Shore Hosts Sexuality Educator Deborah Roffman

On February 20, Shore hosted Deborah Roffman, a nationally known and widely published sexuality educator, consultant, and author, for a special event for parents in the Trustey Family Theatre. Roffman offered an informative and honest educational program for parents on teaching children about sexuality at any age or grade level. “The one constant in young people’s lives is their parents and guardians,” she said. “Decades of research demonstrate that it’s open communication at home about sexual topics that is the most significant factor in keeping teens out of harm’s way. So regardless of the current public spectacle on our screens, or the prevailing cultural or social milieu, parents can be the consistent voice of reason and reality that helps kids make wise decisions.”

Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Roffman has taught sexuality education for more than 40 years. Named one of Time Magazine’s “Top Sixteen Parenting Experts for the 21st Century,” her approach to teaching children about sexuality keeps the focus on young people and their universal needs around healthy sexual development. Her work has been featured in the Atlantic, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, and USA Today. She has been a featured speaker on television programs such as Nightline and the CBS Early Show and at national conferences such as the annual conference for NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools).

According to Head of Lower School Sara Knox, “We are especially fortunate to have the opportunity to host this distinguished educator at Shore.” Over the past year, a team of faculty members and administrators has worked closely with Roffman to align Shore’s Lower School sexuality education curriculum and approach to current research and best practice. “Her expertise has guided our process,” says Knox, “as we were quickly drawn to Deborah’s belief that children should learn about sexuality gradually and developmentally, as they would any other subject, instead of learning about it all in one dose when they’re old enough to hear every bit of information. Deborah focuses on core values such as respect and kindness in her child-centered approach, and she believes that parents and schools together should be the primary educators when it comes to teaching children about sexuality.”

During her appearance at Shore, Roffman explained that parents often put off talking about sexuality with children until around fourth grade, when they and teachers do an “information dump.” This is in opposition to the way children really learn, said Roffman, which resembles a spiral. “Children learn one fact after another until they understand concepts, which enable them to learn new facts in an ever-expanding world of ideas. This is why we don’t start with algebra—we start with numbers.” Parents and teachers should approach sexuality education in the same way: through gradually providing developmentally appropriate information starting in the earliest years.

“I am here with an agenda,” Roffman said. “My dream is that someday in the United States it will be families and schools working in partnership who will become children’s primary reference point on issues connected to sex, gender, and reproduction. I want children to hear about it from us first. Our culture presents these issues in highly simplistic, sensationalized, distorted ways. The message is that there’s not much to think about. But when you engage your children in conversations from an early age, you’re demonstrating to them that there is a lot to think about. You’re encouraging your children to think critically.”

It makes common sense for parents and teachers to be the ones engaging children in conversations about sexuality—and it also makes sense according to the research, said Roffman. “Decades of studies show that children who are raised in families that are open to answering kids’ questions about sexuality from an early age grow up healthier in any number of ways. Perhaps the most important way they’re healthier is that they tend to postpone risk-taking longer, until they are developmentally more prepared, with better communication skills and a greater understanding of themselves and others.”

“So why is it that parents and teachers have a hard time embracing the conversation about sexuality?” Roffman asked the audience. “We need to put the needs of children ahead of our own fears or embarrassment. We must understand the five core needs that every child has as they move from childhood to adulthood.” Roffman explained that all children need affirmation and unconditional love; information about healthy and unhealthy behaviors; clarity about values such as respect and integrity; appropriate boundaries and limits; and anticipatory guidance about making responsible, safe choices.

“The secret to raising sexually healthy children is that there is no secret,” Roffman assured listeners. “Good parenting is good parenting, and everything important you already know about meeting your children’s needs to nurture healthy, ethical, and capable children also applies to educating them about sexuality.”