The beauty of expat life is that you get to see an alternate universe. You get to see how life might have panned out at home, if only people weren’t so bound to tradition.
Sure, in some cases the alternative might be worse. It might send you running right back home where everything is “better,” but more often than not the opposite seems to be true: We like what we see abroad and wonder why it’s not done this way at home.
In my last blog post, I put together a list of such “Expat Joys,” all those little things that you wouldn’t have thought of before as being particularly enjoyable, but which now that you’ve moved to a new life in a new country, have come to mean a lot to you. Those kinds of things that you might be surprised to miss a lot after you’ve returned to your home country.
And wouldn’t you know, just as I hit “publish” on that collection, I thought of another expat joy: sensible sex education.
You might not consider this a joy at all. Who relishes tackling the hairy – no pun intended – topics of adolescence with their kids? Having to stand your ground while squirming under a united front of eye-rolling and exasperated groaning from the teenage contingent in your family?
But that is precisely the point. Back home in the United States, this was such a big to-do on my parenting list of unwanted chores. Because you didn’t expect the school to put forth any meaningful discussion of changes to the human body, let alone contraceptive methods – we lived in Kansas, after all! – you knew that bringing your kids up to speed would fall squarely onto you. And if you started too early – which most experts agree is probably the best time – you faced the real threat of irate parents at your door who couldn’t BELIEVE that your child passed on their newly-won knowledge about how babies are made to their own pure and innocent offspring. How COULD you spill the beans!!! Here their kids were all on a path of abstinence well into their twenties, and you had to screw it up by painting an oh-so-luring picture of sexual bliss, by proxy of your child’s recounting, that of course NOW they’re going to want to try it out first chance they get.
So you might imagine I was pleasantly surprised that in South Africa, our school took on a leading role of enlightenment. As part of the Life Orientation curriculum, a compulsory class at most schools taken all the way until matric, an external coach of some sort was brought in for an extended talk with the boys and girls. I believe it started in 4th grade, but I could be wrong, it might have been 5th. But not only that, the same coach was also booked for several sold-out nights at the school auditorium to enlighten us PARENTS about the secrets to sex education.
At first, being a good American, I sat there squirming in my seat. The woman standing on the stage was using embarrassing words! She called things by their name! But once I got over my initial shock to hear such frank talk in the same halls we were normally treated to soaring sermons from the headmaster, I began to pay attention. Soon we were informed about stuff I’d never even heard about, in an effort to bring us up to speed with what our kids might be discussing or ask us about. Surely not my kids though, who will smell potentially embarrassing talks from a mile away and steer clear before they can become entangled, much like they have a sixth sense about when to disappear from the kitchen and poke their nose in a book lest they get roped into unloading the dishwasher.
Kudos to South African schools for being much more sensible about sex education than their American counterparts – at least in the states we’d lived in.
We might not like it, but our kids ARE going to grow up. They ARE going to find out about the facts of life one way or another, so why not be a part of how they achieve this? I’m not saying we should shirk our duties and let the school do the unpleasant parts so that we can sit back and relax. But the school being involved early on makes it so much easier to start the talks you need to have at home. Your 4th grader coming home and telling you about his day is much more prone to share and have additional questions than that same kid by the time he’s in 7th grade. If you’ve ever met a 7th grader, you will know that he will roll his eyes about EVERYTHING, let alone you interrupting his video game with the words: “We need to talk about the Birds and the Bees.”
About those birds and bees: Another thing South Africa has going for it is that you don’t have to resort to birds and bees at all. It’s much more compelling with, say, lions. Watch for yourself.