My son’s freckled face burned red. His tiny ten-year-old body sank into his seat as he stared intently out the window at the fields full of cattle passing by in a blur. I glanced over at his dad, white-knuckling the steering wheel and undoubtedly wishing he could be anywhere else at that moment. It was time. I’m a serial researcher, and I think of myself as ready-for-anything. I had read the topic to death, so I knew in my heart that I was ready. According to their body language, my husband and our son were less than receptive. I had received a text from a fellow fourth-grade mom, detailing the ugly truth she had been faced with. Not only did our kids know about sex, they were talking about it at school. Honestly, I should have known it was coming.
When I was in fourth grade, my parents were called to school after my teacher found a note we had passed around the classroom. It featured some beautifully drawn stick figures with out-of-proportion anatomy, each body part labeled by name for reference. There were conflicting accounts of who drew which parts, but the handwriting labeling PENIS and VAGINA was unmistakably mine. The arrows drawn between the stick figures, which I still deny having drawn, clearly demonstrated “how to do the sex”. I would give an obscene amount of money to own that drawing today. It should probably be included in some health textbooks, but the brilliance of it was lost on my parents and educators at the time. My first golden opportunity for publication was shredded by an angry man in a purple room. It’s very difficult to take angry people seriously in such a cheerful room, even when they outnumber you 5-1.
My son’s fourth grade year crept up on me a little too quietly. I hadn’t thought of my own month-long grounding for a long while, and my biggest worry as he started the school year was that his handwriting was atrocious. I wasn’t as prepared for this step as I had thought. I just thought I had more time. I really thought if he had questions, he would ask me. I guess I was forgetting the fact that he became the smartest guy in every room around the time he turned ten. The only people in his life who he believed to be as smart were his friends at school. So, it makes sense that he might seek his pre-pubescent knowledge from like-minded fourth grade geniuses.
“Do you know what sex is?” I had asked the question several minutes before and it still hung in the air, unanswered. I turned around in my seat so I could see him. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and nodded. Yes, I already knew this much. “Do you have any questions for me?” He shook his head quickly, and I knew he must be telepathically begging me to stop talking. I told him that it’s normal to think about, but inappropriate to talk about at school. He nodded, hoping this was the point of this conversation and that it would be over soon.
There are a few suggestions I have for anyone beginning this conversation. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I stuck to these points and made it out alive.
- Create an open dialogue early. As soon as our kids learned about their bodies, it was time to teach them about privacy and what is appropriate and normal. I also taught them very young about good touch and bad touch. We live in a cruel world, but we aren’t totally defenseless when we face evil. We have education.
- Use textbook terminology. I didn’t want to seem uncomfortable with any aspect of this conversation, even if I was. Penis, Vagina, Sexual Intercourse. These are facts of life, and shying away from the words can send the wrong message.
- Start with the basics. Because I intend for our conversation to be ongoing, I didn’t see any use in overwhelming him with too much information or too many details at first. I found out he had figured out some of the basics. I filled in the blanks for him, and gave him some time to think.
- Share your beliefs. For some, this may include abstinence until marriage. Our son was over a year old when I married his daddy, so I would feel hypocritical lecturing on that note. Instead, I told him that sex is very serious, and can have far-reaching emotional and physical consequences. Because we live in a very small community, we choose to teach our children acceptance and inclusion in matters that they may not actually encounter for years to come. This is why I brought up same-sex relationships during this talk.
- Teach consent. We made sure he knows that when the time comes, he can love or marry whoever the hell he wants to, as long as they say yes. Every sexual predator you are seeing in the news was once a son (or daughter) who needed a parent to teach them about consent. I’m not saying it would be a cure-all, but it would be a good start, and I can certainly do my part.
- Be approachable. I knew he would either be too embarrassed or overwhelmed to ask any questions right off the bat. I told him he can always ask either one of us absolutely anything, and left it at that.
Every kid is different, but this is what worked for us. If and when he has questions for us, I hope he’ll feel comfortable asking. At the very least, I’ve made sure that if he draws dirty pictures at school, he’ll do it accurately, even if his handwriting is the absolute worst.