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What Can We Learn From Dutch Sex Education? Everything

When Bonnie Rough walked through the Teen Facts exhibit at Amsterdam’s NEMO science museum, she was fascinated by a film playing on the main wall showing a boy and girl cartoon characters’ bodies going through the changes of puberty from ages seven to 16. Aptly named “Growing Pains,” it clearly confirmed the difference between American sex education and Dutch sex education.

Dutch Sex Education

“The movie is dramatic: the figures morph as the characters gasp as the girl’s breasts grow or the boy notices his first pubic hairs. But what I love is that the level of drama is the same for the boy’s experience as the girl’s experience,” says Rough. “Still, the characters on screen are shocked by a first period and a first ejaculation. But the roughly eight-year-old boy standing next to me grew bored and wandered off before the 3-minute film ended.”

Rough, who recently released her book “Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality,” believes the Dutch boy was bored because puberty and sexuality are normalized in Holland. The Dutch sex education curriculum begins comprehensive sexuality education at age four.

“That normalization paves the way for both sexes to be in conversation with each other about their bodies,” says Rough. She thinks Americans have much to learn from the Dutch when it comes to educating our youth about puberty. Compared with the U.S., Holland boosts lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexuality transmitted infections—and much higher gender equality. Dutch and American teenagers begin having sex at roughly the same age (between 17 and 18). Yet Dutch teens report more positive experiences and fewer partners.

Puberty and Sexuality

“I find it interesting that some American sources advise parents to teach their kids not to speak to opposite-sex friends about periods. The Dutch believe the more teens know about what each other’s bodies are going through, the more likely they will be respectful—and even helpful— to each other, since they aren’t held back by embarrassment borne of ignorance,” says Rough.

Rough notes that the current best practice in formal sex ed should ensure all genders are in the same room learning the same information together. This teaches empathy for their friends of all sexes/genders as they go through potentially embarrassing changes. That’s right: separating boys and girls into different rooms to learn about periods and pimples is no longer thought of as the best way to teach kids about puberty.

“Knowing what everyone else knows, and what the common expectations are when it comes to being in relationship with each other, levels the playing field. It’s also a seed for creating a gender equal society,” says Rough.

Promoting Empathy

Of course, parents don’t decide if their children’s school teaches sex ed to both genders in the same room. Still, Rough says parents can do much at home to teach kids about puberty while promoting empathy. She encourages parents to start by ensuring that certain subjects aren’t reserved only for “boy time” or “girl time.”

“The family can have conversations about periods and first ejaculations in a normal tone. Do this when mixed genders are together,” says Rough. She offers an example of a mom who made it her mission to teach her older son about menstruation. And to do so long before her younger daughter’s first period arrived. Then, he could be supportive and protective with his sister. He knew to offer her a sweatshirt to tie around her waist if it was needed for a stain.

These conversations come with intention, says Rough. That means caregivers decide to talk casually about puberty. They practice vocabulary that may feel awkward until these words become part of normal conversation. Here’s a few more ways parents can promote empathy between genders:

What parents can do:

  • Encourage cross-gender friendships by creating social opportunities.
  • When we hear gender stereotypes or notice objectification, talk about it with children either during or after it happens.
  • If a stranger, friend or classmate has a negative reaction to your child’s changing body, let them know this is the not their problem. Try saying, “Oh, I guess they’re still learning about human bodies. Your body is exactly the way it needs to be.”
  • Catch yourself or your child when we say something that sounds like a joke but could hurt someone’s feeling. Try saying, “You might not realize this, but thinking about things that way can hurt you and other people.”
  • Don’t separate the emotions that come with body changes. Employ empathy by verbalizing the changes, like “I know growing whiskers can be uncomfortable.”

The end-goal for parents is to find ways to ensure that boys and girls in the same circle learn the same things about each other’s bodies. “Let’s say boys and girls are together in the car when a #MeToo segment is on the radio. Ask the kids if they know what this is about or if they have ideas about how the state of affairs can change,” says Rough. “I think for many of us, the tendency is to wait until other kids aren’t around. But these are priceless opportunities to model normalizing talk about gender, power, relationships, respect and equality.”

Nancy Alton

Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of two holistic health care guides, The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. She lives in Seattle with her husband, a teen, a tween, and two Havanese dogs. Read her blog here.