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Sex ed may be a class, but experts say the best education begins at home

Posted January 5

Whether Josh Jaime and his 17-year-old son, Solomon, are in the car, jogging around Kensington Metropark or powering through strawberry waffles at IHOP, they always end up talking sports.

It's usually recapping the recent Detroit Tigers game or running through stats for Tigers catcher Brian McCann, Solomon's favorite player. But occasionally there are deeper topics — like when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancé into unconsciousness in an Atlantic City casino elevator.

"We'll take those examples and we’ve turned them over into conversations we can have about sex," says Jaime, a single dad from Novi, Michigan. "(And topics like) drinking and how to treat a woman. To him, it's very relevant. He follows baseball, he follows football, these are his heroes. (I tell him) 'This is the way you wanna be and this is the way you don’t wanna be. If you are this way, this is what the consequences are.'"

Jaime wasn't always so comfortable bringing up sex and healthy relationships — despite a deep parental desire to do so. But thanks to some training and parent education through his local school district in Michigan, he's now got solid information and said he feels empowered to talk, and keep talking, about these crucial topics — blending them almost seamlessly into the regular conversational cadence of life.

As a parent, he sees himself as his son's first and most important educator, but appreciates the backup Solomon gets from high school sex ed classes and rejects the idea that parents and schools have to be at odds over this topic.

His stance is echoed by many experts who believe that when the topic of sex ed devolves into an argument over ideological approaches — abstinence-based versus comprehensive sex ed — it overlooks the most powerful factor in any school's sex ed curricula: parental involvement.

Parents can be a powerful force, but only if they have information, connections and encouragement — like specifics about curriculum options and the needs of kids in their local school, relationships with schoolteachers and other parents and a sense that their voice matters.

"Sex education programs may give information, but attitudes, beliefs, values and modeled behaviors often take place elsewhere, (like in) the family," says Kim Miller, senior adviser for youth prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Global Health.

"In a perfect world," Miller continues, "we would better equip parents and caregivers to support lifelong sexuality education — that begins in the home and embraces the values and beliefs of the family."

Putting parents first

When teens were asked in a national poll who most influences their decisions about sex, 52 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds said it was their parents. Only 1 percent said teachers and educators.

For the 16- to 19-year-olds, 32 percent said parents' voices were the most important, with friends coming in close behind at 28 percent. Only 3 percent said teachers were most influential for their sex-related decisions, according to the survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

“Parents are the primary, we are the secondary,” says Samantha Bushman, CEO of the nonprofit "Talk, the New Sex Ed," which she calls an alternative approach to sexuality education. She wants to stop the polarized discourse around the topic and return parents to the leading, but supported, role as sexuality educators for their children.

“Parents spend 18 years with them, so as an educator, my responsibility and my duty is to support and empower parents," she says. "I always defer to the parents, they’re the best experts on their kids."

But parents don't feel like experts, especially when it comes to talking about sex, Bushman says. So the Pittsburgh program starts by working with parents in an after-school setting, giving them a conversational framework and assuring them that talking about sex won't encourage risky behavior. From there, trained "near-peer" educators facilitate classroom discussions with teens and teach decision-making and critical-thinking skills that go beyond rote memorization.

A growing number of programs are working to involve parents more by offering homework assignments and activities for teens and their parents throughout the curricula, knowing that an ongoing, years-long conversation at home will be much more impactful than a dozen hours at school.

In the comprehensive sex-ed program "Get Real," each classroom lesson is followed with a family homework assignment, which allows parents to see what was taught and add their own family values. The relationship-focused sex-ed programs "Love Notes" and "Relationship Smarts PLUS" do similar things, with parent/teen connection activities that provide parents with talking ideas and even specific words to use.

By making sex-ed a team effort, Bushman hopes parents and teens will focus their conversations on issues like: What age should I start dating? What does a good relationship partner look like? When is sex appropriate and not appropriate?

Then topics like basic anatomy, puberty, STD testing — can be discussed in classes with trained professionals, a division kids already seem to prefer, Bushman says.

Schools involving parents

Yet, if parents aren't OK with certain information coming from the school, they should have the right to opt their child out and tackle that side themselves, many advocates and educators say.

