It was the first week of middle school for 12- year- old Maddie. She was excited, but nervous to start the adventure of middle school. Just as the tardy bell rang, Maddie slid into her seat at the front of the class. The class began with the ordinary introduction of material, including a “getting to know you” survey. As she filled out the survey, Maddie was surprised to see a question asking students which pronouns they preferred. The survey also asked if the school could share that information with their parents.
Across the street, high-schoolers were being presented with a worksheet entitled, “The Gender Unicorn.” The worksheet was supposed to teach students about the differences between gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and physical vs. emotional attraction. In a school that requires parent signatures for watching movies rated anything over PG, gender education was taking place without parental consent or knowledge.
The Debate: Moral vs. Secular
With the introduction of the Equality Act, incorporating sex and gender education in schools became a hotly debated topic. Of course, there are strong arguments for both sides of the issue, and the debate has left many communities divided. Educators are being asked to teach about a topic that covers both secular and moral principles. On the other hand, parents are mad about being left in the dark when it comes to the sex education of their children.
Our country is at a crossroads when it comes to the gender and sex education of our children. Whatever your views on gender and sexuality, our children are growing up in a society that includes pronouns and genders beyond he/she, male/female. Carrie Hunt clearly stated the issue when she said, “what once brought purpose, clarity, definition and identity to a child both individually and socially, now comes in so many varieties that many children struggle to find their grounding.”
What Can We Do?
So how do we help children find their footing? Should schools continue to push such education without parental consent in the name of protecting and leading children? Should parents try to shelter their kids from such education because only two genders really exist?
It seems the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Having a healthy understanding of sexuality and gender is crucial to finding purpose, clarity, and identity in life. Because of this, it’s important for children to receive some form of education on the topic. Parents and educators tend to see eye to eye on this. Over 93 % of parents feel that sex education is important for their middle and high school students. And 33 states have emphasized the importance of sex education by mandating it for public schools. The division then comes down to the lack of curriculum transparency between the school and parents. Surprisingly, only 5 of the 33 states that mandate sex education require parental consent in order for children to receive instruction.
Even though parents want their kids to learn about sex, many families fail to teach their children in the home. Data shows that this vital instruction is not occurring often enough. Maybe this is because parents don’t know how to appropriately broach these topics with their children. That being said, national surveys find that nearly all teenagers have received sex education by the age of 18. Where do they get this education? Through public schools. Since gender and sexuality education isn’t happening in the majority of homes, public educators have taken upon themselves the role of teaching kids about sex.
Schools & Parents Working Together
For the most part, we can agree that parents and educators have the child’s best interest in mind. While parents are generally responsible for instilling moral values and religious beliefs in their children, schools are responsible for teaching secular subjects. But gender and sexuality education encompasses both secular and moral teachings.
Because of this, the best solution involves clearly defining the boundary between the two. With the ever-changing terms and ideas children encounter, schools should first and foremost encourage parents to be the preeminent voice in teaching their kids about sex. In addition, parents and schools must work together to decide on appropriate sex education curriculum. As parents and schools work together to establish an honest, transparent relationship, they will be able to clearly define the line between public sex education and private sex education. This open and transparent communication is vital in order to teach sex education in a way that allows our children to find purpose, clarity, and identity both at home and at school.
Laura Ellis is a Junior at BYU-Idaho studying Marriage, Family, and Human Relations. As a mother of eight, she is passionate about child and family advocacy. She has actively worked within her community to help change policies that threaten children and the family.
Dr. Tim is spending a few months in Washington, D.C. doing research at the Marriage & Religion Research Institute. Watch his latest video to hear about what he’s been doing and learn why dads really do matter!
In my driveway, we have an adjustable basketball standard or hoop. When my son Carter was 10, he liked to lower the basket to 8 feet when we shot hoops. That way he could easily make a basket. After about 5 minutes, I’d raise it a couple of feet and he would usually protest. But I knew he’d never improve his game or himself with a low standard (pun intended).
