YTMCW? Chapter One: Who’s Teaching Your Children? Or, If You Don’t Have My Values You Have No Values At All

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A Time magazine cover depicting two teenagers, a boy and a girl, in black and white. Text reads "Kids, Sex, and Values".

Whatever adults tell teens about sex, it won’t be values-neutral. There’s no such thing. Image via Time Magazine.

In this chapter of You’re Teaching My Child What?, Miriam Grossman attacks the idea that sex-ed classes are values-neutral and agenda-free . . . and I agree with her.

The idea of a values-neutral sex-ed class can never really be more than an idea. It’s pretty much unattainable.There are values embedded in every choice you make: what you present, what you leave out, the teaching methods used, the amount of time devoted to each subject and kind of presentation. If you choose to restrict your teaching to biological systems and the development of the fetus, that’s not values-neutral. If you decide to talk mostly about disease prevention, that’s not values-neutral. (The Walrus recently described the Canadian approach as “heavy on talk of disease and date rape, as though foreplay should include disaster preparedness plan”.) If your approach only talks about pregnancy prevention and other concerns of hetero sex, that’s not values-neutral.

Every single one of those examples communicates a message about what sex means and what it ought to be, who gets to have it and how and why, who gets to be accepted and who should be judged and shunned.

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YTMCW? Chapter One: Who’s Teaching Your Children? Or, Information Is A Sin

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(Author’s note: Happy Victoria Day to my Canadian readers. To everybody else, Happy Moral Panic Monday!)

It’s time to clutch your pearls and make sure you have your smelling salts handy. I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole and introduce you to something you never realized before.

TEENAGERS ARE INTERESTED IN SEX.

A cat posed with one paw at his throat. Caption reads "Invisible Pearl Clutching".

Image via I Can Has Cheezburger. Because moral panics are better with kittehs.

I’ll give you a minute to recover from your attack of the vapours.

In fact, it’s more than that. Not only are teenagers interested in sex, but some adults even think that’s okay. It’s natural to be curious, normal to seek and enjoy sexual pleasure, and each person’s individual choice how they want to prioritize relationships, friendships, health, and exploration.

If you were not shocked by that, you’re evidently not Miriam Grossman, author of You’re Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child, whose views can basically be summarized in this introductory quote:

Make no mistake: this is a battle, and the battleground is our kids’ minds and values. [. . . Sex educators] must respond to this catastrophe by declaring war on teen sexual behaviour. Yes, war – just as we’ve declared war on smoking, drinking, and transfats. Stop foisting the ill-conceived notion that sexual openness and exploration is healthy.

Don’t expect her to acknowledge the roots of our sexual-openness ethos: a historical level of repression so puritanical and so vicious, sex was not even available as a topic for discussion or learning. Ignoring it instead lets Grossman conveniently ignore the suffering that approach to sexuality caused: marital rape, child sexual abuse, forced marriages or total social rejection and destitution just for spending one-on-one time in the company of the opposite sex. It lets her pretend that sexually transmitted disease wasn’t rampant in the past, pregnancies only happened within happy and sanctified marriages, and sexual minorities just plain didn’t exist, instead of existing in closeted misery.

“[Sexual behaviours] are personal choices, and judgments are prohibited,” Grossman complains. “At all ages, sexual freedom is a ‘right’, an issue of social justice.”

And this is by far the strangest part of reading the book: Grossman says things that I really believe, that are true and deserve to be celebrated, but she says them in a spirit of complaint, like they’re horrible social problems. People get to choose what kind of sex they want to have! They think they have the right to be free! What is the matter with this modern world?

A screen shot from the film Hairspray!, in which a smiling, cardigan-wearing mother ties her blonde, curly-haired teen daughter to her bed with a length of sturdy rope.

Ms. Grossman’s preferred parenting technique. Image via Flare.

I want to clarify something: the title may question what we’re teaching children (not teenagers or young adults) and the cover may depict fourth-graders, but Grossman’s moral panic is over the sex lives of teenagers. They might be old enough to get a job, choose a career, open a bank account, sign up for a credit card, drive a car, or vote. But they still need to obey their parents in matters of sexuality.

Grossman bemoans sex education programs because “they do not give young people the same message as parents”.  But she’s making a hell of an assumption about parents. “You must understand,” she insists, “that these curricula are rooted in an ideology that you probably don’t share.”

Says who?

Not every parent will be sexually conservative. Some parents, especially if you take a globally diverse view, are fully open to the knowledge that their children are probably going to be sexually active. Some might be personally uncomfortable with their children being sexual, the same way most people are uncomfortable with awareness of their parents’ sexuality, but they recognize something important: that’s no justification to prohibit children from discovering and exploring their sexuality as they see fit, just as you wouldn’t try to prevent your parents from whatever sexual shenanigans they choose for themselves.

