir things up. I want to talk about sex education.

The topic has been a big issue around my office ever since NBC’s Dateline ran a story about a Family Life program at a Catholic school in Florida. I didn’t see the story, so I can’t comment directly on that individual case. But I can (and of course I will) throw in my two cents about the overall issues involved.

“Sex education” has been a hot topic in Catholic schools for, well -- almost as long as it’s been a hot topic in the public schools. (We’re always a little late getting into the fray.) On one side, you have people saying, “It’s the ‘90’s. Sex is everywhere. We need to deal with it openly and honestly.” On the other side you have people saying, “Sex is private and it needs to stay private -- completely.” And, in the middle, you have about 99.9% of all Catholic parents, genuinely confused about what is best for their children. Does sex education belong in Catholic schools?

The first and most important principle to remember is that parents are the primary educators of their children. Their children’s formation and development is their responsibility. Nowhere is that more true than in the realm of education in human love. Sexuality goes to the very core of the human person. It is deeply intimate and vitally important. Sexuality is more than just another bodily function. It speaks to our power to give our very selves in love. It unites man to God in His favorite creative act -- the creation of a new human person in His image and likeness.

Of course, because sexuality is private, it can be difficult to talk about. And so, when “sex education” first came onto the scene, a lot of parents were relieved. Now they wouldn’t have to have “the talk” with their children. The school would take care of all of that. Unfortunately, however, that relief was short-lived. Their children came home with beliefs and attitudes about sexuality which contradicted the parents’ beliefs. Young children came home upset at the explicitness of the materials presented. Parents found that now they couldn’t discuss sexuality with their children. They hadn’t had “the talk” to open the door, and now their children were more comfortable talking to teachers.

So what’s the answer? Put sex education into the Catholic schools and insert our morality? It’s not that simple. Human sexuality is private -- not because it’s dirty, but because it’s holy. The details -- the “mechanics” of sexual activity -- can be embarrassing to discuss even for parents. So how do you imagine a child feels in a room full of peers? Young children go through various pseudo-sexual “stages” (you know, the “I love to run around naked” stage, the “I love Daddy and hate Mommy” stage). Then, from about 6 to around 12 years old, they set sexuality aside. They become remarkably a-sexual little beings. There’s a reason for that. During this time the power of the sexual drive goes in a different direction -- their intellectual and emotional growth. They are learning to put others before themselves. They’re learning to empathize. They’re developing all of those human traits they’ll need in order to control the sex drive as adults.

Explicit sexual information during this latency stage can very disturbing to children, especially if it’s presented in the presence of opposite-sex peers. It disturbs their natural modesty, and it can disturb their emotional development.

The problem is, kids come out of this latency period at different ages, depending on their levels of maturity and the kinds of information they’ve been exposed to. For that reason, I am a firm believer that children should hear the facts of life from their parents, or in a safe, same-sex setting where their parents are present. Only parents know their children well enough to know what information they’re ready to hear. And the parents, loving their children more than anyone else could

Is there a role, then, for the Catholic schools in all of this. I believe there is. What is that role? I’m going to have to tell you that in the next column.

Meanwhile, if I’ve made you mad yet, be sure to drop a note to your editor.


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