Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Been following the AWARE sage and the resultant controversy over sex education and its place in our lives, or more accurately, our children's lives. While its been interesting to watch the drama unfold, my comments were usually kept to dinner table talk. But last week Lianhe Zaobao interviewed me briefly on my views as a parent on this issue, which forced me to think carefully about the issue before opening my big mouth on it on a national platform.

So here are my two cents:

First, I don't think there is an either-or solution to this. Sex ed should not be the premise of either parents or schools but a good partnership and mix of both. While the call has been for parents to be actively involved in sex ed for their kids - ie talk to them about the birds and the bees and the values that go with these, I believe schools have a very important part to play in all this too.

A key reason being that not all parents are comfortable with speaking to their children on all this. Yes, ideally, we SHOULD. But the reality is, many, or most, don't. Many feel uncomfortable broaching this topic. Many may feel they do not have the facts themselves. Parents who want to speak to their children about sex may not also know the best way to approach this without looking stiff and authoritarian. Heck, once kids turn teenagers, its hard to even talk to them about the weather without the usual blank stoned expressions and monosyllabic grunts. So how to talk to them about something as delicate as sex? Trust me, the kids feel as paiseh as their parents about this!

So maybe sex ed should be for parents and not for kids - not just about the facts but HOW to talk to their kids about it. How to adopt the exact correct combination of cool nonchalence, and parental concern. After all, the hip quotient has to be just right!

Ultimately, no matter what, there will be parents who feel extremely uncomfortable and I guess this is where schools come in. I think whatever sex ed the schools take should follow the social norms of the day. Or the values that the schools themselves espouse. So naturally if you send your child to a catholic school, you can expect any sex ed dispensed there to follow catholic precepts.

It takes a village to raise a child. And schools are a valuable extension of the village concept. Thus it has to reflect the views of larger society - what does Singapore society at large think about homosexuality or premarital sex etc. Note, I said larger society - not the loud voices of the liberals, which I believe are a minority. So if we say we live in a conservative society which views heterosexual sex as the norm, then let sex ed reflect this.

There was a letter in today's newspaper which called for schools to just teach the biology and parents, the morality of sexuality. I don't think you can divorce these issues so neatly. And honestly, I'm not sure how many parents really think about the morality of sexuality themselves.

Take me for instance.

The whole episode has forced me to think long and hard about my views on homosexuality, premarital sex etc. I've never been one to be particularly conservative and neither am I too liberal. On an intellectual level, I am comfortable with homosexuality. I have friends and colleagues who are homosexual and that is fine by me, or rather their sexual orientation have never made a difference in our friendship. I think so what if two people of the same sex love each other? Being of the same sex does not make their feelings any less relevant, real or important.

But then, what do I tell my kids? At the age of 13 or 14, do I give them this liberal viewpoint?

And if I censor, then am I not being honest or real? But if I say all this at a time when they are just beginning to discover their own sexuality and are prone to confusion and crushes, do I not complicate things even further for them?

Probe deeper and I ask myself - what if one of them has homosexual leanings? Can I accept this? I think I can. I hope I can. See how unsure I am? All I know is that I love them no matter what. But do I tell them this?

Now throw religion into the mix and the waters get murkier. We are Catholics and while the church is not anti-homosexual (love the sinner hate the act), heterosexuality is promoted as the norm. They go to catechism class in church, they are taught about sexuality as viewed by the church. My personal values and views might well clash with those of the church. Does this make me a bad Catholic? How then should I guide my children?

And that's just about homosexuality/heterosexuality alone. Let's not even go into premarital sex!

The good thing for us is that sex is not a taboo subject. It's dinner table talk. So everyone from the 14-year-old to the 3-year-old listens and joins in. We've discussed what French kissing is, what is oral sex, teen pregnancy, heavy petting (and its perils) and so on. Body parts and functions are (pun unintended!) touched on. And of course, kids keep their ears open whenever its time to test Gillian on her favourite science chapter - human reproduction! At home, we're also comfortable with our bodies and our nakedness - we still change in front of the kids - well, the younger ones at least!

So maybe I'm luckier that in my family, we find these things easier to talk about. But how many others out there have the same experience and are just as comfortable?

Parents, schools, religious groups - it takes a village and a multitude of views to raise children. The burden and the responsibility does not just rest with one group. So it's not just so simple as to say well, its the parents' job. Because I think parents have their share of personal baggage and angst and unless parents really sit down and think hard about their own personal views and convictions about sex, they are likely to muddy the waters more than clarify it.

1 comment:

beka said...

I came across this blogpost while surfing Google, and if I may I'd like to chime in on what you believe your children should be taught.

I am myself a Singaporean teenager, raised Catholic but not identifying as Catholic except in terms of my family's culture. Perhaps in this area we might have some clash of beliefs, but nonetheless I really feel you have a great family atmosphere when it comes to sex.

I don't know what your children are like - your eldest would be a couple of years younger than me - but I don't think that it's possible for any parent to completely control how their child ends up thinking. There's a large mix of values at school, people who are conservative or liberal (or libertarian, hehe), and they don't necessarily have the same value system as their families, e.g. a bisexual atheist friend from a traditional Taoist family, Catholic lesbian from a Catholic family, a fundamentalist Protestant from a freethinking family.

I've had some arguments with my parents over my own beliefs, to the point where I've decided that I'm just not going to talk about what I think at home anymore. Is it a Catholic thing to ascribe these differing opinions to "bad parenting"? I'm not sure. My parents don't want to know what I believe because they view it as a failure to make their children adhere to the catechism. But whatever your children believe, please don't blame yourself. You can't legislate what goes on inside people's heads. You could disapprove of premarital sex, but once they're of age (or even if they're underage - it happens) - it's not your fault, and I guess it's not anyone's fault either, it's just another issue where there's a lacuna between you.

In any case - forgive my long-windedness - I write this just to add that I really like the dynamics you've got at your home, and I wanted to try explaining why education might sometimes end up ineffective anyway, in forming children's thought processes.