Concern is growing among Catholic parents across Ontario over a new Family Life Education program proposed for separate schools. Distressed over incidents occurring when the French Language program was piloted in the North Bay area, approximately 20 area parents have said that they will withdraw their 32 children from the separate school system if the program is not drastically revised before implementation in the fall of 1988.

Although the English Language version is generally considered better than the French, many Catholic parents with children in English schools are concerned over aspects of the program which, they think, have serious problems.

Parents of children who have been through the pilot, and also parents who have had an opportunity to read the curriculum, spoke frankly to The Interim, requesting that they not be identified. Although some Bishops are holding public meetings so that parents can express their opinions, and the Archdiocese of Toronto is sponsoring an extensive survey soliciting parental input, skeptics fear that the end result will be that only cosmetics changes will be made. Many of them feel strongly that their rights as parents are being trod upon.

During the 1986-87 school year, the first three themes of the draft FLE program for grades one through three were piloted in 240 English and 75 French schools across Ontario. The first theme focuses in the self image and awareness of the child, the second discusses relationships with family and friends, and the third is concerned with marriage, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, pre-natal development, birth, parental roles and responsibilities.

The major criticism applied to the program as a whole, is the absence of a context of specific Catholic teaching. Although occasional references to God and His concern for each one are sprinkled throughout, as one parent observed,” these serve only as a veneer on a basically secular program. They seem to have been added as an afterthought to forestall the expected reaction of parents like myself.”

Secular humanism

One couple, who have made an extensive report on the French language program ( they reviewed grades one to six, and eight), commented, “An examination of the underlying concepts of principles used in the program shows that they are not taken from a recognizable Catholic tradition, but from secular humanism and psychological self theory.”

They conducted a survey of words “that one might reasonably expect to see in a Catholic curriculum on family life,” and found that many words such as virtue, sin, grace, modesty, purity, and chastity did not appear at all in the entire program, while others appeared only in the occasional title of a particular lesson.

In grade five, children in French schools are supposed to be divided into mixed groups to discuss menstruation. By grade six, the children are given step-by-step instruction on sexual intercourse. (The grades four to six English curriculum has not yet been released.)

It appears that the French program went into the piloting stage with far less outside consultation than the English program received. And perhaps this accounts for the fact that parents who have seen both versions stress that English one is better, tough not without problems. A draft version of the English program was circulated to some parents in advance, for their comments and suggestions. Comparing the draft version with the one that was actually piloted this yea does show some improvements were made.

While the lack of “Catholic content” is viewed by many parents as the most serious flaw in both language versions of the program, other objections are being voiced to specific areas.

Parents note their uneasiness with what they call an “unhealthy” preoccupation with the children’s ego, constantly teaching them that they are wonderful, with not enough emphasis given to the fact that although likes , dislikes, feelings and behavior are neural in themselves, children need to learn that there are limits when acting on their emotions.

One Parent suggested that the rational behind the constant boosting of the child’s esteem is a current theory that low self-esteem as a child is responsible for much anti-social behavior later in life. The problem is, this theory is not proven.

A further criticism is that many of the lessons dealing with emotions and family and peer relationships may well lead to violations of family privacy when children are encouraged to discuss family affairs in the classroom.

Sex education

Obviously, the critics say, they are not suggesting that clear cases of child abuse should be covered up. However, Ontario’s Family Act requires anyone suspecting child abuse to report their suspicions to the authorities so that an investigation can be carried out. Allegations of child abuse even when subsequently disproven, can harm family integrity permanently. And, as some point out, teachers are not trained as social workers or psychologists. Do they feel adequately prepared to take on such extra responsibilities? The major controversy, however, is over the topics discussed in theme three, the sex education component of the program. Even at the grade one level, children are expected to become familiar with correct names for genitals and to discuss genital differences between the sexes. It is anticipated that children will ask questions about sexual intercourse following these lessons in grades one and two and the teacher is advised to respond as follows:

“God designed a woman’s body in different and wonderful ways. When a mother and a father are feeling much love for each other, their bodies can fit together in a special embrace. It is during this time that sperm from the father’s body goes into the mother’s body. If the sperm meets an ovum inside the mother, a new life begins. Isn’t this wonderful? This is so special, you might want to go home and talk to your Mom and Dad about it.”

By Grade three, this explanation of sexual intercourse is not confined to a note to the teacher to help if questions are asked, it is incorporated into the story read out to the class during the lesson.

The topic of abortion is brought up in Grade three when it is acknowledged that children may ask a question about it. The issue is considered too “complex” for lengthy discussion at this age. The teacher is reminded that the children may have a “limited understanding” of it and also that he or she will not know why the child has asked the question. Teachers are directed to say that “sometimes people choose not to let the baby live. It is taken out of the mother’s body before it is ready to be born. That is very sad.”

