You've just found out your son or daughter is getting sex education at public school and you want to give them the Islamic perspective on it.
Or your kids have started asking the “where do babies come from” question.
But you just can't get over your tongue-tying embarrassment. Imagine! If your father or mother, back in Cairo or Karachi, heard of this they'd be stunned and question your parenting skills!
Here are some tips that can help you talk to your kids about the “s” word.
1. Start Early
Ideally sex education is not provided to kids in a reactionary fashion. Rather, it's given from the beginning in an indirect manner.
This means the child has to have a strong sense of identity and an understanding of what his or her values are.
“Parents are going to have sit down and explain their values to their own children. And this needs to start young, before the society influences them,” says Marilyn Morris, a Christian, who is president and founder of Aim for Success. The organization promotes abstinence from sex through speeches and presentations to students in grades six to 12. The group is one of the largest providers of abstinence education in the United States.
She says it is also important to explain to kids why you hold those values. For example, why do you not approve of sex outside of marriage, whether this is for religious and/or health reasons.
2. Give the child age-appropriate sex education
Starting to teach different topics at the right age is also important.
For example, a boy of eight may notice his mom does not pray some time during the month and may ask why. At this point, it can simply be said this is a time when Allah has excused women from praying. At the age of 12 or 13, a parent can introduce the topic of menstruation, and by that point, he will be able to make the connection.
Another way topics of a sexual nature can be introduced is while the child is reading the Quran. When the child reads verses about sexual intercourse, menstruation, or homosexuality, for example, this can be explained in a matter-of-fact manner.
Sex can also be discussed in the context of cleanliness in Islam at a certain age. For example, by the age of six or seven, a child must know how to clean him or herself after using the toilet.
After this at about eleven or twelve, the issue of Ghusl can be raised and when it is necessary (i.e. after sexual intercourse, after menstruation, etc).
As well, parents should sit with their children individually, not all together to explain various age-appropriate topics related to sex.
Some of the topics to talk about include modesty, decency, conduct and behavior .
But these should not be presented as just a bunch of rules to be followed. Rather the wisdom behind, for example, the Islamic dress code and lowering the gaze for both sexes should be explained.
3. Parents should build a good relationship with their kids
Proper sex education can only be given if the correct messages are being sent explicitly and implicitly by parents.
There has to be openness, not a rigid and dogmatic atmosphere at home.
“I'm talking about a loving relationship at home between the parents,” says Khadija Haffajee an Islamic activist and a retired school teacher from the Ottawa-Carleton region of Canada. She has spent about 30 years working in the public school system. “That there's love between the parents, there's affection. They [the kids] can see this, how they talk to each other, the respect that's there.”
4. Be an example
This goes hand in hand with being a role model, which is the best way to teach and transmit values to children.
That means not only should children be exposed to a healthy male-female relationship when they see their parents. It also means parents do not engage in activities which undermine their views on sexuality.
For instance, “being careful themselves about what they watch on T.V. or what movies they go to see, “ is crucial says Morris “because that ‘s a bad influence on us at any age. And if our children see us doing it why shouldn't they as well?”
This also means setting an example in other aspects of life by following the same rules you expect your kids to follow. For example, if you're running late, call children and let them know, show them the same courtesy you expect from them, explains Morris.
5. Meet with others who share your values
It is necessary for children to not just see the embodiment of Islamic values at home. They must also experience this in contacts with other Muslim children and families, says Haffajee.
They must see that family life the Islamic way is not just something their own family practices, but it's something others do as well.
This makes it more “normal” for the child, who in public school may have friends or acquaintances with homosexual parents (two mommies or two daddies), parents who are having sex outside of marriage (mom's boyfriend, dad's girlfriend) or other types of unacceptable relationships.
6. Get involved with your children's school
Depending on a parent's schedule, this can mean different things. Most of the time, public schools encourage parents' active participation through channels like Parent and Teachers' Associations (PTAs) or as elected school board members.
Haffajee explains that more and more schools will be decentralized and will have more power at the PTA level, for instance. Another forum for involvement is running in school board elections. School boards run all the schools in one district.
