Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World

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It’s difficult — finding it to be so makes you a typical parent. But it’s also critical, and all it really takes is a little honesty.

By Alice Dreger

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(Photo: gerwinfilius/Flickr)

One evening, when our son was three years old, he wandered into the bathroom after me, as kids are prone to do at that age. We had just wrapped up a party with friends at our house, and I was tipsy. Seeing me sit down on the toilet to pee, my son cocked his head and asked me in an adorably sympathetic voice: “Does it make you sad that you don’t have a penis?”

“No, honey,” I answered without hesitation. “I do have one. It’s on your father, and that’s where I like it.”

My husband screamed at me from the next room that I was going to cost us a fortune in psychotherapy.

I have a problem with honesty. I overuse it. Even when I’m sober.

One morning, when he was four and I had my period, my son saw some blood on the paper in the toilet. He asked me with some degree of concern what was going on, so I explained calmly to him that I was menstruating. I then answered his flood of questions about what exactly that meant.

It is really no wonder we try to talk about birds and bees instead of humans.

Consequently, when I dropped him off at preschool a half hour later, and his teacher asked, “How are you and your mom today?” he answered, “I’m fine, but my mother is menstruating, so her uterine lining is sloughing.”

As he went off to play at the sand table, his preschool teacher laughed about it. By then, she was used to his advanced knowledge of the human body. She reminded me of the time that the class was talking about baby cows and one child asked how the cow gets out of the mother’s “tummy.” The teachers temporarily froze, unsure of what to say. Finally, one realized how she could answer without using a word parents might object to their preschoolers knowing: “Through the birth canal!”

My son apparently raised his hand and asked if “the birth canal” was another name for “the vagina.”

He then told the classmate who asked the question that the baby cow would be in the mother’s uterus, not her stomach. If you were in your mother’s stomach, he apparently explained quite authoritatively, you would be digested.

I have no idea what all the kids who had been told about babies in tummies thought at that point.

Children come programmed to be explorers. Starting even before they can hold up their heads, they spend a gigantic amount of energy every day poking at the world verbally and physically, trying to figure it out.

But when a child broaches any subject of sex — genitals, intercourse, pregnancy — we adults suddenly act as if that child is moving to climb up a slippery, 50-foot ladder to a much-too-steep slide. We freak out, we pull the child back, and we suggest that that low-hanging tire swing would really be much more fun.

We might tell ourselves we steer kids away from sex talk for the children’s sake. Sex and children are not supposed to go together — even if sexual intercourse is usually where children come from. Talking about sex with children feels inappropriate, not the responsible thing to do if you’re an adult who takes their welfare seriously.

Besides, we adults know that, while sex is a many-splendored thing, it can often involve painful aspects — longing, shame, rejection, disappointment — and we try hard to keep children from getting hurt or even knowing about how much hurt lies ahead in life. Talking with them about sex feels like opening a door to a world of complicated emotions that children shouldn’t have to feel.

You might think that, as your child gets older, it will get easier. Take my word for it — my baby boy is now 15 years old — it doesn’t.

But let’s face it: We mostly avoid talking with kids about sex for our own sake. Talking about sex with kids makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable, even incompetent. How do you talk with a child about sex? Human sex acts are just bizarre! So are genitals. So are pregnancy, birth, and nursing.

I mean, if you really think about these things — try to look at them “objectively,” as if you were an alien being just landed on Earth — you have to be, like: “What, now? Are you serious? Human mothers use modified sweat glands [that ’s what mammary glands are] to make food for their young, and the babies suck that stuff out of organs that are otherwise dressed up in frilly lace to be used as adult sex objects? This is how your species operates?”

It is really no wonder we try to talk about birds and bees instead of humans. It’s no wonder that, the first time you tell a kid how the sperm usually gets to the egg, the child tends to react with some combination of disbelief and shock. (And so, of course, immediately asks you to repeat what just took all your strength to say.)

You might think that, as your child gets older, it will get easier. Take my word for it — my baby boy is now 15 years old — it doesn’t. As your children get older, they understand more and more about anatomy and adult social relations. Especially if you’ve been pretty open with them about the facts, they get better at asking challenging follow-up questions. As a consequence, talking to older kids about sex can feel even more awkward than talking to very young children, because older kids have a better sense of the gravity and the weirdness of it all. (Plus, they know they’ve been touching themselves … and they know we probably have been touching ourselves too.)

So, bottom line: If you find yourself having a hard time talking with your little kid or your bigger kid about sex — if you find yourself having a hard time even thinking about talking with your kid about sex — you’re a perfectly typical parent. The truth is, while I can joke about genitals with my adult friends as readily as any fraternity boy, the first time my kid cornered me and asked me exactly how his father’s sperm reached my egg — he was five-and-a-half — I turned bright red, started stammering, and went into evasive maneuvers worthy of a fighter pilot in enemy territory. And I was a professional medical researcher who was in the midst of editing a book about parenting and sex development.

But we have to talk to our kids about sex. In fact, we have to be prepared to talk with them about sex throughout their lives as they develop. News flash: A single instance of “the talk” is not enough. As they grow, your children will keep wanting to know more and more about sex. They will keep needing to know more about sex. And they will always deserve to know more about sex than they can get from school, the playground, and the media.

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Excerpted from The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real Worldby Alice Dreger, published as a Kindle Single on April 17, 2016, by Amazon Digital Services LLC.

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