And that’s where the power dynamic comes in, isn’t it? I don’t have the power to force my parents to stop having a sexual relationship or prevent them from gathering knowledge about sexuality, but I would have that power over my children. Even as children become old enough to make their own relationship decisions (including decisions about sexual relationships), too many parents treat their children like objects they own rather than people in their own right, entitled to their own points of view. Too often our child is seen as your child in a way that you just wouldn’t view your spouse, your parents, or your friends – in a way more akin to your pet or your slave. Parents have all the power.

It’s in this context that Miriam Grossman launches this panic-stricken question at any parent concerned enough to be drawn to this title:

Do you want instructors, whose personal values might be at odds with yours, to encourage your kids to question what they’ve been taught at home and at church, and to come up with their own worldview?

In other words, don’t you want to prevent your children from developing their own beliefs and views about the world and life?

Yikes.

That’s not a power anybody should have over any other person. It goes too far.

You don’t own your children, and you don’t get to prohibit them from getting exposure to ideas you don’t like.

In this upside-down, inside-out world, children are victims – not when they’re prohibited from questioning received wisdom, forming their own values, or making decisions for themselves, but when they’re taught about sexuality. Grossman plays a particularly twisted game when she catalogues the sexual suffering of teenagers who come into her medical practice: “I lied to my parents. My girlfriend gave me herpes. My stepfather raped me. I want to die.” Did you catch the bait-and-switch there? Being raped by an authority figure is not caused by sex ed. Nor is suicidal ideation. In fact, sex ed can alleviate these problems in some cases (like a gay kid who learns he’s not Satan for what turns him on, or a girl who learns enough about consent to seek protection from her abuser). But that’s not a distinction Grossman makes when she paints a dramatic picture of how tragic and abused these poor, educated children are.

Of course, Grossman and other conservative hand-wringers are victims, too: “Point to the science that discredits their beliefs,” she says of sex educators, “and, well, you know the names you’ll be called.”

But as far as she can tell, the science she’s pointing to is not exactly solid. I’m far from a scientist, but I know a few things relatively well . . . and I know an awful lot about early childhood development, which she happens to make a few sweeping claims about in this book, one of them in this very chapter.

While SIECUS informs kids that culture teaches what it means to be a man or a woman, neuroscientists identify distinct ‘male brains’ or ‘female brains’ while a child is still in the womb.

She doesn’t actually bother to cite this claim, so I can’t touch on which “neuroscientists” she means, what they actually claim, or what is either mistaken or misrepresented in their claims. But my studies have spent a lot of time on early cognitive development. And I can tell you that developmentally, male and female brains are relatively similar in the womb and at birth. They’re relatively undeveloped. The brain grows a ridiculous amount in the first weeks and months of life as babies learn constantly and shape their neural structures based on their experiences and exposures. And of course, one of the things they’re exposed to? Gender cues based on whether their parents present them as “boy”, “girl”, or “ambiguous”. (More on this later, to the extent that I’ll probably get sick of writing about it.)

Also factually incorrect? The examples of how preschool children are getting taught about sexuality. Grossman has a horror story about how educators (like me) are instructed to approach the matter:

Don’t wait until children ask questions, parents are told [. . .] Teach preschoolers that each of us is sexual, from cradle to grave, and that ‘sexual expression’ is one of our basic human needs, like food, water, and shelter. Encourage their “positive body concept” by expanding games such as ‘Simon Says’ to include private parts (Simon says point to your ear, ankle, penis). Explain intercourse to preschoolers; tell them they have “body parts that feel good when touched”.

Well, not exactly. As someone who has been trained in early childhood care and has experienced preschool environments, this is incorrect to a level that I doubt can be explained by American/Canadian differences alone. Let’s just take this one at a time:

  • Don’t wait until children ask questions: This is a half-truth.The best practice is to wait until children ask questions or demonstrate a need to know on any topic. Children who are playing with their privates during naptime or chasing after their classmates to give them kisses on the play-yard may not have asked questions, but they’re still demonstrating a need for information. And the level of sexuality in the media means children are learning and drawing conclusions about sex long before it occurs to them to ask a question.
  • Teach preschoolers that each of us is sexual: Are we not? But no, we do not have a poster in the kindergarten room that says “Everybody is sexual” – this is mostly a corrective to the sexual shame that many adults will remember from the past, where kids get scolded for talking about sexual topics or led to believe that only really weird and freaky people think about this sort of thing.
  • . . . and that sexual expression is one of our basic human needs: again, we’re not going to list human needs as “food, shelter, water, and sex”, but nor are we going to pretend like sex doesn’t exist and scold children for failing to play along.
  •  . . . expanding games such as ‘Simon Says’ to include private parts: Well, this is just silly. If somebody suggested it – and Grossman isn’t great about providing sources for us to follow up – they’re misguided. You would never include “Simon says point to your ear, ankle, penis” for the simple reason that half the class wouldn’t be able to complete that direction, not having any penis. I think the general idea here is about using the proper, matter-of-fact words to identify body parts because kids notice if there’s certain things we won’t discuss.
  • Explain intercourse to preschoolers: Sure, if it comes up. It’s not in the preschool curriculum and it’s not something children are expected to demonstrate within the developmental rubrics.
  • Tell them they have “body parts that feel good when touched”: This is also covered on a need-to-know basis, but the chances that children will need to know are pretty high, because touching those body parts during public or family time is relatively common and developmentally normal. We’re taught to accept this as natural and gently explain, in non-shaming language, that reaching into your pants is something to be done in private.

