Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?

From a newspaper ad in 1904

A fascinating, challenging op-ed piece in the New York Times. Here’s how the authors, Robert P. George and Melissa Moschella, both of Princeton University, begin:

IMAGINE you have a 10- or 11-year-old child, just entering a public middle school. How would you feel if, as part of a class ostensibly about the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, he and his classmates were given “risk cards” that graphically named a variety of solitary and mutual sex acts? Or if, in another lesson, he was encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?

That prospect would horrify most parents. But such lessons are part of a middle-school curriculum that Dennis M. Walcott, the New York City schools chancellor, has recommended for his system’s newly mandated sex-education classes. There is a parental “opt out,” but it is very limited, covering classes on contraception and birth control.

What do you think? Should parents have the authority to determine what their children learn about sex and when? Or does the societal need trump parental freedom? Who knows best here? Who should decide?

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  • jrob

    Should be a parental opt out no matter what…..sadly that is called private school where parents have to pay for their kid to go to public school (taxes) and private school (tuition). But it is the only way….

  • Evan


    I presume that when you asked such an open-ended question that the limitations of space would of necessity come into play in the answers. Let me answer with a question.

    Do I really want the same folks, such as my former professors, who sneer at the notion that there is a God and who claim it is impossible for anyone to control their sexual urges to be the “experts” who decide what my children should learn about such matters due to “societal need”?

    I think not.

    Let me leave it at that.


  • Ann Phillips

    Don’t forget, the parents will not know the contents anyway, as a rule.  We may have a right to go to the school and ask to see it, but hardly anyone does, if only because you have to make a big effort to do that.  Or they will offer something to inform parents right at dinner time.  Of course, if enough parents find out about this and make noise in the local media as well as voting with their feet, it could be changed.  Funny how this is the sort of thing that Focus on the Family would warn us about and people would say, that will never happen.  

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Anonymous

    Hard to ask a better question. Thanks, Evan.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe there should be parental “Occupy the School District” protests!

  • M.J. Hertel

    Perhaps educators, school-board members and the religous leaders of a community could agree together upon exactly what would be included in sex-education.(But, alas, probably not). Some children are ready to hear about some things, understand and absorb them at a younger age than others. Who would know when better than the parents of the child?

    Perhaps parents could opt to have this subject taught at their church or synagogue, by qualified pastors, priests, rabbis, doctors and/or nurses who are members of their particular faith. Others could choose the societal choice of the public school system, or opt out completely and take their child to the family doctor or county health nurse for basic instruction in the factual processes of sex, sexually transmitted diseases etc. Bottom line. . .parents should choose and get help from whatever quarter they can. 

    I am 74, a great-grandmother and never wanted anyone but my husband and myself teaching our children about sex or religion (our church, as well, in the case of religion, of course).

  • Wellspring Jones

    A school’s primary responsibility is to students, not their student’s parents. On the other hand, any moral or religious outlook that a parent seeks to (rightfully and right-fully) offer to their child needs to be strong and coherent enough not to crumble at the first sight of a teacher holding a condom. Part of the reality of raising children is that there are a myriad of powerful, conflicting, and, often, random influences that vie for the child’s attention. If a parent’s influence on their child’s morality and beliefs is so tentative that a generic sex ed class will inexorable erode it, then that influence was never going to be lasting. In the meantime, the schools (appropriately) see it as their responsibility to prepare students for a wide array of academic and social challenges–one of them being the possibility of non-reproductive sex. 


  • Brightideas

    Clearly schools should give parents an “opt out” right several weeks ahead of instruction. Remembering how exciting all of this was we know that many children will be discussing it. Thus, parents who “opt out” will need to repare their children in advance of the school so their kids get it right the first time. 

    As it is normal for evolution to be taught as science, while creation is not mentioned, we know how “distorted” non-Christian education can be.  Recently California became the first state in the nation to teach children about gays and lesbians in a public school curriculum. 

    As for me and my house mom and dad will do the teaching first.

