For me one of the enduring frustrations and perplexities of parenting children in public schools is the need to monitor sex education curricula. If you think that schools don’t need monitoring, you aren’t paying attention. But monitoring is costly, especially when you have multiple children at different levels in the system.
The main cost associated with monitoring is time. I appreciate the fact that schools ask permission for my children to attend the classes and offer the opportunity to review materials. Nevertheless, curriculum review in this area is not one-and-done. In Oregon one of the big battles in our school district was over the age appropriateness of the curricula, and for families with multiple children, that means multiple review opportunities. Also, sex education curricula are in a constant state of development. Whether for political reasons or other reasons, parents cannot count on last year’s review to cover this year’s curriculum.
Things get really interesting if you object to some of the content of the curriculum. The usual remedy is to withdraw your child from the class, but this option comes with some significant costs. Most visibly, children do not appreciate that moment when they are “excused” from class so that other children can receive instruction. In addition, the children who are withdrawn from class often are required to engage in some alternative activity as a substitute. Inevitably, the alternative activity is more work than sitting passively in the classroom. Finally, the children who are excused are marginalized in all subsequent discussions of the class by their classmates, and unless you have completely forgotten what it is like to be a child, I think you would agree that this is a real cost.
Against all of these costs and potential costs, I attempt to weigh the possible benefits. The stated purposes of sex education are the following: (1) reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases; (2) reduce unwanted or unplanned pregnancies; and (3) enhance the quality of sexual relationships. Although talking about sex with my children would not make the list of “Top 10 Reasons Gordon is a Great Father,” I suspect that our family could do pretty well on all three of these issues without the assistance of the schools. (Note that we could substitute home instruction for all of the services currently provided by the schools, and in fact, we homeschooled each of our children through second grade, but I am not trying to turn this into a discussion of homeschooling.) Even if my family could be self-sufficient on sex education, however, I am open to having more instruction for my children on anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, etc. The problems arise when the discussion turns to values.
For example, in the controversy in Montgomery County, Maryland linked above, the materials included the following:
Myth: Homosexuality is a sin.
Facts: Religion has often been misused to justify hatred and oppression. Less than a half a century ago, Baptist churches (among others) in this country defended racial segregation on the basis that it was condoned by the Bible. Early Christians were not hostile to homosexuals.
This story is newsworthy precisely because most curricula do not contain such flagrant attacks on religion, but many people feel that their religious beliefs are undermined by less direct content. Our experience in various states has been mixed, and tends to vary quite dramatically with the prevailing attitudes of the local community. Although local variation appeals to me, we often find ourselves in the minority on this subject.
We recently went through the dreaded “8th-grade curriculum,” which is the one around here that causes the most consternation. After much discussion, we ultimately allowed our son to attend the class, partly because he didn’t want to write the paper that was assigned as a substitute project. I would be interested in learning how other parents approach these decisions.
Two other miscellaneous points in conclusion:
1. One of the interesting aspects about sex education is the reference to “rights” language. For example, this site asserts, “Youth have rights to accurate, balanced sex education.”
2. Eugene Volokh posted today on a Massachusetts case involving a claim of “Negligent Sex.” Note that the description of the facts may not appeal to everyone, but Eugene broaches the topic of sex ed:
Still, the prospect of litigation involving experts on how reasonable people have sex (sexologists? prostitutes?), debates about how sexually expert we should expect the reasonable person to be (especially in the throes of passion), attempts to reconstruct exactly who moved how and why, and jury verdicts about how the Reasonable Sexual Partner would have had Reasonable Sex boggle the mind. And, hey, if we impose legal duties on people, shouldn’t sex ed class teach students how to properly discharge their duties?
If you are interested in more commentary, see Christine’s post at Conglomerate.