Pretty much everything Grossman cites can be explained by one simple sentence that’s a pretty good child-care maxim: “If children ask, give them an honest answer”. Thing is, toddlers and preschool children may not have the language to formulate questions related to everything they need or want to know, and they may have learned from another adult’s harsh reaction that we don’t ask questions about this subject. That’s not necessarily limited to sexual issues. For this reason, early-childhood educators are trained to observe children’s behaviour and activities, and to notice if the children express an interest non-verbally or act out a question they don’t know how to directly ask.

A black-and-white picture of a child, eyes tinted blue, finger over lips in the "shhh" gesture.

Children learn from our reactions if something’s not okay to talk about. Image via Naturally.

You have to wonder whether Grossman maybe got that we don’t ask questions about this message when she was small, because she’s horrified by the idea that sex might be a normal or important part of life. She talks with disdain about a reverend who refused to marry a couple who had shared absolutely no sex, an approach that only makes sense if you think sex is something normal people neither like nor want. Why not go into a lifelong commitment without any information about your sexual compatibility, if sex shouldn’t actually matter to anybody?

Suffice it to say that Miriam Grossman is not reporting from the real world.

Next stop: Chapter One, where Grossman poisons the well. This serves her purposes nicely; when we start to question the statistics we’re fed later on, she’s disqualified all recognized experts on the subject, and we can only look to organizations with a conservative agenda for answers.

Shaken

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So I’m at the moment when my early-childhood placement in an Aboriginal childcare centre in Toronto draws to a close, and I am returning to school. In theory, this should mean I’ll be able to spend more time on my blogging, but in actual fact, who knows? School keeps me busy all the time. Work kept me tired all the time, but then it wasn’t just work: it was the strain of having to work a full-time job while still having all my down-time flooded with homework assignments. I love placements, but that’s something I really dislike about them, and it’s kept me from writing as much as I had intended.

I had meant to publish a chapter review for You’re Teaching My Child What? each week as a “Moral Panic Mondays” feature, but this placement really made it hard to care about American busybodies freaking out that children might learn the truth about sex. I loved being a part of the community and participating in cultural activities, but the struggles upon struggles I saw piling on some of the families I met gave me a jolt. Working in a poor area of the city – my partner semi-jokingly called the place where I worked “the ghetto” – I encountered conditions almost completely alien to how I grew up. At times, fully one half of the children in my classroom were homeless. One Monday I listened to the news on the radio, heard about two violent altercations that happened over the weekend, and discovered that both had taken place amongst the community where I was working. The children I was caring for might easily have met or known the people who died these violent deaths, reduced to news headlines. Virtually everyone was struggling financially, unemployed or underemployed. There were people living in poor health and in sub-optimal environments. Then I would go home for a weekend to environments where the trappings of wealth – access to healthy food, a spacious and well-constructed home environment, a vehicle to run errands, appropriate new clothes when needed, working plumbing and electricity, training and education options, flexibility and mobility . . .

I adored the children I cared for and I would be pleased and proud to work for that centre as a full member of the staff. But I also found it shocking that a country where we see ourselves as so much better, more equitable, and less prejudiced than the Americans condones the levels of poverty I saw, not just on the reserves but in big cities as well. I come from a culture that loves to blame people for their own circumstances, but I can’t accept it. The homeless infants in my class have been born into circumstances vastly different from what I was born into. I’ve had rough patches in my life over the past few years, but I always had people around me who had enough means to bail me out. But what if you were born – as these children were – into a community where everyone is poor? Where you’re born one parental illness, family crisis, or broken-down truck away from absolute disaster? What if there was nobody who could help you through the rough patches because everyone is in the same dire straits?

I’ll try to post some “Moral Panic Monday” stuff in the next week or so, but it’s hard to keep my heart in it during this sort of experience.

You’re Teaching My Child What? An Ongoing Review

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Two-tone image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, captioned: 'Abstinence - Ninety-nine point nine nine percent effective'.

Not entirely related to the book’s content . . . but it amused me, so here it stays. Virgin births aside, abstinence is actually somewhat less than 99.99% effective under typical-use conditions. Image via This Is Your Conscience.

