That frightening p-word. No, no, it has nothing to do with anatomy. And I’m not talking about pleasure either.
Working with parents and other caregivers can be a nightmare for instructors in any field. We encounter helicopter parents, absent parents, and everything in between. Of course, sexuality educators have added stresses of parent contact and may find themselves having to defend the content, validity, or even the very nature of their work.
However, including parents and caregivers into a child’s sexuality education is critical. After all, “the family is the first and most powerful influence on a learner’s sexual knowledge, attitudes, values, and comfort level with sexuality” (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996, p. 35). Bridging the gaps between the different sources of sexuality information – the family, community, peers, and school – will help learners feel less awkward about sexuality-related topics in their daily lives. There are many possibilities for collaborations among different providers: after-school programs for children and their parents or caregivers, school and community programs training and using peer educators, and schools and local health clinics collaborating on educational programs. Whether you are working with parents directly, such as through workshops designed for parents, or you are interacting with parents of younger students, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Parents come with vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Perhaps some received factually misleading sexuality education or none at all. This – among many other factors – can contribute to their nervousness in receiving or allowing their children to experience sexuality education. Be prepared with talking points on the importance of sexuality education and why you are qualified to teach their children.
- Be upfront about the material you cover in your classes. This will help parents to trust you as an educator and help prevent potential misunderstandings or conflicts in the future. Share the course outline or syllabus with caregivers, and encourage students to talk about the material with their families and friends. Most programs will require guardian permission, but going beyond this basic step will nurture communication, understanding, and respect. Plus, most parents will feel more relaxed once assured that sex ed isn’t just about intercourse (the Circles of Sexuality is a great visual model to share with parents).
- Avoid making assumptions about parents – including their parenting styles, relationship to their child(ren), or circumstances. The “absent parent” might be a single parent with an overwhelming work schedule. While I do not necessarily advocate for educators to strive to be judgement-free (because we can’t necessarily help it), I do urge folks to intentionally devote time to re-examining their lens and biases and to do so on an ongoing basis. Educators may feel as though they hide biases well, but kids and parents in tough situations may have a heightened sensitivity to the way others perceive them. And feeling judged – especially by a teacher – can make a learning environment feel toxic to both students and their caregivers.
- There is no “correct” way to have children. A myriad of factors – including culture, religion, and individual experiences – contribute to a person’s values around child-rearing. When planning lessons related to whether or not to become a parent, be thoughtful when choosing language. The ways sexuality educators sometimes encourage students to consider emotional or financial readiness might offend someone in the classroom. This may alienate some families and perpetuate feelings of distrust.
- Encourage caregivers to talk to children about sexuality. That may sound cliché, but some parents may not feel qualified to talk about certain topics. Or some may feel like they are “off the hook” if their child is enrolled in a school- or community-based sexuality program. Remind parents that it is not just about content but that maintaining open and healthy communication is pivotal as young folks learn about and discover their sexuality. Understand that many cultures – certainly in the United States – are unfairly critical of parents. Help combat this obstacle by empowering them and validating their abilities as caregivers: tell parents that their experiences and eagerness to listen can make a difference in their children’s lives.
In general, try not to stress out too much about running into problems with parents. Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) suggest that “often the most dedicated opponents of sexuality education programs have no school-aged children, or none enrolled in the targeted school” (p. 87). There are endless resources for parents who want to talk to their kids about sexuality. These can also be great tools for educators who want to better connect with parents and caregivers in their work. A few that I recommend are:
Additionally, every year the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference strives to be family-friendly, offering youth spaces and numerous workshops designed specifically for parents.
As a parent and sexuality educator, this is an area I think about often. In my current work in a sexual healthcare setting, I have encountered confused, coercive, and even hostile parents. One mother, for instance, shouted at me because her daughter ended up choosing her own contraceptive method. I have learned that being argumentative never helps but instead realizing that they do not always know how to handle their feelings of powerlessness in their children’s lives. It helps to not only cite policies established by my workplace but to also remind them that their children are capable and informed decision-makers and that having control over their sexuality now will only make them more effective adults. But I am interested in hearing from others. Do you have any parent horror stories? Any advice on talking to a difficult parent, especially about disagreements related to sexuality education?
Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.