One parent protested such “inadequate” treatment of abortion, at a public meeting in Guelph called by Bishop Anthony Tonnos. “It is not a ‘sad thing’ as the program sates; it is the violent taking of life before a fetus is removed from the womb and an ex-communicable offense in the Church,” he is reported as saying.

Other parents, active in the pro-life movement, have wryly pointed out that even Catholic educators have adopted the terminology of the pro-abortion movement, calling abortion a matter of “choice.”

Many parents protest that introducing explicit sex education at this early age is blatantly disregarding the individual emotional maturity of the child. There is no provision for any separation of boys and girls in discussing sexual differences, in fact, every effort is made to emphasize to the children that embarrassed responses to the material are not appropriate. The writers of the program appear unaware that embarrassment and giggling in the classroom when personal matters are being discussed, is often the healthy reaction of a child whose modesty has been affronted.

The piloting of the program went through the English separate school system with little apparent outcry from parents. Although, we understand that individual parents removed their children from the classroom during these lessons, with varying degrees of co-operation from the schools involved. The situation in Northern Ontario French schools was quite different.

When the pilot program was introduced into the Nipissing Separate School area, parents started complaining both to the board and to Bishop Marcel Gervais, Bishop of the diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, about the explicit sex education, particularly in the French language program.

Public meetings

In addition to individual complaints, at least one petition signed by 600 people protesting the program was sent to Bishop Gervais, and he instituted a series of public meetings to discuss the problems. After listening to objections, Bishop Gervais gave parents 30 days to review the entire program and present him with their analysis. And the school board removed the French language program from all but three schools in the area. (The programs had been put into all French schools in the area, although only three were supposed to have taken part in the pilot program.)

However, before the program was withdrawn, there was an alarming incident in a small village near Sturgeon Falls. A teacher from Borth Bay was brought in to teach a 12-week program in the space of two days. (The school’s own second grade teacher was unwilling to teach the program.)

Following the “blitz,” one child appeared unnaturally withdrawn for several days, until her mother eventually discovered what was wrong. The child told her about the program and she said that she wanted to leave as she had been embarrassed but had to stay and listen. “I was ashamed, but couldn’t leave,” she said. The mother reports that her daughter has changed completely: constantly curious, she asks personal questions, sometimes even embarrassing her male relatives about their sexual functioning.

Another mother reported finding her three-year-old daughter simulating “love making” with a neighbors daughter- this child had also been through the two day program.

These incidents, isolated though they may be, have parents questioning the liability of the school board in such cases. Would the parents be able to pursue a legal case against the school, they ask?

Many parents are saying that their roles as primary that their roles as primary educators of their children are being violated by the Family Life Education program. They point to the directions given to Guidelines for Family Life Education prepared by the Ontario Bishops (on whose instructions the FLE program was developed and written) and Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Familiaris Consortio. Both documents clearly establish the basis of FLE as emanating from Church teaching and directing it to be complementary to parental teaching in the home.

Primary educators

“Parents must recognize they are the primary educators of their children,” state the Guidelines.” The role of parents is so vital in the basic education of children that no other agency can adequately replace it. The church and school can only assist and support parents in fulfilling their responsibility for developing moral attitudes and Christian values,” it goes on.

The Pope, writing in Familiaris Consortio, says, “Sex education , which is the basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.”

Now that the pilot stage has been completed, officials are gathering together comments on the program submitted by teachers, parents and interested observers and have reassured parents that all comments will be carefully reviewed and that revisions will be made to the program to reflect the concerns presented.

Revision promised

But, several parents ask, who will be in charge of revising the program? If  revisions are left in the hands of those ho wrote the original program, they fear that substantive changes will not be made. These parents want new people appointed to the writing team for the revision process.

The Ontario Bishops will be reviewing the status of the program in an upcoming meeting. They are expected to approve the next phase of the program, which is to approve the publication of textbooks and supporting materials in order to have the program in place in schools in the Fall of 1988.

“The whole program is not going to be thrown out. We want to hear what people are saying and are certainly prepared to remove areas where there is a general unease and dissatisfaction,” Bishop Anthony Tonnos of the Hamilton diocese told parents at a public meeting in Guelph.

Bishop Tonnos and others have frequently said that it is preferable for parents to teach sex education themselves. However, they stress, many parents seem unwilling or unable to do so and therefore the program is essential in the schools. The parents who object to such explicit programs are seen to be in the minority, and such minorities cannot be catered to other than allowing those parents to remove their children from classes.

Parents want help

However, some parents say that it is not true to assume other parents are unwilling to teach sex education at home. They suggest that perhaps the Bishops could look into a way to help the parents who feel inadequate to provide such instruction and to help them.

As one parent wrote in a letter to the editor, published on the North Bay Nugget, “Every attempt must be made to safeguard the rights of parents who choose to do this educating in the home, at the acceptable time and in the manner and extent to which the child is ready for it. If there are parents who wish to give this job to the schools, or situations where the children would get it in no other way, let tem be the exception, not the rule, for no clear-minded individual would knowingly abdicate his parental rights to society.”