“WHERE did I come from?” It’s a question many parents of young children face at one time or another. But at what age should youngsters be told about the birds and the bees?
That’s the heart of a dispute over a sex education textbook for second graders that contains pictures of reproductive organs and explanations of how they work.
The book aroused controversy online after a web user in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, posted pictures from the book on the social networking platform Weibo, complaining that they are too sexually explicit for children of such a young age. The captions for the pictures didn’t mince words in naming reproductive organs.
The book was one of a series sold in a state-owned bookstore and rotated among students as out-of-class reading material. Schools retracted the book from reading lists when the public furor broke out.
One father surnamed Shi told Shanghai Daily that sex education is a good thing, but not for second graders.
“It is good to give children the right information when they become curious about sex,” he says. “But I think second graders have no idea of it at all. They might not be capable of understanding the information correctly. I think it’s better to wait until they reach the fourth or fifth grades.”
He also says that teachers should be involved in sex education rather than letting children read books about it on their own.
Sha Qingyi, mother of a third grader, says parents need to trust that their children will absorb information correctly. “Children don’t think like adults,” she says. “Words and pictures of the private parts of the body are just body parts to them, like hands and feet.”
She says her son learned about sex in a physiology class and showed no adverse effects.
“The class was not as explicit as the disputed book, but the knowledge was similar,” she says. “I was afraid he would ask me some embarrassing questions, but he didn’t. Rather, he was more interested in how parents influence the appearance and personality of their children.”
Sha says information about sex, like information about everything, is more readily available today than it was when she was young. Children, she says, tend to be more mature at an earlier age.
“It is better to teach them the right things rather than letting them explore without any guidance and get wrong information,” Sha says. “Actually, I think sex education was inadequate when I was growing up. I recall one of my classmates who thought the onset of menstruation was a sign she was dying.”
The team from Beijing Normal University that edited the contentious book released a statement last weekend, arguing that the purpose was to give children correct knowledge to help them better protect themselves from sexual abuse.
The statement pointed out that sexual development is a part of growing up, and sex education is an important part of that process. It was included in 2008 guidelines on health education for primary and middle school students, issued by China’s Ministry of Education.
“The guidelines state that first and second graders should be given basic knowledge of reproduction,” according to the team, noting that later guidelines say sex and reproductive health should be included in compulsory education curricula.
The book the team edited was one of the six published since 2010. All the books were compiled according to national directives and guidelines issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The books have undergone repeated revisions to reflect feedback from children, teachers and parents.
The team admits that sex has been a taboo topic in China for a long time, and many parents still feel embarrassed to talk about it with their children. In a parental vacuum, the Internet may provide children with wrong and misleading information on the subject.
The editors say years of experience have shown that the younger the children, the more at ease they are about learning the names of the sexual organs.
“Being able to correct identify sexual organs is important,” the team says. “If we can’t even bring ourselves to say the names, how can we hope to teach children how to protect themselves correctly?”
The book series they published is now used as textbooks in 18 private schools for migrant children and in some schools outside of Beijing.
Ding Limin, headmistress of the Primary School Affiliated to the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, says the fact that use of the books has been largely confined to migrant schools shows the general public reluctance toward sex education for the young.
Her school has been developing its own sex education curriculum for more than 10 years.
“It was much more difficult 10 years ago for parents to accept explicit words and pictures in the books we used,” Ding says. “The most ‘shocking’ to many people were pictures of a birth delivery.”
But time has gradually changed attitudes.
“Parents questioned our efforts at first, but we persisted,” she says. “Both children and parents alike now accept our class well.”
Ding says she expects attitudes to become more liberal with time.
“I think the disputed textbooks are very professionally done, and people will come to accept them as long as we promote sex education step-by-step,” she adds. “The day will come when such textbooks are commonly used in all schools.”