Glee-ful Sex Ed

In our school district, 5th grade is the year for the puberty and sex talk. Wow, I do not envy those teachers—they’re walking this ridiculous tightrope that requires that they give 50 different kids of wildly varying religious backgrounds all the information they could possibly need without offending any of the 100 or so parents/grandparents/nosy neighbors involved in these kids’ lives. Whatever they’re paying these teachers, it’s not enough. (And I will spare you my rant about how it’s ridiculous that we need to rely on schools to teach such things to our children—for goodness’ sake, people, if you have strong opinions on how sex should be taught to your children, then do it yourself! Anyway…)

Turns out the video they use—narrated by C. Everett Koop back when he was Surgeon General—requires outdated technology that the school still possesses solely for this purpose. Yeah, that video is old enough that some of the parents probably saw exactly the same one when they were in 5th grade. Why hasn’t it been replaced? Because of the incredible hassle they went through to get that one approved. It’s just not worth it to try again.

So, despite the best efforts of some wonderful teachers, doing their best to answer questions and inform kids without trampling on any of the parents’ ideas of what their kids should know and how they ought to hear it, we decided that we should probably supplement what the school offered.

I struggled with how best to do this. We watched the Nova special, Life’s Greatest Miracle. As far as a documentary on how a baby develops, it’s pretty cool and the photography is mind blowing. But there’s so much more that our daughter needs to know (so does our son, but he’s just not interested right now. Maybe next year, when he’s in 5th grade). Sexuality is so much more than babies.

Totally unrelated to this, Clark asked why our daughter wasn’t watching Glee because she’s very much a music/performance/dance geek. I replied that it’s because the show has so much stuff about sex, teenage pregnancy, sexual identity…wait a minute! All the reasons the show didn’t seem appropriate a year or so ago are the exact same reasons that it’s really quite appropriate right this minute.

We’ve always been the parents who were a bit hyper about what was age appropriate, so lots of our kids’ friends are reading and watching things that we don’t let our kids read and watch yet. But sharing media with your kids creates lots of learning opportunities, and lots of things become appropriate when you’re there to discuss the issues and questions that come up.

So the girl and I are about 8 episodes into the first season of Glee. And it has led to so many talks about so many things. Yeah, a lot of the throw away lines go over her head, and that’s probably for the best—she doesn’t really need to know 15 euphemisms for sex right now. But having specific characters and specific situations as a starting point for these discussions is really helping a lot. She’s asking questions that we probably never would have gotten to if we were talking about a documentary or a book.

No, I’m not at all suggesting that just putting a kid in front of Glee will double as sex ed—we’re spending a lot of time talking about the stuff they get wrong, too. Or that they assume the viewer knows is wrong and that’s part of the joke. But as long as it’s used as a springboard for conversation and not the end of the discussion, it’s actually really great.

For instance, her ideas of homosexuality have all been around our discussions of gay marriage—it was eye opening for her to think about a gay teen dealing with unrequited crushes. I was also glad to be able to tell her Kurt isn’t the only gay character on the show—it’s just that not all of them are so obvious right now. Sexual preference is a spectrum. She finds Kurt and his dad really touching. She was nervous for Kurt when he came out to his dad because in most stories his dad would have turned against him for betraying all his ideas of what his son should be. Instead, we get another great “I know” response. His dad doesn’t need to identify with his son to be able to love him for who he is. I’m glad there are examples of parents of teenagers actually being understanding and supportive instead of stupid and clueless. Of course, there are examples of that approach, too.

Watching Quinn deal with her pregnancy has done more to teach my girl about the importance of safe sex than any lecture ever could. The situation has also led us to conversations about how you can end up having sex without really meaning to, and more importantly ways to avoid having sex when you don’t mean to. Quinn is set up as an example of how celebrating celibacy often doesn’t work, but she also gave us an opening for talking about the importance of setting guidelines with a romantic partner before things get hot and heavy.

