The Ontario Sex Education Curriculum: An Imam’s Perspective
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Link Canada publication.
We live in a rapidly changing world. Methods of communication have changed drastically in the past 15 years. The growth in personal communication devices has opened up access to material that was difficult to access in the past. At the same time, societal norms of acceptability are also being lowered rapidly, with exposure to violent and sexual messages occurring more often and at earlier ages.
Parents, who are tasked with the responsibility of giving their children a good, wholesome upbringing, face an uphill struggle in the face of these changes. Making good parenting decisions is no longer just about sending children to good schools, making healthy nutritional choices, ensuring children get physical exercise and limiting time in front of the television.
As Muslims, the duty to give our children a good upbringing includes inculcating good morals, ethics, skills for good decision making and most importantly, God-consciousness and faith.
This is why Ontario’s revised health and physical education curriculum, which includes changes to how sex education is taught in schools, is of particular concern to many Muslim parents as well as people of other faiths.
Today’s schooling experience is very different from what it was like two decades ago. Fuelled by media and popular culture, the environment in schools and the peer pressure children face are considerably more negative than they were in the past. Children are seeing and hearing things that most parents didn’t when they were young, or even if they did, it likely wasn’t to the same degree as it is today.
A lot of what children are exposed to today would be considered by many devout parents as shameful or embarrassing. This includes the various forms of intimate contact (from the very benign to the very vile), inappropriate videos and images of such acts (available freely on the internet), as well as vulgar language rooted in such acts. Due to the challenging nature of these topics, many parents avoid addressing them altogether either because they don’t know how to approach them or they hope that their children won’t find out about them. While this hesitation may be understandable, it does more harm than good since oftentimes children have already been exposed and may have formed an incorrect understanding due to the absence of mature and correct guidance.
Exposure to such material can happen in public schools, Catholic schools, or even Islamic schools, although the risk is probably the highest in public schools where it may also occur earlier. In reality though, it could happen anywhere. While there may be exceptions, parents must understand that enrolling children in a “good” school does not absolve them in any way of their responsibility regarding such issues.
From a spiritual point of view, such exposure can be very toxic with long-lasting effects. Early exposure is even more unhealthy as it makes it possible for these poisonous seeds to take root in the hearts of young children, that can then continue to negatively influence them through various stages of development.
This changing environment is the rationale given by the Ontario government for introducing the changes in how sex education is taught in publicly-funded schools.
The new curriculum is a large document consisting of over 200 pages, which covers many good topics for grades one to eight, including the development of healthy habits, physical exercise, safe internet activity, risk of diseases contracted through intimate contact, as well as the seriousness and dangers of engaging intimately with another person. It promotes diversity, inclusiveness and accommodation for all groups, including Muslims. For example, it makes specific reference to having gender-only swimming classes to accommodate religious beliefs and allowing flexibility in dress.
The curriculum does not dictate how the material should be taught. It simply spells out what students should learn and when. Public schools and publicly-funded Catholic schools are required to follow the curriculum while private elementary schools (including all Islamic schools) are not. Parents may be allowed to exempt their children from some portions of the material, but the extent of the exemption may vary between school boards.
Since the provincial education system is based on a secular, humanist perspective, the only value judgments it makes are based on science, safety, and current laws. It does not promote judgements from a faith-based perspective, although it does suggest that faith can be an important factor to consider when making individual choices.
As such, not only does it make reference to various form of intimate contact, it also portrays certain practices and lifestyle choices as being acceptable – for example, having intimate contact with another person regardless of their gender and deriving intimate pleasure from oneself.
Children being taught the curriculum will likely get the message that the many of the different practices and lifestyle choices that are common nowadays are perfectly normal and appropriate – including the different forms of intimate acts, which gender they are intimate with, and even how they feel about their own gender – whether they feel it truly reflects how they feel.
In fact, there have been reports of cases nowadays of children of the same gender indulging in such behaviour among themselves because they’re told that it is acceptable and normal.
So while it is important for children to learn about issues that may be considered to be embarrassing or shameful, what they will be learning may be too early and will almost certainly contain messages that many devout parents will disagree with.
So, what should parents do?
Firstly, it’s important for parents to realize their role is not to simply act as police officers towards their children. Their job is to exert control initially, then educate and guide – easing their control as children grow older. Parents cannot control everything but they can certainly limit exposure by making better choices regarding media consumption, schooling, and their social interactions. Faith, and in particular what role it plays in the lives of children, must be a priority in every way, even when making career moves and financial decisions.
Once parents are in the habit of making the best choices possible from a faith-based perspective, periodic assessments should be done to figure out the risk of exposure to children, regardless of the type of school they attend. While it is incredibly difficult to undo something that has already been learnt, there should be an effort to offer a counterbalance through extracurricular instruction in the form of classes, programs, videos or books.
Parents should also engage with their school trustees, school boards and individual school principals and teachers to discuss their concerns in a balanced way that acknowledges an understanding of why these changes are being introduced but also explains, in a sensitive manner, why they are of concern to parents.
A solid parent-child relationship, based on love, compassion and togetherness, can go a long way in overcoming these challenges. Exposing children to wholesome and Islamic activities, making them fun if they aren’t already, and giving children the opportunity to socialize with other families and children who value God-consciousness and good morals also plays an important role in the positive development of children.
Addressing current issues or challenging topics from an Islamic perspective, in an appropriate and respectful manner, is also extremely important. Doing so can help children process what they’re exposed to. Parents should seek the help of faith-based educators and experts if they need assistance in dealing with such issues. There are some good books available that can also be good resources, such as Meeting the Challenge of Parenting in the West by Dr Ekram Bashir and Dr Reda Beshir, as well as Muslim Teens : Today’s Worry Tomorrow’s Hope and Parenting Skills Based on the Qur’an and Sunnah by the same authors.
The key for parents lies in instilling the importance of faith, God-consciousness, physical and spiritual purity from an early age, so that children develop a connection with God from an early age, and in guiding them accordingly through the choices parents make for them as they grow older. Once children are firmly rooted in these teachings, they will be more likely to be naturally less inclined towards that which is inappropriate.
No parent can guarantee that their children will always make the right choices, but as with everything else, parents must try their best and leave for God the rest.
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- The Ontario Sex Education Curriculum: An Imam’s Perspective - April 30, 2015