Tue, Feb 16, 2010
Are dads getting better at discussing sex with their children, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
ABOUT THREE months before leaving primary school in the late 1980s, I, like many others of that generation, was officially told the ins and outs of the birds and the bees. This was pre-internet and cable television days, and without an older brother or sister to fill me in, there was a lot of sexual and biological ambiguity that needed clarifying.
The majority of us in the class in the Christian Brothers’ primary school in Ennis knew that a meeting on the “facts of life” would be called towards the end of school term. This happened every year and so there was little surprise when notes about the meeting were sent home. A few nights later, we all filed into the school hall, along with our parents, while a nun with a flip chart proceeded to take us through who did what to whom and why. It was mortifying. At one point, a basket was passed around and we were allowed to write any questions we wanted answered on a piece of paper for the nun to address.
“Can you get pregnant by French-kissing, sister?”, “Is toothpaste good for curing love bites?”, “Sister, do you think Kylie and Jason will ever do it?” were some of the tamer offerings. It was a very awkward, shoe-staring evening for most present.
These were not issues we discussed with our parents in what was still a relatively sexually closed society. My father asked me after if there was anything else I wanted to know. I lied and said no, and that was that. Big phew. But what of today’s pre-teens and their need to be filled in on the facts of life?
Are Irish men much more comfortable discussing issues of sex and biology with their children in Ireland of 2010? Or has the internet and influence of mass media made having “the chat” largely unnecessary?
Retired school principal Aidan Herron, who wrote a guidebook on the facts of life in the mid-1990s, says that whereas society may have changed significantly in the past two decades, the need for information on this issue hasn’t. Despite our presumed openness around issues of sex, Herron believes we still have hang-ups when it comes to informing our children of the “facts of life”. “We need to normalise sex education and bring it out of the realms of textbook and into normal conversation in the home,” he says.
“Conversations about the facts of life should not be prompted by something on television. It should be part of normal developmental conversation in the home. The same way perhaps as answering questions about why does the sun come up or how does the rain fall.”
And although much of the relaying of information is now incorporated into the school curriculum, Herron argues that there is still avoidance of the issue even there.
“Teaching of this is now part of the primary and post-primary school syllabus through the social and personal health programmes and it’s covered in co-operation with parents. I know that some schools still bring outsiders in to do this part of the course. I think the teacher should teach it. There is still some avoidance there, and not biting the bullet on the subject is making it harder.”
One Irish male who has been there is Cork-based father of two, Greg Canty (44), who draws comparisons between the attitudes of present day fathers and those of past generations.
“I don’t even think there was a time in our school days when we sat down and had it explained to us. It was stuff you learned as you went along. I don’t ever remember a class in school or a conversation with my parents. When it did come around with my own kids, I’d got the response of, ‘Don’t be silly, Daddy – we know all that’. I remember thinking, ‘Great, this is all covered already’!”
Canty believes that for the next generation the same hang-ups about imparting sex education won’t be as prevalent. “I think it is getting easier and easier. My sense is that parents and children are having conversations about it and it’s not as big a deal. Also, parents have gotten younger-minded and kids have gotten more sophisticated, with access to more information. There are a lot more ways for them to satisfy their own natural curiosity. Back in our day, you couldn’t even buy condoms.”
But do today’s young people appreciate this social progression and how au fait are they with discussing matters of sex with their parents?
Canty’s son Brendan (21) says that while society may be more tolerant, some things never change. “I went to a country school and I think as a kid you always know more than you let on. I think boys always have a tendency to say, ‘I don’t fancy girls’. I remember being about five years old and having a crush and not letting on. You were always interested in that and fancied girls. I wouldn’t have been comfortable in primary school talking to my parents about sex. I would have been a bit awkward with my parents sitting me down.”
By the time Brendan had moved onto secondary education, much of the material traditionally left to parents was included on the curriculum. “We had a class in secondary school – basically it was once a week and we’d deal with these topics. It was more someone talking to us or they would show us a video. I learned off my own back really. Nowadays kids learn it from media all around them. I mean to be honest I probably learned a lot from TV. Books are a bit old fashioned.” Brendan says that parents should be wary of telling their children too much too soon. Despite the rapid maturing of many aspects of children’s experience, innocence still has its role to play.
“I don’t think kids need to understand the full-on facts of the birds and the bees too young,” he says. “A lot of kids will get the gist of it. That’s all they need to start out with. It’s only when they’re about 13 or 14 when they need to understand the full facts of life. That’s when the real fun starts!”
© 2010 The Irish Times