THE BLOG

What Should We Be Teaching Our Children About Sex and Dating?

02/06/2014 15:11 BST | Updated 02/08/2014 10:59 BST

Do you remember sitting around the dinner table having "the talk" about the birds and bees with your parents? Or was it idle chatter in the playground when you discovered about sex? Then, as a teenager, who can possibly forget the crazy hormones, first crushes and first loves?

Attitudes and openness towards sex have changed immeasurably in the last couple of decades and those of us with children, or who plan to have children in the future, need to consider the messages we pass on regarding sex and dating. With texting, social media and the Internet playing such a big role in our lives, dating is more complex than ever.

Speaking up

Parents and other caregivers play the most important role in any young person's life when it comes to educating them about sex and dating. The significance of good conversations with children about sex is undeniable. Scientific studies consistently show that kids who share healthy relationships with their mums and dads and can talk about sex, love and dating are less influenced by their peers when it comes to alcohol, drugs and sex. They also have less mental health issues, better self-esteem and better relationships and friendships outside their immediate families. But how do we get to that point?

Children and teenagers always want the support of their parents even if they don't openly ask for it. If parents don't help them or answer questions, no doubt they will seek the answers elsewhere. Some recent research for the Daily Telegraph, carried out by the NSPCC, found that a third of young people cite the internet as their first port of call for answering queries about dating and sex. It's key to remember that what a child learns in their early years sets the stage for healthy relationships in their future.

Achieving a good balance between guidance and freedom is the key to being able to offer any advice. Professionals advise parents to find out what children need to know about sex at each stage of their development and then to initiate opportunities to talk together so parents can give accurate, age-appropriate advice and talk honestly and openly about the many issues of sex and dating.

Sex education in schools

Of course, sex education is an important topic in the classroom. The debate continues to rage about the level of education that schools should provide. At the end of last year a revised curriculum referred secondary schools in the UK to the official sex and relationship education guidance for teaching this subject. However a large number of groups, including the NSPCC and the Teacher's Union said it was "woefully out of date" and not fit for purpose because the guidance was 13 years old and did not reflect the social and technological changes that have taken place in recent times. There was no reference to the internet, mobile technology, social media or online bullying. These channels now play a key role in how young people learn about dating. One poll showed that four in ten young people admit to 'sexting', while an Association of Teachers' survey revealed that 40 per cent said that young people they work with have already viewed porn by the age of 11.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has also backed the Daily Telegraph's Wonder Woman Campaign for better sex education, so teaching in classroom reflects the digital age. In January the Department of Education announced that it was working with "expert groups" on updating the existing teaching materials in this subject.

What about in other countries? It seems that the message is often the same: It needs to be better. Research by Bain & Company showed that in Hong Kong, more than 40 per cent of local schools do not receive sex education from a third-party provider and often, the provisions in schools in sorely inadequate. Teen pregnancy is a significant problem in the city. A recent article in the China Morning Post reported that one headmaster at a Tuen Mun secondary school banned dating within the school, telling pupils that "you may regret all your life" if you fall in love at the wrong time. However, this message won't set children up to have normal and healthy relationships, either.

Keeping channels open

If parents keep the conversation channels open, hopefully they can help their children develop the skills they need to embark on safe and healthy relationships, set expectations on how they want to be treated and recognise when they don't feel happy because of a relationship. Parents are role models too: If they treat their partners and others with respect, then it is likely that their children will too.

Brett Harding is the director of Lovestruck, a website dedicated to online dating and bringing people together.