Well, the kids are back at school, and whether they're just starting to read or learning the Pythagorean Theorem, they're going to be learning something about sex.

Don't be so surprised! Regardless of their age, many of the behaviors children will learn or face as they navigate the jungle of corridors and playground have their roots in sexual behavior both instinctive and learned. As parents, you can help with each for the benefit of your children and everyone around them.

First, there's sex education itself. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia including New Jersey, mandate some sort of sex education, but it's up to the states to determine what to teach. Twenty-seven states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey require schools provide STD and HIV/AIDS education, and the school's curriculum must be available to parents for review.

While there are highly regarded professional standards  available to educators, curricula as taught may not be medically accurate, may teach abstinence-only, and only two states – California and Louisiana – specifically prohibit the teaching of religion as part of sex education. So, parents should be engaged enough to know what, if any, sex education curriculum is taught in their children's schools.

Then there's what I call the "sexual climate" of a school, how it feels to be in that specific building, among those specific faculty, staff, and students.

Generally, scholars describe a healthy school climate as having four components:

  • A physical environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning
  • A social environment that promotes communication and interaction
  • An affective environment that promotes a sense of belonging and self-esteem for all
  • An academic environment that promotes learning and self-fulfillment

A healthy sexual climate in a school addresses these issues as they pertain to sexuality. A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect, and responds quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, innuendo, and bullying. Responses by school personnel to teasing and touching offer teachable moments early in the year, and opportunities to show the consequences of ignoring rules as the school year progresses. Little ones learn not to tease, and older ones learn that even high-status kids don't get to grab anyone's breasts or genitals.

Here's where parents can play a most important role: teaching children about empathy. It doesn't always come naturally to a child, and in fact, it is developmentally normal for young people to see the world as revolving around him or herself. But a healthy regard for what other people are feeling will help your child resist the impulse to snap a girl's bra strap, tip over the books she's carrying, or call her names when she starts to develop physically. It will help them from shunning the unpopular student with behaviors such as making fun of looks, manners of speech or interests, or posting anything online without the expressed permission of the subject.

It's too easy for parents write these behaviors off as "kids will be kids" or to recall one's own childhood behavior. After all, you turned out all right, didn't you? But if you look back, what did those inconsiderate and bullying actions mean to the boys and girls at whom they were directed? How did you learn empathy, and how should your children learn? Does your child stop and think about how his or her actions or words will make the other person feel?

Living an empathetic life takes a conscious effort for everyone, and one only has to look at how society is roiling over sexual abuse and sexual harassment, to understand its importance.

The highest standard for promoting sexual health and safety is for parents to send their children out in the world filled with age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality, wrapped up in their family's value. Consideration of the feelings of others is a most crucial value.  If you haven't had a conversation about empathy, you haven't finished the conversation about sex.  Empathy is just not common in many school situations so if your children are really going to learn this most important lesson, you'll have to start by teaching it at home.

Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the Executive Director of  The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog and  follow her @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.