Why parents, not teachers, must school their children on ‘sex talk’

As a confused parent, Carol Hunt gets advice from “accidental” sex education specialist Brigid Teevan

How did you learn about sex when you were a kid? Sneaky peeks at a friend’s dad’s copy of Playboy? While staring, horrified, at those little bunnies doing funny stuff in the rabbit hutch? National Geographic? Or in intense and wildly misinformed chats with friends in the schoolyard?

Whichever it was, I’m willing to bet that if you’re of my generation, your sex education didn’t consist of long, comfortable chats with your parents or teachers on the topics of masturbation or oral sex. And as for homosexuality or abortion? Mention the words and you’d have a bottle of holy water poured on you to save your licentious soul.

For most of us, our sex education involved a book on the mechanics, and an admonition to “not come home pregnant”. But thankfully, we’re different, aren’t we? We’re not tongue-tied on the subject of sex the way our parents’ generation was, we don’t go beetroot red and grab our rosary beads if anyone mentions “masturbation” and we don’t think that sex before marriage will send you on a fast tack to debauchery – or worse, Protestantism.

That’s what I thought as I watched my kids grow up, read them books on sex and relationships and considered myself a pretty cool, open 21st-century parent. Then my daughter hit her teens, the boy turned 11, and it all changed. Suddenly when I would mention the “s” word, the daughter would roll her eyes, purse her lips and give me “the look” that only a scathing teenager can give. The boy would cover his ears while yelling, pitifully; “Dad, she’s talking about sex again. Make. Her. Stop.”

So, what’s a parent to do? RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) teaching in schools can vary widely and teachers tend to take their cue from the parents. But what if parents are being silent on the issue? Does this mean children are left with the standard abstinence-only programme which is in line with the Catholic ethos of the vast majority of our schools?

Last week, I chatted to Brigid Teevan, who is, by her own admission, “an accidental sex educator”. Brigid is a creator and facilitator of a four-session RSE programme for primary and secondary level students which includes a session for parents. Blonde, passionate, petite, Brigid is both a teacher and a parent – of three girls and a boy – and also now a grandmother (yes, I’m surprised when she tells me this).

She’s shy and a little nervous but has come all the way from Cavan to Dublin to chat to me as a fellow parent about how we should talk about sex with our children. Brigid’s research (she has a Masters on the subject) has shown her that “we need a specialist sex education teacher for today’s society” and that “parents are key”.

She explains: “Every parent wants their child to be sexually healthy, but today we’re dealing with such a different world. People will say, ‘Well, I didn’t have much sex education and it didn’t do me any harm’, but they didn’t have the internet. Pornography and sex has always been there, but the internet brought it into our homes. Then the smartphone changed things again by putting it into a child’s pocket”.

She continues, “I tell parents, ‘remember when you were young, how curious you were about sex? If you could just type a word into a computer to look it up, wouldn’t you?’ I remember how my peer group would go to any lengths to find out new sex stuff and wonder why our current generation aren’t addicted to their computers. (Oh, right, they are)”.

Brigid goes on: “Then I tell parents – especially mothers – to go home and Google ‘pornography’ – check if your blocks are working [and if they’re not] this is what your children are seeing.”

Later, I try this on the devices in our house and am gratified to see that, yes, my blocker is working and just information – rather than the actual stuff – comes up. Then I remember that they use their friends’ smartphones and laptops also, so I try it without the blocks, and … oh dear God … eeew. If that’s what our poor kids think adult sex is like, we most certainly have a problem.

“You don’t have to tell parents there’s a problem”, says Brigid. “They know there’s a problem. But currently, they just don’t have the tools, the language or the confidence to engage. They say: ‘I tried to talk to Tommy but he just threw his eyes to heaven and left the room’.”

This is my experience – and so many of my friends’. The problem is, so many parents get frustrated and give up – they just hope the schools do the job for them.

Brigid tells me that at one school of 650 pupils where she hosted a general information evening on sex, relationships, just one parent showed up. Just. One. And yet she’s optimistic things can change. “Parents want to be involved but we need more research on why they are switched off.” Brigid’s own research suggests that parents suffer from “negative automatic thinking”, as in, they just don’t feel they have the tools to deal with the issue. “They have absolutely no idea how to sit down and talk to children about non-reproductive sex for example”.

Some of Brigid’s research focused on oral sex which is now the most popular form of intimacy between teenagers and probably the most difficult for parents to discuss. “Oral sex and teens would make great headlines”, she says, “but it would terrify parents”.

“What we need to discuss”, she says, “is trust, feelings, relationships, communication, values, morality and education. We need to talk about the law too”.

Most teenagers are unaware that it is illegal to have sex until 17. “That boundary is there for a reason”, she adds.” RSE education is probably one of the most important issues facing our children today, and yet we still consider it less important than say, maths or science. Why is this?

Brigid tells me, “When I go into schools, after the end of the first session, I ask teens if they had a choice, what would they pick: A) to become a famous person, with lots of money but without a healthy relationship or B) an ordinary person with an okay job with just enough money to live on, but a great relationship with a person you really love? Apart from a very small handful of students they all – even the most macho boys – go for B. Our children are telling us what they want – yet we still talk about points and jobs and ‘success’.

“My aspiration is”, laughs Brigid, “Well, I have a dream… that we all work together as a community for the good of our children’s sexual health. From my experience of talking to parents, the will is there. The schools will do what the parents suggest. The media need to get the message out – and that might trigger an awareness which would inspire a campaign. We talk all the time about ‘what children want’. If we listened to them we’d know they want more information and discussion about love, sex and how to form happy, healthy relationships”.

Twitter: @carolmhunt

Let’s talk about sex: questions for parents

1: After seizing an opportunity to look at your 14-year-old son’s Facebook page when he had forgotten to log off, you discover sexually suggestive photos of young girls posted to his page. What action could or would you take?

2: While putting away clean laundry into your 15-year-old son’s closet you discover condoms. He has been dating a girl in his class for a few months now. How would you react?

3: Your 13-year-old daughter informs you that her school friends say that when you have a boyfriend you have to give him oral sex. What would you say to her?

Brigid Teevan is a creator and facilitator of a specially designed four-part sex education programme for primary and post-primary schools and parents.