January 29, 2012
One cold January day, I looked up from my desk at the family drop in shelter to see a young woman huddled in the doorway. She was obviously cold, and at first I thought she had mistaken my office hours for those of the nurse, as was often the case.
I smiled, welcomed her in and offered her a cup of coffee, eager to see someone at my door. As a sexual health counselor with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, it was unusual for people to seek me out in my early days at the centre. There was too much stigma around sexuality and sexual health.
As this young woman began to speak with me in timid and halting English I realized her visit was intentional and that it had taken a great deal of courage for her to hover in the doorway a few minutes ago. She was from the Sudan and in her experience “women did not talk about these things”. As we spoke, our conversation turned to her children.
Her oldest, a girl of 11, had recently brought home a note from the school about her upcoming sexuality education classes (in Alberta schools are required to gain parental consent prior to presenting sexual health information). The young woman in my office was alarmed about the prospect of her daughter learning about sex: “This was not something they did in Sudan” she said.
My immediate reaction was to defend the school’s right and obligation to offer sexual health classes to students and argue against her reticence to allow her daughter to participate in these classes; but through years of work I have learned that, above all, it is important to listen and understand. So I asked what her experience was with sexuality education? What was it like in Sudan?
She told me: “For me, there was no information in Sudan, sometimes people came to the camps to give out condoms and talk about AIDS but girls do not learn about these things in school.”
As we continued to talk she told me about her personal experience.
She was married very young (by Canadian standards) and had no one to tell her about what to expect once she married her husband. She told me she was terrified on the night of her wedding. She did not know what was happening, or how to talk to her new husband about what they were expected to do that night.
We talked for a long time about how scared she was. After awhile I finally asked her
“Do you want things to be different for your daughter?”
She fell silent for a few minutes, carefully studying her hands.
Finally she looked up, met my eyes and said “Yes – that is why I came to Canada.”
I don’t know if she allowed her daughter to attend the sexual education classes the school offered, but I learned something very important from that young woman that day. She, like all parents wanted the best for her child and for her that meant things had to be different.
It is easy for older generations to accept the adage “but we’ve always done it that way”, but the ways of the past are not always the best. We are lucky to live in a time and a place where information is easy to access, but if we want to equip our children with information we also need to teach them how to understand what they are seeing or learning.
In Canada our media is saturated with sexuality. We see it and so do our children. What they don’t see is the truth and this we must talk to them about. Talking to your children about sex and sexuality is the best way to know what is happening in their lives, it is also the best way to show them what your values are and how much you care about and love them.
Talking about sex and sexuality doesn’t have to be scary, especially if you start early. Young children are curious, they will ask questions. Give them as much information as they need to be satisfied – if they have stopped asking questions they probably have enough information.
If your children are older and you don’t talk about sexuality already, don’t worry its not too late! But don’t wait for their questions! Ask them what they are thinking what they are feeling. Think about when you are watching television with your 10 year old and a kissing scene happens “Aw! Gross!” is the typical reaction.
This is a great time to talk about what they are feeling, what they are thinking. It is also a great time for you tell them your family’s expectations about kissing. For your family is kissing something that happens when two people are in love? Or is it something else? What do you want your children to know about kissing?
As a parent you are not alone. There are many parents out there that have the same questions you do, and there are lots of resources to support you as you have conversations with your child.
www.advocatesforyouth.org is a great place to start (check out the Parents Sex Ed Centre)
www.calgarysexualhealth.ca has excellent resources for parents as well (click on the Parent Centre)
Toronto Public Health is the best bet - there are some Raising Sexually Healthy Children workshops for parents - mainly provided by and for trained peer leaders for caregivers of certain cultural/ethnic backgrounds (Chinese, Vietnamese, Tamil, French African, Spanish...). The Sexual Health hotline staff can also help answer questions 416 392-2437 or 1-800-668-2437. The website has material on this for parents http://www.toronto.ca/health.
Good luck and remember:
- Start early
- Share your values and the reasons behind them
- Use easy to understand language
- Admit when you don’t know the answer – then find it
- Tell your children if something is private and you do not want to talk about it
Nicole Hergert has recently arrived in Toronto after completing a master program in Sydney, Australia. Originally from Calgary where she received her Bachelor of Social Work, she has worked as sexual health educator and counselor for 4 years. Passionate about community and building meaningful support networks for families and individual, she contributes to a number of organizations around Toronto.
A sensible article, thank you!
February 3, 2012 | Belinda