ST: Mothers, talk to your kids about the birds and the bees

By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent

The Sunday Times

May 10, 2009

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was every parent’s dream. A Boy Scout, he scored good grades at school, loved football and helped out at the local church.

Yet, after dinner on April 6, the Massachusetts boy wrapped an extension cord around his neck and killed himself. He was 11.

Ten days later, on April 16, Jaheem Herrera from Georgia hanged himself with a fabric belt, hours after returning home with glowing grades. He too was 11.

Both families say that relentless taunts by schoolmates who called them ‘gay’ drove the boys to their deaths. The schools have not denied their allegations.

Carl’s mother had even complained repeatedly to her son’s school about the homophobic slurs she said he encountered every day.

The deaths – not the first in recent years – have ignited a debate in the American media on bullying and some are asking whether churches and overzealous parents are pushing their own anti-gay religious agenda too far, too fast.

But at a prayer service for her son Jaheem late last month, preaching hatred and ascribing blame were not on Ms Masika Bermudez’s mind.

Instead, the weeping mother told parents everywhere to convey a simple yet significant message to their children: ‘Whatever your problems, don’t be afraid to talk to your mother.’

And on this Mother’s Day, that’s a message Singaporeans too should take seriously.

Over the past month, Singapore has been rocked by an acrimonious debate over the extent to which school programmes should discuss homosexuality, thanks to the goings-on at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

In late March, a group of Christian women took over the reins at Singapore’s best-known women’s group in what was widely regarded as a constitutional coup.

Many of them were mothers and feared that the Aware leaders they had just ousted were promoting homosexuality through sexuality education programmes that the group conducted in a handful of government schools.

But these new leaders were themselves voted out of office early this month at an extraordinary general meeting.

Aware, meanwhile, clarified that its discussions of homosexuality – which was referred to in ‘neutral’ rather than ‘negative’ terms – took up less than five minutes of its three-hour sex education programme.

In the most recent development, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last Wednesday that it was suspending all external sex education programmes, including those conducted by Aware. It reiterated that all such programmes would reflect ‘mainstream views and values of Singapore society, where the social norm consists of the married, heterosexual family unit’.

MOE’s decision is not surprising in principle, since homosexual acts are against the law here. However, that decision does not mean an end to the issue. Schools will continue to have to grapple with how to deal with students with homosexual tendencies as well as bullies who hurl homophobic taunts.

Teasing boys for being gay or girlish is not unheard of in schools here, though some schools are dealing with it firmly.

Late last month, three boys from a popular secondary school were publicly caned for taunting a younger student for his ‘girly voice’.

In its statement on Wednesday, MOE reminded parents that it was they – and not schools – who bore the ultimate responsibility for shaping their children’s views of the world.

I could not agree more. But still, the decision has seeded some worries in me.

Children tend to see things in black and white. Tolerance and understanding moral ambiguities are not things that come naturally to them.

With the suspension of the Aware programme, will ‘gay’ now become a lethal new addition to the verbal arsenal of school bullies here? Will Mums and Dads be around to talk to confused and shy kids about sex and sexuality?

Most importantly, will parents teach their children that irrespective of how they view sexuality, all individuals deserve dignity and respect?

Counsellors such as Dr Carol Balhetchet from the Singapore Children’s Society say that parents here remain as reluctant to discuss sex and sexuality with their children as they were 15 years ago.

But unlike then, the danger now is that children have a sea of information – much of it baseless or plain corrupt – just a mouse-click away. Newspapers, too, often report on the issue.

Indeed, it was after reading a Straits Times report on Elton John’s marriage in late 2005 that my daughter, then nearly eight, wondered aloud whether it was possible for ‘a man to marry a man’.

‘Yes, in some countries,’ I said cryptically, hoping that the mega fan of the Lion King singer would not probe further.

She did not. For her, it was just another new thing she learnt that day.

The hard questions came last week, more than three years later. Eleven now and far more aware of the moral ambiguities in our imperfect world, she asked whether I thought gays were ‘weird’.

I answered that they definitely were not – but that many people thought that homosexuality was wrong.

Harder questions followed and I took pains to emphasise that while people may differ on whether homosexuality was wrong or not, in my book, being a liar, a thief, a bully – or just plain intolerant of other points of view – were the real ‘sins’.

As we spoke late into the night, I told her of the two little boys in America – who were her age – who lost their battle against anti-gay bullies.

My mind wandered back to Ms Bermudez’s plea. I was speaking to my child, even before she had any ‘problems’.

But would other mothers?

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I have but one plea for fellow Mums. Talk to your children. And pray that when they face dilemmas – and peer pressure – in navigating our complex and diverse world, they turn to you for advice. Always.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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