Forget the myths: children should learn about sex education in school and at home. Experts explain why it should begin early and offer tips for parents.

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Helping their children through sex ed isn't an activity many parents look forward to. Thinking back to their own perhaps limited or awkward experiences in middle or high school can be of little help in navigating these conversations with their kids. But doing so is important. 

Only 30 states (and the District of Columbia) require schools to teach sex ed at all. Further, only 18 states require that the information being given is medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which monitors sexual and reproductive health and rights. And sex ed is historically not LGBTQ+ inclusive. This gap is so wide that there's a whole genre of sex ed content on TikTok created by doctors to answer kids questions. 

And in May, a nasty debate about modern sexual education rippled across the internet after the New York Post wrote about classes conducted at the New York City private school Dalton. The article prudishly maligned the work of health educator Justine Fonte. It also mischaracterized the information she shared with her young students, which in fact hewed to nationally recognized standards for comprehensive sex education. Knowing the best-practices around sexuality education can help parents, caregivers, and educators support children in developing healthy relationships of all kinds as they grow. 

Starting with the Basics

In early elementary school, "sex ed" is better thought of as "sexuality eduation." It's a more comprehensive term that covers a variety of topics, including gender, anatomy and bodily functions, privacy, and relationships. According to Advocates for Youth, an organization that pushes for honest sexual information for young people, the goal is to start giving children the tools they need to communicate about their wants and needs with other people. Just like other school subjects, sexuality education builds over time into more complicated concepts as kids age. 

As part of her lessons, Fonte used an animated video of a frank and clear discussion of "private parts" and what they do. It was created by the non-profit AMAZE, an arm of Advocates for Youth. The characters in the video learn the names for their genitalia and state that sometimes they touch themselves because it feels good-a common occurrence in young children. The adult character acknowledges this and tells them that's an activity that should only be done in private.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children are taught from an early age the correct names for their genitalia. Knowing the correct names for body parts, which ones are private, and that they have the right to decide who touches them, and how, are critical building blocks for consent in all kinds of relationships, including later romantic ones. It also helps protect kids from sexual abuse. 

"This is an instance when innocence does not protect children, it actually increases their risk for harm," says Nora Gelperin, M.Ed, the director of Sexuality Education & Training for Advocates for Youth. "Using improper names may give a child the wrong idea that there is something bad about them." 

Tanya Bass, Ph.D., M.Ed, a sexuality educator in North Carolina, says, "Conversations about bodies, consent, and language (sex ed) with school-age children [should start] as early as possible and as often as possible." 

An image of a mom talking to her daughter.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Teaching Consent

Concepts like gender identity and consent are sometimes easier for kids to understand than adults, says Gelperin. Consent, in particular, is discussed frequently with young children: They're told to wait their turns, not to hit or bite, to ask before taking something. Dr. Bass notes many classic children's games introduce the concept of consent by requiring players to ask permission to progress. "Red Light / Green Light," "Red Rover," and "Mother May I?" all work this way. Applying these concepts to relationships with friends or family members is a natural outgrowth of these day-to-day discussions. 

"If we maintain the sense of respecting others and gaining permission before acting, it's much easier to translate when it is sexual," says Dr. Bass.

Over the past several years, there's been greater awareness of the importance of supporting kids in deciding who to show physical affection to. This is often salient around the holidays, when kids may otherwise be pressured to hug or kiss a grandparent or relative they haven't seen in awhile. While it may be awkward at first for a parent to enforce this boundary with well-meaning relatives who are excited to see their kids, doing so helps send a consistent message that kids' bodies are their own, at all times. 

Parental Fears and Discomfort

Parents may initially be uncomfortable with some of the frankness in these discussions, especially if that's not something they experienced growing up. "Working through their discomfort requires adults to be willing to learn and unlearn aspects of sexuality education, while teaching their children within their own discomfort," says Dr. Bass. 

AMAZE's videos are designed to assist parents and educators in having some of these conversations with their children in age-appropriate ways. They're also aligned with the National Sex Education Standards, a set of guidelines developed by a team of experts, including Advocates for Youth, that outline the minimum concepts kids should be taught in each grade. Mostly recently updated in 2020, the standards for grades K-2 are heavy on teaching kids respect for boundaries, how to communicate their own boundaries clearly, and, poignantly, being able to articulate what makes a good friend. 

Some caregivers may also fear that discussing sexual health may lead to promiscuity, but Gelperin says that "three decades of public health research have actually shown the opposite is true." Highly limited "abstinence-only" sex ed leaves kids ignorant of the information they need to manage their sexual health and relationships.

Another issue? Black girls in particular are presumed to know more about sex and adult concepts than white peers at similar ages, according to a report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. Dr. Bass says she's seen this double-bind in her work with kids: "There's an assumption that they know [about sex] and because of that they don't need as much protection, education, or nurturing." At the same time, caregivers may avoid giving them accurate information about sexual health, in order to protect them from the forces of such "adultification."

Caregivers don't need to have all the answers, says Dr. Bass. She stresses that they should know enough to reinforce the concepts learned in school, and then it's up to the kids. "We get to reinforce accurate information and they get to choose how it works out for them," adds Dr. Bass.