Pro-Life Education for Children
Antonia Tully FAITH Magazine May-June 2010
Antonia Tully is the mother of six school-age children and co-ordinator of SPUC's Safe at School campaign.
During a BBC Breakfast interview last year, the first point put to me was, "You are against sex education, aren't you?" To which I answered, "No". I'm not, of course, against children and young people learning about their sexuality. The real issues are what they are taught, by whom and where. My opposition is to explicit sex education, delivered in the classroom. I am wholeheartedly in favour of initiatives which support parents in teaching their own children about puberty, at home and in the way they feel is most appropriate. "This is my body", a new sex and relationships education (SRE) programme for Catholic schools, does exactly this.
"This is my body" comprises twelve lessons for children aged 10-11, in their last year of primary school. Published by Philos Educational Publishing, it was developed in association with the Education Service of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lancaster and it is the official SRE programme for Catholic schools in that diocese. "This is my body" is markedly different from other SRE programmes for primary schools, including those which have been written for Catholic schools. There is no delivery of sexual information in the classroom, in line with the Catholic church which teaches that: "The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to find an adequate substitute." The programme is structured so that relationships are taught by the teacher in the classroom and puberty is covered by the child's parents at home.
This approach is a far cry from what the Government wants. The latest draft guidance on SRE from the Department for Children Schools and Families includes these questions to help children aged 7-11 to explore SRE: "What is the normal variation in our bodies - before and after puberty?" "How is puberty part of my sexual development (including production of egg/sperm)?" "How does (sic) the sperm and egg meet during sexual intercourse and can conception be prevented?"
Government-style SRE breaks down a young child's natural reserve in connection with sexual matters, and can lead to early sexualisation. There is no such fear, however, for children attending schools which are using "This is my body". These schools are complying with government requirements (at the time of writing, see Eric Hester's "Sex Education or Chastity Education: Church Teaching and Civil Law", in Faith, July 2007) to teach SRE, at the same time as upholding their Catholic ethos and protecting children from premature details about sex.
So what is different about "This is my body"? Relationships education in "This is my body", starts with the child's relationship with God. A right relationship with God is the basis for all successful human relationships. Love and forgiveness are two major themes in the programme. That God always loves us and always forgives us make it possible for us to have a relationship with Him. Love and forgiveness make it possible for us to have relationships with each other, within marriage and the family and in our wider relationships with others. The family and marriage are presented to the children as a special design by God for human beings to make them happy
The children's sense of self-esteem is developed by focusing on the fact that they are children of God. They are taught that God has a plan for each of them and this encourages them to think of their future and what calling may be theirs.
At the heart of "This is my body" is a clear pro-life message about unborn babies. The children are taught that human beings are the most beautiful part of God's creation; and that nowhere is this more evident than in the beauty of the baby in the womb. The children explore this through different activities, including conducting a questionnaire with their mothers to find out about their own life in the womb; did they kick a lot etc. They look up references in a booklet called "Human Life: the First Wonder!" The lessons on life before birth culminate with the children handling tactile foetal models, which are the average weight of pre-born babies of 12, 20, 26 and 30 weeks after conception. Both girls and boys love this experience, and I'm convinced this will leave them with a lifelong understanding of the humanity of the baby before birth.
During the media interviews I took part in last November when the Government announced the Children, Schools and Families Bill, my position was repeatedly attacked on the basis that parents don't like talking to their children about sex, so schools must. My response, then and now, is that the majority of parents are able to talk about puberty to their children.
"This is my body" supports parents in talking to their children about puberty and does this in a very practical way. After each lesson the children have a home link activity so that parents are able to follow the programme with their children. During the course of the programme, the school writes to the parents suggesting that this might be a good time to talk about puberty to their son or daughter. There are special leaflets to encourage parents to do this and give them ideas about how to frame such a conversation.
"This is my body" aims to give parents the confidence to fulfil their role here as the primary educator of their children. It's not always easy for parents to talk about sex to their children. A recent experience in my own family is a case in point. My valiant husband, Paul, took aside our 11 -year-old son, Matthew, to talk about puberty. We have been lucky that our children's primary school delivers no SRE. Paul struggled on for about 20 minutes, watching Matthew carefully to gauge his response. Eventually Matthew said, "That's interesting. Can I ask you a question?" "Yes, of course," replied Paul, eager to engage with his child. "Dad," said Matthew, "Why are you wearing that T-shirt?" At this point Paul decided to end the chat.
At the time we were tempted to wonder whether talking to Matthew was worth the effort. But actually we knew it was, and that we would have failed him if we had neglected this. Critically it was Paul who spoke to his son, emphasising that sexuality is a private matter. He was also giving Matthew the message that he should go to his dad with any questions or concerns. Matthew, of course, was not interested in his father's T-shirt. He was really saying, "Ok you've told me and I don't have anything to say." I don't consider that an abnormal reaction from a normal boy whose horizons don't stretch much beyond doing as little homework as possible and playing computerised football games. Only we, as Matthew's parents, are in a position to give him the right information about his sexual development at the right time.
But let's be clear, the Government's real agenda is not that children and young people receive information about puberty and sex. The Government wants to make sure that every child knows how to access and use contraceptives and abortion referral agencies. This was made quite clear by Ed Balls, minister for Children Schools and Families when he said on 23 February 2010, "A Catholic faith school can say to their pupils we believe as a religion contraception is wrong but what they can't do is therefore say that they are not going to teach them about contraception to children, how to access contraception or how to use contraception."
We can't be so naive as to think that the only threat to a child's natural innocence is unethical and inappropriate sex education at school. There are lots of things contributing to the sexualisation of children, television, the internet, magazines and fashion. But we ignore what is happening in the classroom at our peril.
"This is my body" is a triumph of the culture of life over the prevailing evil of anti-life sex education. It is a life-enhancing and enriching programme. It truly protects the dignity and integrity of children. It will change lives and save lives.