As promised, I’m going to get started reviewing You’re Teaching My Child What? A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child, by Miriam Grossman.

I can’t even remember how I found out this book existed, but once I did, I put it on my list of “books I want to read”. (It is a list with many pages.) Not because it sounded wise and important, but because it sounded panicky and pearl-clutching

Call it my guilty pleasure: I like reading about the wacky things fundies think. I enjoy their moral panics and their narrow-mindedness. Linda Harvey, Tony Perkins, Ken Ham: they’re scary and awful, but I still find them amusing. It’s probably not good for me – I get so outraged by their ignorance, even though it was predictable – but it also feels good to sharpen my thinking against theirs, to consider their arguments critically so I can understand where they’re coming from and why I disagree.

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Frozen: A Story of Sisterhood in Balance

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Warning: here be spoilers.

 

From inside a snowflake-patterned frame, Disney sisters Elsa and Anna (from Frozen) smile at the onlooker.

Are you Team Elsa or Team Anna? Image via Fanpop.

I spent last weekend celebrating my niece’s fifth birthday – Ciocia loves ya, Kitten! – and the movie Frozen came up in conversation more than once, since it’s the kids’ current favourite obsession. It rather evolved into an ongoing debate happening between my brother-from-another-mother and me. Simply put: Team Elsa or Team Anna?

He’s very strongly Team Anna. He thinks her optimism and get-’er-done attitude have been tragically undervalued because everybody’s too busy focusing on how she almost married a man she just met — and unfairly so, because who in the Disney Princess family hasn’t made that mistake? I see where he’s coming from, absolutely. But I also get kind of frustrated by it, not because I’m anti-Anna exactly, but because I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Elsa and the way her personality has been shaped by her secret burden.

But for some reason, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that conversation over the past week, and I’ve come to reject the entire premise of the question.Forget Team Anna and Team Elsa. Why aren’t we looking at Anna and Elsa as a team together?

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Personal Growth and Personal Shrinking

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The image of a fat woman in a pink tank top, displaying her arm flab and double chin without shame. Superimposed over her face is a Google search, where the search term "fat people don't" is completed: "fat people don't get cold, have feelings, get hired, or deserve to live". Across her front we see the slogan "It's not about sensitive feelings, it's about respect."

When someone is considered less human because of how they look, that’s prejudice – whether they chose their appearance or not. Image via Plus Model Magazine on Tumblr.

I spent some time this morning sounding off on a friend’s Facebook wall within a conversation about obesity, inspired by this article, about how “obese girls tend to do worse in school”. (For the love of God, don’t read the comments.) The article doesn’t point out what seems patently obvious to everybody who’s ever been a teenage girl: obese girls do worse in school because they’re too busy dealing with the stigma and bullying that comes your way when you’re obese.

After a bunch of friends who have all experienced being a teenage girl expressed support for the original poster’s comment – “It’s not being ‘obese’ that’s the problem, it’s how girls who are obese are treated” – one guy showed up to spout his thoughts about how research links BMI to cognitive deficits, parents need to know how obesity affects their kids so they can stop feeding them wrong, and the real problem is that everybody eats crap because we’re all just too dumb to know better. The OP took a strong stance: basically, “I will not accept fat-shaming on my Facebook wall”. And the man in question promptly apologized and said he had learned his lesson and would try to find out more about the social determinants of fat as well as the political deployment of body shaming.

No, I’m kidding, of course he didn’t.

Bermudan athlete Dwayne Leverock, who is a large-bodied cricket player, making a dramatic catch.

The will power and personal growth needed to be a successful athlete only applies to thin people, right? Image via SB Nation.

Instead he wrote a long fat-shamey post (not exactly dropping it) in which he turned it around on the other foot: it wasn’t that he was being disrespectful of fat people, but that he actually respects fat people better by telling them they need to whittle down their bodies by any means necessary. Or, in his exact words:

 I think that over-reliance on outside influences – as legitimate as they can be – as explanatory factors utterly disrespects a person’s will and potential for growth.

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“A Traditionally Female Occupation”

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Flashy text reads: "It's our day!" Below it are images of women holding hands, with different cultures, body shapes, fashion styles, skin tones, and appearances represented. Includes a woman in hijab, women with short skirts and cropped tops, and women in business wear, pants, or dresses.

I just thought it was a cute GIF. Image via International Women’s Day Resources.

Today marks International Women’s Day, and I was inspired to blog by a post from Fat Heffalump, talking about the ways femininity has functioned in her life and intersected with her body size, leading her first to reject all things feminine but then ultimately to take pride in reclaiming those things for herself – a woman whose body is rejected as a “good enough” female form and consequently stigmatized and demonized – as a feminist act. Rock on.

That got me thinking about my own life, and the ways I do or don’t perform femininity. Continue reading