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Should elementary schools be allowed to concern themselves with children’s sexuality education? An American reaction to the Dutch approach.
Should elementary schools be allowed to concern themselves with children’s sexuality education? This is the issue that has currently captivated America. An item on “The Dutch Approach” was broadcast on PBS Newshour, America’s biggest news channel.
An American journalist had visited a Dutch elementary school during the so-called “Week of Spring Fever”. Rutgers, Expert Centre on Sexuality, together with municipal health centres in the Netherlands, annually conducts a national campaign promoting schools to teach comprehensive sexuality education lessons during this week in March. She describes how the Dutch start sexuality education as early as age 4 when children are still in nursery school. What are the reasons behind this policy?
In no time this news item was viewed on Facebook 3.8 million times, was shared 65,000 times and got 19,000 likes.
A broadcast of Fox-tv brought things to a head: a huge number of Americans started arguing against the Dutch approach.
‘Not at age 4! And not at school!’, they cried out.
There was a lot of fearful supposition.
If you start sex education at an early age, children will also become sexually active at an early age (which accidentally is not even true and only based on sheer prejudice). Studies show children start to become sexually active at a later age, when sex education is taught at school. Moreover, they are better able to make healthy choices with regard to sexuality. Children are all in their own development phase and we connect to this with comprehensive sexuality education.
We do not start in Kindergarten teaching Pythagoras, but we obviously teach them to count to ten.
There is another fear felt among Americans: a child’s innocence must be badly affected if we start sexuality education at the age of 4. Adults often assoicate CSE with sexual intercourse. Children are just curious, like to discover their own bodies, get into relationships and are influenced by all kinds of images in the media, including images about sexuality. In lower junior school we connect with the children’s social world and teach them what is acceptable behaviour and what is not and we empower them. We give words to subjects that may be emotionally charged to adults, but less so to children themselves. By just talking about these issues, they will become easier to discuss with children, children in their turn feel free to pose questions and ask for help if necessary.
When broaching this subject in other countries, people often tell me that sexuality education is the responsibility of parents. I am a mother myself and obviously parents are the primary educators. Parents teach their children their own norms and values. However, many parents do not feel comfortable talking about sexuality or do not know how to discuss it with their young children. In the Week of Spring Fever teachers and parents have joined forces. During parents night teachers first discuss the coming lessons with them. The teaching staff shows children how to respectfully associate with each other, how to have loving and equal relationships. Thus, children learn to discover their own norms and values.
Sexuality and sexual diversity have been primary goals in elementary and secondary education since 2012. Dutch schools, however, are completely free to give their own interpretation to this. Besides, it is mandatory to guarantee a safe teaching climate. Many years of investing in comprehensive sexuality education has resulted in children feeling more free to talk about sexuality, to associate with each other on more equal terms, to be more resilient when they are sexually active and better able to make healthy choices. Naturally, each country should decide how the subject fits in their own culture and their children’s development phase.
It is a joint responsibility of parents, teachers and the government to give children reliable information about relationships and sexuality and thus help them to become happy, resilient adults who ultimately will have enjoyable, safe and respectful relationships.
Ineke van der Vlugt
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