"(Parents) absolutely rule," says Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids. "If they don’t want their kids to participate, that’s OK, thanks for telling me that. I'm not going to judge."

For the last decade, Flis has worked with hundreds of school districts in Michigan to increase connection between parents, communities and schools on important health issues like sex-ed, school nurses, physical activity and nutrition. She's also in the business of breaking down stereotypes, like the ones that say parents aren't interested, won't participate or are even adversarial toward school initiatives, particularly sex-ed classes.

As someone who became involved as an interested parent, Flis knows many parents want to be involved, but along with their busy schedules, just lack a foundation.

Most schools approach sex-ed by sending out letters informing parents of the approaching course and requiring a signature before kids can be taught. Letters also often invite parents to "come look at the curriculum" if they'd like.

Most parents don't "go look" because that invitation is akin to handing Flis a stack of documents describing different mortgage options and saying, "pick the best one for your home."

"I'm not in the mortgage business," she says. "I need it translated into a language that I can understand — what does it mean for me as a homebuyer? It's no different with any kind of curricula, especially sex-ed curricula, which is very personal. How are you translating what you are doing in the classroom into something that I can understand as a parent? Then, at that point, I can decide if this is something I want for my child."

Flis works to improve communication around this topic by working with school districts and their sex-ed advisory committees, as well as with parents through her "Talk Early & Talk Often" workshops, and has even done day-long Saturday events where parents came, had potential curricula presented by teachers, heard from a panel of teens about the issues they face in school, and talked with other parents about potential concerns and questions.

In all of her work, she relies on data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, or YRBS, which monitors health risk behaviors, including sexual behaviors, in young adults across the country. Flis says those figures help parents and educators use facts, instead of emotions or perceptions, when discussing the challenges teens face and what should be done to help them.

Flis has found that once parents understand what their teens need, and what effective programs really include (or don't) they move beyond assumptions or decades-old experiences and become the biggest supporters.

And when the parents and schools are on the same page, they can choose the best evidence-based program for their community.

Getting involved

Clemens Wittekind has always been an involved parent, eager to know what's going on with his kids' education.

So when his daughter and son reached elementary school, he started to ask other parents about the school's approach to relationship education and whether they thought it was enough.

Wittekind knows these conversations aren't easy, so he would break the ice by asking other parents about how their teens reacted to that scene in a popular movie, or how parents manage kids' media time, or when they let their kids date.

Wittekind's drive to get answers landed him on the PTA and later on a sex-ed advisory committee at the district level in Michigan, where he helped choose a local curriculum.

"School districts want that," said Wittekind, who now lives in Atlanta and whose children are 24 and 21. "They want parents who care. There are so many sex-ed teachers that crave parent involvement in this and that's what we need. That's how it gets to be better for everybody, when people get beyond just speculating about what the district is doing, and digging in, finding out and getting involved."

Not every parent needs to serve on a district board or be heavily involved in the PTA, he says. (His wife chose to serve in other ways.) But he believes that every parent should stay engaged in their child's learning, because as parents, they are the first and best educator, no matter their child's age or grade.

"One of the biggest things that parents have to bring to the table, what schools can’t, is moral issues," said Wittekind. "This is where parents need to step up. You want your child to feel and know and have a little voice in their head about how you as a parent feel about this."

"Nobody is an expert at this," he added with a laugh. "You have a lot of people with whom you have that in common."

Schools are unique environments where people with a variety of experiences, opinions and backgrounds join together with a common goal of helping raise strong, resilient kids. When parents are willing to engage in open-minded conversations with people they don't know well or may even disagree with, and then work past the discomfort they feel, it's a "huge step forward," Wittekind says.

Those conversations push the discussion beyond "abstinence" or "comprehensive sex-ed" paradigms, (or maybe even start a discussion for the first time) and help parents really talk about what they want for their children, and what program would work best for their school community.

"With sensitive subjects like this, it's amazing how many people start opening up, and you make connections," Wittekind says, "especially when there's sometimes painful things involved. You start sharing, you create deeper connections. That's what life is about. That's what makes our life richer."

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