  • Wellspring Jones

    Mom and Dad may do the teaching first, but if that teaching suddenly becomes unhinged or undermined by a sex ed class then was that teaching very effective to begin with? As a Catholic, I search for durable ideas, ideas and beliefs that don’t whither when exposed to counter-beliefs or arguments. Children are complex; they are the site of a lot of influences. If faith can’t rise above those influences, then it doesn’t matter who did the “teaching first” or whether or not their sex ed class was problematic. The “real world” is much more threatening and convincing than a 9th grade health teacher. I feel like picking a fight with sex ed is avoiding the responsibility of parenting.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    This suggests that parents need to be more pro-active in educating their children when it comes to sex and morality.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. That’s how we did it in our house.

  • Anonymous

    That’s an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Thomas Riddle

    I am an educator, a community college instructor, and this opinion piece was the focus of my class today. George and Moschella make an interesting and at least initially persuasive argument. I’d be dismayed if I had children who were exposed to some of the content described in the essay. But at the same time, as a thoughtful person, I take exception to some of the premises on which the argument in this essay is based. If parents feel it to be a priority that their children’s education is controlled in terms of its moral content, that’s understandable. The clear course of action under such circumstances would be to opt for a private, religiously-informed education, or perhaps even to home-school the children. But if a parent or parents are going to send a child or children to a public institution, well…it seems a tad disingenuous to then take too strong an exception to the content of that educational experience. If I eat dinner at the house of a friend, I’m not exactly in a position to ask (let alone complain) if the chicken was free-range or the beef certified cruelty-free. If I am taking advantage of a service provided to me free of charge, I have only a limited authority over the nature of that service; if I dislike it or disapprove, I can, and should, vote with my feet. Granted, to the extent that all working people pay the taxes that support the public schools, one can say that parents have a right to input over the content of their children’s educational experience; but the financial burden of public schooling is so widespread across the populace of a given state or city that it seems, again, disingenuous to complain overmuch about a service that remains essentially free.
    Additionally, George and Moschella take issue with the notion that schools would challenge the moral precepts of the home environment. But isn’t an engagement with ideas, perspectives and values different from one’s own part and parcel of an education? Indeed, why call it an education if it only ever reinforces beliefs the student already holds? I would argue that it is the task of any educator, and of the educational experience itself (making allowances for sensitivity and compassion, of course) to expose young people to a broad range of ideas and beliefs and to challenge them to think for themselves about the respective merits of those ideas and beliefs–even when the ideas and beliefs to which they are exposed contradict those of the students, their parents or even the instructor.
    Finally, George and Moschella seem to paint an oddly embattled portrait of parents–as if their rights are compromised by the fact of an educational experience contrary to their beliefs. Parents have the right to their beliefs; they have the right to raise their children as they see fit; and they have the right to send their children to whatever sort of school they deem appropriate. But does anyone have the right not to encounter ideas they find objectionable? Or even to insulate their children from such ideas? That seems to reflect not a constitutionally or legally guaranteed right, but a preference for cultural isolation and withdrawal, a kind of quietism–without the quiet. I’m still sure I’d be dismayed if I had children and they were exposed to such frank content, but I wouldn’t be alarmed or outraged; I’d sit them down and talk with them about what they were learning, secure in the belief that my voice and the experience of being raised in my household would far outweigh the influence of a single class at school.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. It’s interesting, when my children were in school, there were sometimes things they heard in class that were upsetting to me. The worst was in my son’s eighth grade history class, where he learned that there was no sexism in the world until Christianity came along and rejected Mary as the head of the faith rather than Peter. This literally happened. My response was to talk at length with my son about those ideas and help him understand that he would often encounter ideas with which he disagreed.

  • Thomas Riddle

    Thank you in turn. That’s an upsetting scenario! Of course, you set your son straight, no doubt, but it is really bothersome to hear that people in my profession would do something of this sort. Perhaps I’m too trusting. There is a very real risk that the classroom and/or the lectern can be used as a venue for the voicing of entirely subjective and often emotionally driven, fact-free, commentary (as with the ridiculous assertion that Christianity introduced sexism into the world). But I encountered a fair bit of nonsense or misinformation in my own education in a  public school, and my own parents helped mitigate any unfortunate influences–my parents, and their neighborhood circle of friends, and my grandparents, etc., I should add. In fairness, though, nothing in my education was a direct or frank as the curriculum George and Moschella protest. I put in my two (or four, or six) cents in no small part because I was interested in seeing what reasoned counter-arguments might arise. Your own response is good food for thought. Thank you again.