Permissive social mores have ‘let men off the hook’ as it were, so that many think it acceptable to father children out of wedlock and to cohabit rather than marry. Dodging commitments is considered smart, but sacrificing for the good of others, naive.
Unfortunately, many of those who lower the standard for dads—claiming that fathers are useless buffoons—are likely individuals whose fathers were mostly dead-beats.
The Ripple Effect of Absentee Dads
While camping near a lake, my son tried to skip a rock across the water. As it plunged into the lake, it was remarkable to watch how one little rock could cause ripples to spread for quite some distance.
When men father children and then check out of their fatherly duties, it doesn’t just impact that child. The “ripple effect” goes through both society and generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America, or one out of three children, now live in a biological father-absent home. Here is just a small sample of the ripple effect of absentee dads:
Infant mortality rates are nearly 2 times higher for infants of unmarried mothers than for married mothers.
Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12% of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44% of children in fatherless families.
Youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families.
Father involvement in schools is associated with greater academic success and achievement in their children.
There are many today who—in the name of equality—are attempting to erase any differences between men and women. However, a whole raft of research has shown the biological and psychological differences between boys and girls that are evident from birth. Boys and girls see, hear, think, feel, and learn differently. Of course both genders have much in common, but many individual and societal problems have come from trying to make men and women the same. Professor David Popenoe summarizes what this gender research means for parents:
“We should disavow the notion that ‘mommies can make good daddies,’ just as we should disavow the popular notion…that ‘daddies can make good mommies.’… The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.”
Because of their distinct gifts and abilities, men and women each bring a unique perspective to family life. Dads think and act differently than moms. Some of these distinct differences are in the areas of regulating aggression and general activity, cognitive skills, sensory sensitivity, and sexual behavior to name just a few.
For example, think of raising children like a person’s stability in standing, walking, and running. An individual with only their left foot (due to birth defect, amputation, or accident) can probably stand upright, especially with assistance. A person with 2 left feet (not likely, I know) may have more support. But a left and a right foot both compliment and stabilize each other.
A mother and a father is the most ideal scenario for raising children. Yet, with our current culture and laws we send the message over and over again that dads are optional.
Fathers Be Good to Your Daughters
Mounting evidence demonstrates that girls whose fathers are absent and uninvolved are much more likely to become sexually active, sexually exploited through pornography and prostitution, struggle with their male/romantic relationships, and become mothers as teens—perpetuating the cycle of children without fathers.
“Fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do. Girls become lovers who turn into mothers.”
Daddy-daughter dates are a terrific way to build and teach healthy relationships. I try to take each of my 3 daughters on a date every other month, and I consider it a great honor. I want them experience the kind of treatment they deserve from boys so they won’t settle for anything less. Here is a beautiful example of a dad who gets it:
Raising the Standard
Let’s help raise the standard for men. If you’re a dad like me, regularly evaluate the time (quality and quantity) you’re investing in your most important work—your family. Have consistent one-on-one chats with each of your children where they can talk to you about anything and everything. Get into your child’s world and truly understand them! William Shakespeare has said, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
Additionally, if you’ve fathered a child and are living with your child’s mother, please consider marriage! Professor Robert P. George wisely wrote:
“Marriage increases the odds that a man will be committed to both the children that he helps create and to the woman with whom he does so.”
If you’re a divorced father, make an effort to heal the relationship with your children’s mother. That doesn’t mean you need to remarry her. But it does mean you should try to make peace with her. The best predictor of divorced dads being involved in his children’s lives is the quality of relationship he has with their mother.
Thanks to all you fathers who hold themselves to a high standard of commitment. We can all feel their positive ripple-effect. Be one of those dads, and your children — as well as generations to come — will thank you!
This is one of the most common questions asked to those who have just revealed they are expecting a little one.