There are a wide variety of relationships portrayed, and my girl’s starting to analyze why people might be attracted to each other, and that it’s not a simple and straightforward thing. So many books are love at first sight, with clear cut couples that will obviously eventually get together. I’m appreciating the hormonal mess that is Glee, because that’s so much closer to what she’ll actually be encountering. Yeah, especially as a teenager, you can be totally into several people at once for vastly different reasons. I appreciate that she doesn’t exactly have a couple to root for—she already wants Kurt to find happiness, but there’s no match for him yet. Is Finn a better fit with Quinn or with Rachel? Because it’s not a movie, we don’t need a neat, easy, and obvious answer to that question. Is Puck a good guy or a bad guy? The answer is yes.

Sure, a lot of things are exaggerated for humor’s sake. And the show is far from perfect. But it’s providing a way for us to talk about the messiness of life—sex, sexual identity, pressure from peers, bullying, and how all of that doesn’t magically stop when you become an adult.

Most importantly, it’s giving us a way to talk about these issues before she’s old enough to be experiencing them for herself and while she’s still young enough to be ok talking about them with me. I hope that we’ll always have this kind of openness, that she’ll always feel like she can tell me anything, but I know that it’s more likely that someday there will be things she’ll think she can’t share. When she’s facing some of those issues, I hope she’ll look back fondly on the summer we spent watching Glee and she’ll find guidance and strength in the conversations that came from it.

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8 Responses to Glee-ful Sex Ed

  1. Christie says:

    What a fantastic idea! I love how you turned it around from potentially inappropriate to working in your favor.
    This also underscores the importance of watching these things together so you can help guide the discussions and the conclusions that result.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I’m learning that there are so many things that are appropriate as long as you watch/read them with your kids and talk about them. I suppose that should be obvious, but I’m just starting to fully grasp how much more they can understand when we help them think through them through conversations – and how much they can totally misunderstand when left on their own!

  2. Kelly Kaiserian says:

    I really struggled with how to talk to my boys about sex without making it about “a man and a woman who want to make a baby.” Discussing sex is not nearly as hard for me as discussing sexuality. I don’t have the religious convictions I had as a teen, I reject the rigid gender roles that seem to dominate our media, and so I feel that I don’t have a set of rules to start with. Watching Glee and The Big Bang Theory has given us a least a place to start, where we can comment on the good behavior and the bad behavior. I am generally in Mom mode during these shows. So I was unprepared when my 9-year-old wanted to know, during a prop skit in Whose Line is it Anyway, why would big breasts help someone’s career? Oi!

    • ayvalentine says:

      Exactly – there’s the biology of how babies are made and then there’s this whole big mess around how humans deal with sex which has to be an ongoing conversation. And of course the kids are likely at least 10 or more years away from truly caring about how babies are made and about 10 minutes away from having to deal with that big hormonal, social, and emotional mess that is human sexuality.

      And yes – they will always find a way to throw you a curve ball, no matter how you try to prepare!

      I’ve been wondering about shows to watch with the boy when he’s ready, since Glee really doesn’t do it for him. The Big Bang Theory might work. Someone else suggested DeGrassi, which I’ve heard good things about.

  3. Josh Roby says:

    More than once, we’ve talked about Glee in the sex-ed class that I teach at my congregation. We use it as a touchstone, as counter-examples, as cautionary tales, and so on. I’m of the firm opinion that in ten years (or less) we’re going to start hearing about how Glee was massively influential in a whole generation’s understanding of sexuality.

    • ayvalentine says:

      It certainly offers more variety than many shows/movies/books and it does it as a true ensemble. Sure, they could handle some things better, but I appreciate the many examples they present and how few characters are all good or all bad or played only for laughs.

  4. This is a fantastic post, Amanda. I come from a large family and often found myself looking after my younger brother and sisters. Both my parents worked a lot, so I found myself in a parental position. One of my sisters would constantly ask me about her body and how babies were born. I took her to the library and together we read an illustrated children’s book (I wish I could remember the name) that explained everything very simply. My sister was contented and thankfully, did not ask me about it again. Years ago I worked for a psychiatrist, who believed in explaining and educating his children about their bodies. Sex is a challenging subject for every parent or guardian. Although it is over the top in some areas, GLEE has many positive aspects to it.

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