Should Sex and Character Education Come From Parents, Teachers, or Both?

Sex and Character Ed: Whose Job Is It?

By Judy Molland

Sex Ed: Whose Job is It?

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Public school courses about sexual health and reproduction have been around long enough to weather initial concerns about whether the subject belongs in the classroom. But opposition to sex ed in the schools remains. These days, objections are most likely to crop up over sexuality education – or the discussion of sexual preferences and values.

When 17 teens at the same Massachusetts high school became pregnant last year, and rumors swirled that the girls had made a pact to do this and then raise their children together, health advocates called for a sex education curriculum that focused in on sexual values and ethics.

But others – including talk show hosts, parents and observers – pointed their fingers squarely at parents: Weren’t the parents talking to these teens about sex and sexual values? Isn’t that a parent’s job?

That question has been around as long as sex education in the schools. And it can still prompt considerable debate: Who should be talking to our kids about sexual health and values? What about values in general? Should schoolteachers be giving children and teens lessons on character? Or parents?

Or both?

It Depends on Who You Ask

Parent and TeenPsychologist Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D., author of the book The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From YOU About Sex and a frequent speaker on children and sexual issues, believes strongly that parents should be the primary adults teaching their kids about character, including sexual values.

"We have to give our children a structure with which to view the world,” she says. “Our overriding theme as parents should be to teach our children that becoming a full human being means having the ability to control and direct our desires, and that includes sexuality."

Maxwell, who advocates talking openly with kids about sex early on, says that where parents have abdicated this responsibility, schools have had to take over. She, herself, has developed a sex education curriculum now used in several public and private schools.

The sex education offered in many schools today deals mostly with reproductive biology and sexual health. Parents, Maxwell says, need to supplement this by talking to their teens about morality and sexual ethics. "To only offer kids a biology lecture [at school] and send them off to watch MTV is horrifying," she says.

But Bernice Lerner, an expert in character education and a senior scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC) at Boston University, says that sexual ethics and character education is "everyone’s job."

"Character education and sex education are about [learning to exercise] good judgment and being the captain of your soul. Children learn these skills from all the adults in their lives," Lerner says.

Colin Wilson, a father of two middle-schoolers, agrees. "Both parents and teachers can play a part," he says. "It’s good for kids to learn sex education from others as well as from their parents. And some children may take advice from their school more easily than from mom and dad." Conversely, he says, some parents may feel more comfortable having someone else raise these issues with their children.

Sex and Values Ed in Schools

Sex EdCertainly, the subjects of sex and moral character are far from taboo in classrooms today.
A 2004 poll by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that 93 percent of Americans believe that sex education should be taught in schools. With no federal law requiring sex education in public schools, however, the picture varies across the United States:

• 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in their public schools.

• 35 states and the District of Columbia require that students be educated on the sexual health issues of sexually transmitted diseases (STI) and HIV.

• In 38 states and the District of Columbia, parents are allowed input and involvement in any curriculum on sexuality and STI/HIV.

Character education also varies from one school district to another. There’s a long history of character education programs in the U.S., but as Lerner explains, schools of education have begun to recognize that it’s now an essential, inescapable mission for all schools, and they’re making it part of their teacher-training.

Parent Objections

Still, while surveys show that most Americans want sex education in the schools, the content of that education is another matter entirely.

Massachusetts dad David Parker was furious in 2005 when his 5-year-old kindergartener showed him a book he had brought home from school. Who’s in a Family?, by Robert Skutch (Tricycle Press, 1997). The picture book portrayed contemporary family structures, including those headed by same-sex parents. Officials at the Estabrook School, in Lexington, Mass., school defended the book as one of several materials designed to promote diversity. But Parker argued it was part of a “homosexual agenda” that didn’t belong in the classroom.

The mother of an Estabrook second grader complained again a year later about a book her son’s teacher read to his class, King and King, by Linda de Haan (Tricycle Press, 2002), the story of a prince interested in a princess’s brother. Again, officials argued it was part of the school’s mission to promote diversity.

On the other side of the country, Renee Walker, of Concord, Calif., battled to get rid of her child’s sex education program in 2002 when she realized that he was only learning about abstinence. Walker signed a consent form when her son’s middle school offered the sex education program, but when she discovered he was learning about abstinence – with a controversial anti-abortion slant – and nothing about puberty, prevention of STDs, or contraception, her objections led officials to remove that particular program.

Parent opinion weighs heavily in sex and character education programs nationwide. Conflicts like the ones described above arise every year. Many states give parents the right to have their child not participate in sex education in the public schools.

As Lerner points out, parents should always have a choice. “Parents should exercise good judgment and consider how strongly they feel about the issue, how important it is to them, and then figure out the right thing to do.”

Usually, that means approaching the teacher of the program first with questions about the curriculum and why specific topics are taught. If the parent isn’t satisfied, he or she can move up the chain of command, speaking with the school principal, the superintendent or even the school board, educators say.

Sometimes, compromise is possible.

“There are ways to strongly urge young people to defer sexual behavior and still provide information for those who proceed anyhow, without making these two messages cancel each other out,” points out Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Teaching Tolerance

Character education isn’t without its own controversies, especially today when schools are made up of students from different races, cultures and religious faiths.

Here again, parents objecting to the content of a character education program can approach the teacher, school administrators or the school board.

For Steven Brion-Meisels, director of the Peace Games Institute in Boston, it’s not only possible – it’s crucial – that character education respect multiple perspectives and cultures while also identifying values we all can share.

Through the institute’s character-building programs, Brion-Meisels has worked with more than 7,000 students in school districts across the state, and feels strongly that only by coming up with values that apply to everyone does character education make sense.

As a practical matter, most public school teachers today have to make this happen.

“At any one time I can have four or five different ethnicities in my classroom,” says Matt Miller, who teaches health to middle-schoolers in Los Angeles. “I work hard to reach out to all of them. For me, the relationship between the teacher and the student, especially in adolescence, is key. And regardless of their background or skin color, they’re all kids, struggling with some painful issues around growing up.”

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Books available on character and sexual ethics include:

The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From YOU About Sex, by Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2008.

Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, by Michele Borba, Ed.D., Jossey-Bass, 2001.

The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth, by William Damon, The Free Press, 1988.

Web Sites

Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character – – This Boston University center advocates and offers resources for parents and teachers nationwide trying to foster good character in today’s students. – Created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this site offers parents advice on how to talk to their pre-teens and teens about abstinence or waiting to have sex.

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) –  Helps schools and communities develop comprehensive sexuality education curricula, and advises parents on how to talk to their kids about sex.