By Leow Si Wan
SO, MORE girls below 14 here are having consensual sex, say the latest crime statistics released by the police.
With this number more than doubling from last year - and that's just those who were caught by parents or teachers, meaning the reality is probably worse - we ought to worry, and not just because they are flouting the law.
Less than two years ago, when I was teaching in a junior college, I asked my students what they thought of underage sex.
Many, predictably, said: No big deal, unless you are caught.
The more permissive ones said they were curious, and saw nothing gravely wrong if precautions were taken.
But there were also those who said their religion and/or family teachings frowned upon casual sex.
By contrast, this group felt that sex should be between two adults in a committed relationship, or after marriage.
Among those who were for abstinence, a strong set of values, and a clear concept of accountability - not fear of the law - were the most effective deterrents.
The problem is, for or against abstinence, they already had these values by the time they got to my class.
Although counsellors agree that values should be developed from young, it seems parents still want to leave it to schools to address the issue.
Psychiatrist Brian Yeo says children develop their sense of right and wrong during the early primary school years.
Parents, he says, have the most influence on them when they are in pre-school or primary school.
Even so, parents are either too embarrassed or just too busy to address the issue. They favour the unwise alternative of leaving the tough questions to teachers, who can accomplish only a limited amount on their watch.
They have a set amount of time for sex education, and the complex values linked to sex cannot be covered in a few hours.
Questions such as, 'What is the right age?', 'Should I abstain or is safe sex good enough?', or online permutations of the discussion such as: 'Is online sex wrong? Is it okay to marry, commit adultery, then divorce many times over, as long as you do so online?'
The greatest obstacle I faced as a young teacher was doubt: What if what I tell them contradicts what is taught at home? Am I imposing my values on someone else's child? Am I even a paragon of virtue?
What's more, discussing intimate issues with a class of 20 teens is no bed of roses. It's worse when they are completely uninterested because they think they know better, or when they are up for lewd jokes.
Sure, teachers can handle technicalities and work with parents to encourage positive values such as self-respect while the law deals with its criminal aspects.
But parents still need to keep the lines of communication open, because the alternative for the child is to turn to questionable sources of information - random Internet sites or friends - with disastrous results.
When even teachers struggle with answers, sometimes the best educators are parents.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.