What the Dutch Can Teach Us About Sex Ed

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

On the first day of kindergarten, my little boy came home rattling off names of new friends. But there was one name — a girl’s name — that he said with a different, softer tone. With a sweeter smile.

Could this be a crush, my eyes said to my husband’s eyes, and his eyes said right back to mine.

He called the girl on the phone once, which was ridiculously adorable — his nervousness obvious as it rang, the awkward exchange of “hi” back and forth and back again. He likes to sit near her at lunch because she’s “cool and funny.” He’d never use the word “crush,” of course, or even hint at romance, but I see a spark. I recognize the subtle difference.

Kindergartners are forming special bonds, they’re drawing heart-filled pictures, they’re aware of words like “romantic” and “sexy.” Heck — I remember being in kindergarten myself, decades ago, feeling a unique fondness for a boy named Aaron because he made me laugh harder than anyone else in class. As vague and innocent as those feelings are, they’re still real. They’re still happening.

And that’s why the Dutch model of sex education is so fascinating to me. According to a recent PBS feature, primary schools in the Netherlands start their successful “comprehensive sex education” in kindergarten. But there’s one key distinction:

It’s not just sex education, it’s sexuality education.

“People often think we are starting right away to talk about sexual intercourse [with kindergartners],” said Ineke van der Vlugt, a youth development expert for Rutgers WPF, the Dutch sexuality research institute behind the curriculum. “Sexuality is much more than that. It’s about self image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.”

The PBS article details “Spring Fever” week in Dutch primary schools, where the youngest students listen to songs about having crushes, and talk about how it feels to be hugged. (Older 8-year-old students learn about self-image and gender stereotypes, and then by the time the kids are 11, they have enough of a foundation to learn about sexual orientation and contraception.) But they start with the basics: honest, open conversations about love, relationships, and our personal boundaries.

“The underlying principle is straightforward: Sexual development is a normal process that all young people experience, and they have the right to frank, trustworthy information on subjects.”

Wow. Clearly we’re living in a very different society. It’s not just our sex education programs here in the U.S. (according to the Guttmacher Institute, less than half of our states have mandatory sex-ed requirements, and the national call for abstinence-only programs is loud and relentless) it’s also our attitude. It’s the way parents nervously shift and panic when they’re reminded that kids are sexual beings with sex-related questions. It’s the painfully awkward “Talk” that parents feel obligated to have. It’s the shame-and-scare tactics. (i.e., “If you have sex before marriage then you’ll get a gross STD that you’ll never get rid of, and you’ll get pregnant and ruin your life. Also, Dad will kill you.”)

So I reached out to Rebecca Wong, LCSW, who recently gave a local seminar called, “Talking To Your Kids About S.E.X: Tools to help parents create open dialogues with kids of all ages.” When it comes to the Dutch model of sex ed, she’s in total agreement.

“This subject is about so much more than ‘sex ed,’ as the [PBS] article beautifully illustrates. It’s about teaching our future generations how to understand intimacy and boundaries in a way that feels safe and secure,” Wong said. “It’s about how we relate human to human.”

As a therapist, she sees many adult clients who are working through the confusing and untrustworthy information about sexuality and intimacy during childhood — whether it’s a 20-something learning to redefine a healthy sense of sexuality, or an “empty nester” who feels unfulfilled intimately. “It’s all connected to our primary experiences,” she said.

As much as we deny it — through our legislation, through our language — the way children learn about their bodies, feelings, and innate sexuality will deeply affect them in ways that reach far beyond the bedroom.

Image Source: Michelle Horton
Image Source: Michelle Horton

“By kindergarten, our children have already been influenced by us, just as we were shaped by our parents,” said Wong. “Generation after generation we have been creating a society that is uncomfortable with sexuality. Not teaching sex ed, teaching it so late in the game, or only teaching abstinence is problematic. It creates more discomfort. And when we’re uncomfortable, we react defensively, motivated by insecurities. This is the lesson being passed down around sexuality: It doesn’t feel safe and secure.”

According to Wong, the first step isn’t changing our curriculum, it’s changing our attitude. Parents and educators have to be aware of their own insecurities and struggles in order to talk more openly with our children.

But then what? How can parents here in the States — parents at the mercy of their state’s curriculum, fed up with the damaging narrative they grew up with — start the conversation with their kindergartners in an age-appropriate way?

“The opportunities exist in everyday moments all the time, but we have to notice them,” Wong reassured, saying our own discomfort often gets in the way. “I have a daughter in kindergarten and she asks a ton of questions about the human body, relationships, male and female roles, and she includes her observations in her play. Each of these questions and moments in play can become an invitation to open the discussion.”

It’s important to remember that our kids are picking up on so much more than what we say with our words.

“[Kindergartners] are sponges when it comes to the dynamics of relationships,” said Wong. “I find it so important to talk about how parents enjoy one another. I suspect we often forget to teach this important piece beyond the mechanics [of sex]. Our little ones deserve to know that relating and being intimate with others can feel good, emotionally and physically. Pleasure is, after all, what drives us.”

When it comes to teaching pleasure, Wong says it’s as simple as enjoying our mates around our children. “For single parents and those in conflicted relationships, keep in mind that every pleasurable thing you do for you is also a great model for your child.”

We can’t snap our fingers and undo our childhood conditioning, or navigate the political minefield of sex ed, or erase the puritan imprint on our society. We are not living in the Netherlands, which is obvious for so many reasons.

So if we can’t send our kids to a school with “comprehensive sex education,” maybe we can invite it into our homes with ordinary conversation, with ease and openness, with intention.

Maybe we’ll raise a healthier generation of kids in the process.

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