This question is logical, understandable, and completely accurate. From a biological perspective, it would be more than a little unreasonable for the expecting parent to respond:
“We don’t know. The child hasn’t decided yet.”
Two Faulty Extremes
The differences in boys and girls, males and females, can swing between two extremes:
All gender differences are socialized and learned through culture and therefore can be unlearned. This leaves the door open to choosing one’s gender. (I’ve seen this philosophy heavily promoted at the United Nations.)
All differences in boys and girls are biologically-based which often creates old-fashioned sex roles and stereotypes. This can lead parents and teachers to believe and promote that boys don’t feel emotions (except anger) and girls can’t do math.
The problem with both of these perspectives on gender is that neither of them are based in science — and both harm individuals and society. It can be tempting to believe whatever’s popular on Facebook. But just because every post in your social media feed promotes an idea about gender, it doesn’t make it true.
There is more at stake here than the old question of nature versus nurture. The failure to recognize and respect sex differences in child development has done substantial harm over the past thirty years.
Clearly, swinging to either extreme can be problematic.
On the other hand, well-conducted research can help us understand natural laws that govern life. Once we really understand these natural laws, we can help not only ourselves but also those we love.
So what does the research say?
Although there is a lot of good science out there, I will briefly touch on 4 areas where boys and girls inherently differ — and why that matters for all of us.
1. Brain Structure & Language Processing
Ladies. Your brain tissue is intrinsically different from guys. This process starts in the womb. You didn’t have a choice. That’s just the natural way that the X & Y chromosomes made it.
Male brains are also much more compartmentalized than female brains. For example, boys process and express their language in the left hemisphere of the brain, and girls use both sides.
2. Seeing is Believing
One study looked at how newborn babies would respond to their visual environment. A female nurse stood over a crib with a mobile swinging next to her. The vast majority of the female babies stared at the face of the nurse while most male babies watched the moving mobile. Girls are born wired to be interested in faces and boys in moving things. No wonder guys like football and fast machines.
This is biological, people! These babies have not been “socialized” by their environment.
3. Color Me…Different
Walk into a kindergarten class and give all the children a piece of paper for drawing. Tell them they can draw whatever they want. The lion’s share of the boys will draw action and use colors like black, silver, and blue. While the girls will draw people or things and use the colors red, orange, green, and beige. As Dr. Sax wrote:
“Girls draw in nouns, boys draw in verbs.”
That’s because the internal structure of the eye differs in both males and females. This isn’t a choice. It is hardwired. Does this mean that boys will never draw a face or a flower? Of course not! This study simply helps us understand the biological preferences and why they exist.
Nurture can influence nature, but it can’t change it.
4. Toying with Biology
Multiple studies have helped us understand children’s toy preferences. Researchers gave babies between 9-18 months old toys to play with. Almost all the boys chose the truck while the majority of girls chose the doll. Developmentally, children at this age don’t really understand what their gender is and what it means. But if you understand biological differences this makes sense.
What about girls who play with trucks and boys who play with dolls? Even though this is the minority, it’s still worth asking. It’s important to understand that a feminine boy and a masculine girl still have a brain that is wired to their gender. Based on what we know about brain differences, it is likely that girls like playing with trucks for different reasons than boys do.
I have barely scratched the surface on this research. But we all need to be more informed about which gender differences are biological and which are not. This will help parents and teachers meet the child’s needs more effectively. Boys and girls think, learn, see, hear, and develop differently. Understanding these differences will help us create better and more scientifically-based policies.
Female teachers and parents should not tell a boy that he can’t draw simply because it is a rocket going to space rather than a pretty face.
We can emphasize the unique contributions that both a mother and a father bring to their sons and daughters.
Rather than teaching children that they can choose their gender or that they need to fit rigid, unfounded stereotypes, we can help children own their gender. Will there be variability within each gender? Indeed!
For more information on this, you can email us questions for our next podcast or read the book Why Gender Matters.
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