But if this is too much of a commitment for you as a parent, at least be in contact with your child's teacher, and let her/him know not just about problems, but good things he or she is doing for your child as well.
”We have to build these links, not feel it's them and us,” adds Haffajee.
Volunteering and helping at the school is also an option. This differs in each school. Some may have a lunchroom program with parents as monitors, for instance, which requires only a few hours a week.
Regular participation in such school organizations and activities gives you a voice as a parent to express your views about what's going on in the school system as it affects your child, as well as others' children.
It is important to add that this involvement should not come only when the school has done something you, as a parent, feel has violated your child's needs as a Muslim, or when you want something specifically for your child (i.e. time off for Eid, Juma, etc.).
By participating at the long-term level, your voice is more likely to be heard because you're involved in making the school better generally, not just for your child's interest only.
When it comes time for sex education, you can band together with other parents, Muslim and non-Muslim, who share the same views on the topic, and it is more likely you will be listened to.
“There are a lot of non-Muslim parents who are concerned about these issues and feel as if there is no control,” notes Haffajee.
7. Know the sex education territory
“There should be talk about what kind of information they're getting, preadolescent education,” says Haffajee.
Launching a three hour tirade against the evils of public school sex education will do little good in helping your son or daughter see what's wrong with it. This is why it is necessary to find out what is included in the sex education curriculum.
“They should find out exactly what the school is teaching, to the point of even sitting with the person doing the education and finding out about the values of that person,” says Morris. “This is a very important issue”
8. Know the Islamic perspective on sex
There is more to sex education than telling your son or daughter “don't do it until you get married”.
Topics like menstruation, sexual changes in adolescents, Islamic purity after various types of uncleanliness associated with sex also have to be discussed.
If you're not sure, get some help from a knowledgeable Muslim or Imam, as well as a guide for parents (see the review for the book Miracle Of Life.
Be capable of providing exact references from the Quran, Sunnah and valid Islamic authorities on relevant topics (i.e. birth control, boy/girl relationships, etc.).
On the same note, if in the course of your conversation your child asks you something and you are not sure about whether it really is Islamic or not, CHECK IT OUT. Assuming that a cultural practice relating to sex or boy/girl relationships is automatically Islamic is a mistake.
9. Tell your kids you're available to talk to them about sex
This is necessary, especially if sex has been a taboo subject in the household for so long.
“Parents [should] say to their children “I want to be your primary source of information about sex,” says Morris.
This makes it clear that while your child may be getting information about sex from other sources like television, the movies, school and friends, you are the “authoritative source”.
This is done best when discussed at a younger age, rather than waiting for the teen years when rebelliousness usually kicks in and kids are less likely to listen to parents.
10. Express your nervousness
It will be hard to talk about sex for many parents. But they should not hide this from their kids.
Morris recommends parents say, “If I sound nervous or uncomfortable just bear with me,” in the course of their conversation.
This stresses the seriousness of the topic and the importance of what you want to say. The fact that this is so difficult for you, yet you are going forward with it emphasizes your child's need to listen.
11. Withdraw your child from sex education but tell them why
There are public schools where sex education is an option, and a child can be exempted from it.
Haffajee says there are parents, Muslim and non-Muslim who have decided to choose this instead of having their kids sit through public school sex education.
But if you do decide to do this, she advises it is important to clearly explain to your child why this is being done, and to ensure that s/he is being provided with Islamic sex education in the home.
Otherwise, your child may see it as being excluded from an activity with his or her friends.
12. Get help from others
If you feel extremely uncomfortable talking to your kids about it, enlist the help of a knowledgeable and open Imam or community member who is of the same gender as your child, to explain the details and provide the guidance.
Other people can be Islamic weekend school teachers, a Muslim social worker, or a trusted family member like an aunt, uncle or cousin.
Also, get some books for your kids that discuss sex from an Islamic perspective. Miracle of Life or Ahmad Sakr's The Adolescent Life are some examples.
However, getting someone else to talk to them or giving them a book is not the end of the story. As a parent, you have to be ready and open to at least hear Ameer or Jamila's concerns or questions about sex, so you can direct them to the right person or information if you are uncomfortable answering yourself.