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Recently, my son and my husband were looking
at a photo of our family before our youngest was born. "She was still in
mommy's belly," my husband said.
"But how did she get out," my son asked. "And, how did she
My husband, a 56-year old Irish man, avoided the question,
not quite ready to talk about sex with a 4-year-old.
But here in the Netherlands, it's really not too soon to
start. The Dutch approach to sex education is quite holistic and begins as young as 4. It deals not only with
biology, and disease and pregnancy prevention, but with self-responsibility, with knowing and
accepting your body, asserting boundaries, understanding sexual diversity and gender differences,
forming relationships, expressing connectedness—and even pleasure.
Rutgers WPF is a Dutch organization that develops sex and
relationship curricula for primary and secondary schools across the country,
beginning with preschool. According to Ineke van der Vlugt, program coordinator
for Rutgers WPF, the goal is for children to develop a vocabulary for talking
about sex as they would any other part of their life.
Van der Vlugt says they don't only teach children how to say
no, they also teach them how to say yes. "We have positive discussions about
sex," she says. "How to say when you want a kiss, a caress. To understand what
you are feeling and to know how to communicate it."
In contrast, last week Irish people took to Twitter to share
their sex ed memories. Among the gems:
"We had a single sex ed class run by a
nun who showed a video of another nun in a studio from the '70s saying never
And today in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher
Institute, close to 90 percent of high schools teach abstinence as the most
effective method of preventing pregnancy, HIV and other STDs.
I've always felt that educating children about sex by telling them to avoid it is just, well, avoidance. Like protecting them from car accidents by not teaching them to
drive. I'm definitely more in favor of the Dutch approach.
I support the logic behind it. But I'm not sure I could handle a co-ed sleepover.
And, so far, I've been pretty direct with my children when
they have questions. Whereas my husband is likely to use innocuous terms such
as "bits" with them, I'm more direct: a penis is a penis, a vagina is just
As children grow and develop here, sex ed expands to include
conversations about masturbation, sexting and online dating. As they become
teenagers, the conversation turns more toward the act of sex and practicalities
such as birth control, but also about homosexuality and transgender persons.
Current. Progressive. I like it.
The desired result is that children grow to see sex as an
extension of a relationship, one they take responsibility for and one they feel
in control of. All good stuff.
Parents in the Netherlands, generally speaking, also
strive for an open dialog about sex with their children, and—wait for it—it is
fairly common for parents to permit their older teenage children to spend the
night with their boyfriend or girlfriend in their home, as long as it's a
I understand completely—and have myself made in my
lifetime—the argument that if a teenager in a long-term relationship wants to
have protected sex with their partner, it is safer to do so in the home environment
than, say, in a car somewhere.
But here's the thing: every position you've ever taken—every rational, logical argument you've ever made and firmly believed—is up for reevaluation once you are a parent.
I support the logic behind it. But I'm not sure I could
handle a co-ed sleepover.
So while I go on patting myself on the back for saying things like penis without cringing, I'm aware that there are bigger challenges and greater conflicts ahead.
Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at the University
of Massachusetts Amherst, is an American who grew up in the Netherlands. In her
book, "Not Under My Roof," she describes three cultural frames that give the
practice of the sleepover "cognitive, emotional and moral sense."
The first is normal sexuality. Talking about sex should
inspire no more turmoil than "as to talk about what and when to eat." Second,
the idea of relationship-based sexuality, the notion that "sexual desire and
sexual acts grow out of a teenager's feelings for, and relationship with, another
person." And finally, self-regulated sexuality, when "emotional and physical
desires are united" and protective measures are taken.
This thinking gives a lot more credence to teenagers'
capacity to genuinely love and want to express that feeling physically and to
understand how to do so safely.
In contrast, American parents, according to Schalet, often talk
about "raging hormones," which chalks teen sexual feelings up to underdeveloped,
misinformed, reckless urges that should not be pursued.
Dutch parents aren't always completely comfortable with it either, writes Schalet, but "they feel obliged to accept the changes and to stay
connected as relationships and sex become part of their children's lives."
Although I want to be the parent who can do just that, and I
don't want my discomfort to interfere with or denigrate their natural
development, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to make the leap to the sleepover.
So while I go on patting myself on the back for saying
things like penis without cringing, I'm aware that there are bigger challenges
and greater conflicts ahead. Nonetheless, I'm happy my children will be
Statistically, the Dutch are doing something right: the teen
pregnancy rate in the U.S. is almost six times that of the
Netherlands. The U.S. rate is the highest rate in the developed world. American teenage
girls are three times as likely to have an abortion and 8 times as likely to give
birth, as their Dutch counterparts.