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Turns out the video they use—narrated by C. Everett Koop back when he was Surgeon General—requires outdated technology that the school still possesses solely for this purpose.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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