One of New Zealand's national headlines today was "Question after school puberty talk shocks granddad".
Given my line of work, I was intrigued. Apparently, following a evening sexuality education evening, an 8 year old girl asked her grandfather about the size of his penis. After reading the article, I came to three conclusions:
1. This is ridiculous journalism
'Sex sells' and sexuality education portrayed as outrageous also sells. One man unhappy with one school's sexuality education evening does not constitute national headline news. Particularly when the public health nurse at the optional "mother and daughter" evening spoke only about puberty and the associated changes, and did not talk about penis size or go into any sexual detail.
A fantastic sexuality education programme wouldn't be considered 'newsworthy" by mainstream journalism. Imagine this: Happy parent comes home from sexuality education parent/child evening, calls up local journalist to report what a great evening it was and how they all feel so much better prepared/informed on how to face the questions and changes that will be happening in their child's life. I can't imagine that making ever making the national headlines.
(If any journalists disagree with me and would like to write a positive article on quality sexuality education I would be more than happy to help them out!)
2. Ridiculous journalism leads to inadequate sexuality education for our children.
With negative journalism such as this, it's no wonder that the Education Review Office (2007) report The Teaching of Sexuality Education in Years 7 to 13 found that "The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In order to avoid potential negative publicity, today's headline makes it more desirable for schools to ignore the Ministry of Education's sexuality education requirements.
3. A teachable moment was lost
The child's question immediately had an adult's framework put on it. Children don't see sexual topics in the way adults do. For a child, asking about the length of a penis is akin to asking the length of your finger, how tall you are, how fat/thin you are. Kids are curious and are exploring their world and the least we can do is give them honest answers to questions. Even if you 'suspect' an ulterior motive to a question, the best way to diffuse it is to give it an honest answer. Students have certainly tried to 'catch me out' in class by posing explicit or weird questions - the way I respond to them determines the outcome.
Sure, kids will ask the adults in their lives questions that may embarrass them - but it's the adult's responsibility to respond maturely and with integrity.
Given that this grandfather went to the media about the question his granddaughter asked him lead me to assume that a HUGE deal was made out of her question. I think that right now this girl would be rather confused about things.
A real teachable moment was missed. The conversation could have just as easily gone like this:
Girl: "Grandad, are you worried that your penis is too small/big/short/long/fat/skinny?"
Adult: (smiles, because hey, it's an amusing question) "No Jane, I am not worried at all. Everyone's body parts come in all different sizes. Just like I am fatter/taller/skinnier than your Dad/uncle/brother, our penis' are all different shapes and sizes too."
Girl: "Oh, OK, I was just wondering. Can we go to the park now/eat dinner now/watch TV now?"
(The girl had a question, it was answered honestly without drama, and they moved on with their day).
Meanwhile, I applaud St Paul's School in West Auckland, for hosting a 'mother and daughter' evening. I hope that other schools see this type of journalism for what it is and are not put off offering their students quality and comprehensive sexuality education.
Thanks to Boganette for alerting me to this article. You can read her post on this issue here. After commenting on her blog I felt compelled to write more about this issue myself.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.