What is the Dutch attitude to sex education and what will your child be taught in school? Pediatrician Anisha Abraham outlines the curriculum in the Netherlands and offers advice about approaching this subject with your children.
Let’s talk about Sex: Dutch style
How many of you have visited the Nemo Science Museum? A visit to the 3rd floor is a clear indication that the Dutch have an open view about sex education. There visitors can find an exhibit geared towards teens entitled 'Let’s talk about sex'. Displays in this exhibit include the science of sexual attraction, the French kiss, the many forms of contraception, and mannequins in various sexual positions. For some, this level of openness may be a bit shocking. For the Dutch, it’s part of a concerted effort to start the discussion about sex early and make it a normal part of growing up.
A Healthy Attitude
The Dutch may very well be on to something. According to Dutch foundation Rutgers, a sexual research institute, Dutch youth have the lowest teen pregnancy rates in Europe. Dutch kids receive sex education earlier and choose to have sex later than other European teens. In fact, the average age for their first sexual intercourse is 17, a year older than in Britain. What’s more, teen sexual encounters in the Netherlands are generally viewed as positive/wanted and enjoyable, whereas in the United States, nearly 2/3 of sexually-active teens surveyed said they wished they had waited longer to have sex. Research also shows that the majority of young people in the Netherlands use some form of protection when having sex and have relatively low rates of HIV infection and sexually-transmitted diseases.
What do the Dutch do differently? Dutch parents tend to openly discuss sex and their adolescents’ romantic or sexual relationships. Moreover, sex education starts early in the Netherlands. By age four, youngsters discuss their bodies in class. By the teenage years, formal sex education focuses on having positive relationships, negotiating with partners, and using contraception. This differs vastly from other countries, where the pervasive attitude is more conservative and significant taboos around discussing sex exist.
Applying the Rutgers Philosophy to the Dutch Curriculum
Not only do the Dutch start to teach sex education early, they also make sex education mandatory. Since 2012, age-appropriate sex education – including gender identity issues – is compulsory in all Dutch schools. Rutgers is the organization behind much of the Netherlands sex education curriculum. Ineke van der Vlugt, an expert on youth sexual development, explains on the institution’s website that, for teens, sexuality is about self-image, developing their own identity, gender roles, and learning to find their boundaries. Rutgers’ sex education is geared to help young people make well-informed choices, and has been adopted by a number of local and international schools in the Netherlands. Their materials use direct, age-appropriate language and simple images.
Rutgers’ Spring Fever curriculum starts at age 4-5 discussing feelings, being a boy versus a girl, etc. At age 7, sessions include discussing respect and attraction, and at age 8-9 same sex attractions (i.e. some of you may have two mommies). By age 10-11, topics include changes during puberty, love and dating, and men and women in the media. The 'Long Live Love' (Lang leve de liefde) curriculum aims to give teenagers the skills to make their own decisions and focuses not only on the biological aspects of reproduction but also values, attitudes, communication, and negotiation skills. A big focus of the Rutgers message is on feeling positive and having open communication.
Shing Chan is a school teacher who leads the sexuality education classes at a primary school in central Amsterdam. According to Shing, her school curriculum is very much based on the developmental needs of the students. When leading sessions for students ages 8-11 years, their focus is on changes that occur during puberty, such as having periods and acknowledging feelings and attractions. Classes are conducted separately for boys and girls, and are done in small groups, several times per year. Classes may incorporate educational TV clips/video segments and generally allow for classroom discussion. Parents are told at the beginning of the year which issues will be discussed, but are not typically notified before each sexuality education session.
Despite its successes, not everyone is entirely happy with this approach. A few parents interviewed for this article felt that they did not know what exactly was being taught, when, and how much their child actually knew. Although mandatory, actual information can vary, teachers may not receive specific training and the classes are not standardized.
In addition, according to the government, nearly 1/2 of the children in Amsterdam are from non-western backgrounds. Given the increased diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds, there are wide differences in views on sexuality and gender identity. Because of that, according to Shing, depending on the school and location, certain subjects such as gender identity may be presented differently or less openly at the primary school level. Still, there is no denying that the Dutch sex education is stronger and more open than in most other countries. Dutch sex education supports the philosophy that topics like masturbation, homosexuality, and sexual pleasure are normal and natural.
So what’s the bottom line for parents and kids? Sex education is comprehensive in the Netherlands. However, parents should be encouraged to discuss topics at home and keep the lines of communication open. There is strong evidence that children whose parents discuss sex with them are more likely to delay having sex, use contraception and have fewer partners.
How Can Parents Help Educate their Children?
As a pediatrician, here are a few tips that I have compiled from healthychildren.org and have used in my clinical practice:
1. Don’t wait for your kids to be teens to have a conversation. Start early, use every-day opportunities, and have an active, ongoing dialogue with your child.
2. Keep the subjects developmentally appropriate such as discussing good touch/bad touch or the names of body parts with kids ages 4-5 years and progressing to more detailed discussions about positive relationships and handling pressure to be sexually active as your child gets older.
3. Use correct terms. Using nicknames for your child’s sexual anatomy may relay the message that these body parts should not be talked about or are embarrassing so avoid this.
4. Reassure your child that kids mature at different rates. Explain what happens during puberty, including bodily changes and sexual attraction.
5. Children also often worry whether they’re normal. Remind them that you love them and that they are special.
6. Continue to remind teens that it’s OK to wait and there are other ways to express affection. Factors such as curiosity and peer pressure often drive young people to have sex.
7. When having conversations, ask about peer group or friends first and use open-ended questions. For example: “What do your friends think about the sex-ed class at school?” “Is anyone dating?” before progressing to more personal questions such as: “What do you think of sex-ed class?” and “Do you feel pressure to have sex?”
8. Finally, reinforce self-esteem. Tell children that they are unique. Discuss how healthy relationships should be based on trust and love, and reinforce that saying “no” means “no”.
Dr Anisha Abraham is a pediatrician with a specialty in teen health. She has 20+ years experience helping young people with substance abuse, eating disorders, obesity, depression and sexually-transmitted infections. She is currently on faculty at the University of Amsterdam and previously worked in the US and Asia. As a teen expert, she has done a TEDx on raising teens and has written a regular news column on child health. She also serves as a consultant in schools helping coach teens and their parents to handle stress and promote self-esteem and resilience.