Supporting parents and whānau to rethink RSE 

HomeSchool resourcesHealth, PE and relationshipsSupporting parents and whānau to rethink RSE 

Supporting parents and whānau to rethink RSE 

In New Zealand, it is a legal requirement that school boards consult with their community at least once every two years about their health curriculum. In addition to this, it may be helpful to support parents and families in their understanding of the evolving nature of RSE, particularly as it relates to the changing needs of children and young people in today’s world. Below are some suggestions to help guide and inform conversations with parents and families. 

  • Understand the difference between sex education and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) 

The WHO defines sexuality as ‘a central aspect of being human throughout life’. Therefore ‘Sexuality education’ is framed within a holistic model of wellbeing, which includes physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Sexuality is much broader than ‘sex’, which relates primarily to the physical aspects of sexual and reproductive knowledge. RSE provides an opportunity to explore relationships, love, gender norms, consent, intimacy, safer sex practices, diversity and inclusion, and much more. ‘Sex education’ might look at how to protect your own body from STI’s, which is still valuable, but ‘sexuality education’ explores the broader factors that influence safer sex practices such as social norms, communication, relationships, and respect for others. Remember, intimacy occurs between ‘people’ not ‘bodies’. 

  • Do not make assumptions about what young people need/want to learn 

Before parents can engage in any conversations around sexuality, they need to reflect on the values, beliefs, and experiences that underpin how they think about young people as sexual beings. Parents want the best for their children, but they often draw on their own experiences to tell young people what they think they need to know. It is important to reflect on what you say and why, but also what you don’t say. Silences, body language, and observing parental relationships are some of the most powerful (enhancing or harming) learning experiences for young people.  

  • Be open about communicating about sexuality 

Parents are often told to be ‘open and honest’ with their children about sex and sexuality. However, how parents understand what it means to be open and honest is not the same for everyone. Being ‘open’ may involve sharing your point of view but not listening to what the young person thinks. Being open and honest should not be seen as an intervention to create a responsible ‘sexual citizen’. Parents need to reframe being ‘open and honest’ as a tool to enhance communication. Young people want parents to have discussions with them about sexuality, but the focus should be on exploring their ideas, values and beliefs as they make sense of the world, and advocate for change. As one young person said, ‘I wish my parents could have a conversation with me but keep their mouths shut’ (in other words, they need to listen). 

  • Forget the one-off sexuality talk where you sit facing your child 

The one-off talk sex talk is often embarrassing, uncomfortable and may communicate to young people that you are not comfortable talking about sex and relationships as part of life. It is helpful for parents to start conversations early by drawing on real-life moments or topics that engage young people in conversation. For example, while doing the dishes, you might mention an article you read and ask your child their opinion on one of the issues.  It is important to let young people talk so they can share their ideas of the world. Many parents feel inadequately prepared to talk about sexuality with their children, but you do not need to be the expert or have all the answers. Parents who have good communication with their children are able to act more as ‘critical thinking’ guides where they work with their children to develop knowledge. 

Great starter questions include: What do you know about …? What do you think about…? What do you think other young people feel about this? What do you think young people need to learn? How would you deal with that situation? What different ways could a young person manage that? What might be some of the good, not so good, outcomes of that? 

  • Remember that parent/child communication about sexuality topics does not encourage sexual activity 

Research shows that talking about sex does not increase sexual activity, but international and national research does show that parent/child communication promotes critical thinking, respect for self, healthy relationships, and increased safer sex behaviours. 

  • Understand that sexuality education at home and school are BOTH important 

Young people are learning about themselves from a range of sources. Sexuality education at home allows young people to hear what their parents and whānau think. School sexuality education provides a place for young people to learn critical thinking skills and to discuss topics from different perspectives. It is worthwhile for parents to find out what sexuality education topics are being talked about in their child’s class and ask their opinion about it using open questions. Avoid trying to be the expert, but rather listen to what they have to say. 

  • Respect your child’s privacy and their right to make sense of the world 

Parents often worry that they are not parenting the ‘right’ way, and that their child doesn’t want to talk to them about sexuality topics. Sometimes young people don’t want to speak as they want to work things out for themselves, or assume their parents don’t want to talk. Parents just need to make sure their children know they are there for them if they want to discuss ideas surrounding sexuality. If they need you, they will know where to come. Remember not to provide innuendos, and instead listen and support the young person to think critically about the societal messages informing sexuality and gender norms. 

  • Talk about the pleasurable aspects of being a sexual being – what does a great relationship look, sound and feel like?  

Talking about the good things surrounding sexuality such as relationships, intimacy, pleasure, and sex, is often very difficult for parents. Young people experience both pleasure and risk every day, and relationships are no different. Young people have called for the opportunity to discuss both pleasure and risk (the benefits and the harms) as part of sexuality education, and this should happen in the home as well. Having a relationship can be thought of as similar to driving a car on the road. We manage the risks by wearing a seatbelt and being respectful to others on the road. Driving, like relationships, then has the potential to be a pleasurable experience. To have a great relationship, you need communication and respect to manage the inevitable difficult times. Relationships are complex and full of uncertainty, just like driving in traffic! Just remember, talk WITH young people and ask their ideas and opinions. When young people feel judged they will not ask you for support. 

Copyrighted to Tracy Clelland 

By Tracy Clelland


Tracy Clelland

Tracy Clelland is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury and currently teaches health education, specialising in Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). Previous to this role, she was a secondary school HPE teacher. Her research explores the important role of teachers/kaiako and parents/whānau in fostering open communication about sexuality between young people, parents and wider whānau. In 2021, she wrote a resource with the Classification Office for teachers to address pornography within education settings. She also worked with a team of educators to create resources for primary and secondary teachers to implement RSE in schools.

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