There are a few parenting milestones that one looks forward to and a few that one dreads. Me, I looked forward to almost all of them because most milestones mean that mom is getting closer and closer to being liberated from her post as an indentured servant who has to figure out how to make chicken interesting night after night. But, there’s one or two that I feared. The sex talk was one of them.
I had figured at some point I’d have to talk to my kids about sex. When I grew up, I overheard my mom educating one of my older sisters on the subject. Never wanting to be left out, I asked mom what was the reason for all the closed-door conversations that had me on the wrong side of the door. Mom showed me a book she had shown my sisters and explained, “This is sex. It’s when one dog jumps on the other’s back and makes a baby.” That was that. That was the sex talk in my house.
In my mind, I’d talk to my own kids about sex in fifth grade at the earliest, though the thought of talking about it at any age made me anxious. I could understand why my mom showed us a book about dogs and let us figure out the rest on our own. We all like to think of ourselves as cool parents who are relaxed about anything until it comes time to talk about sex, drugs, and maybe explain our own histories with both. It’s not easy to know the right amount to say to your child and when to say it at all.
But two things happened this year that made it clear to me it was time to talk that talk with my son. The first, he got in trouble for writing the word “Sex” on a locker at school. He wrote it in Sharpie, which is code word for permanent.
It was not his locker, nor was it his Sharpie.
Clearly sex was on his mind. And now, it was on some poor kid’s locker.
I didn’t know how he even knew the word sex, but wondered if some precocious fourth or fifth grader had introduced the subject already. I felt like I had let my kid down. If he was going to hear about things that make me uncomfortable to talk about, he was at least going to hear them from me.
The second thing that happened was a child in my son’s class came to school after having a sex talk at home and decided to educate the bulk of third grade, including my son, on the definition, explanation of, and practical applications of the word sex. The play yard tutoring session ended with said child saying, “…and if your parents say they’re not doing it, they’re lying because they are.”
Clearly this child doesn’t know much about marriage.
And so my husband and I put our heads together and decided that it was time. We needed to talk to our son about sex. My husband said he wanted to be the one, which gave me an entirely different set of worries. This is a man who stops washing the dishes half way through. I hoped he wouldn’t do the same when talking about sex.
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But, it seemed appropriate for dad to talk to his son about sex and so I let sleeping dogs lie and waited for my husband to get to it. The problem is, he never did. A month, two, even three went by and still no man-to-man sex talk went down in our house. He was probably uncomfortable himself, or it just completely slipped his mind.
But the subject kept coming up and I kept putting my son off. He may have been ready to hear about it, but clearly we weren’t ready to talk about it. Plus, this was dad’s thing. So I stalled until I could stall no longer.
The other day I picked my son came up from school and he told me that his two friends had had sex at school. I nearly crashed the car. Apparently, a boy and a girl who are “dating” in third grade had sex that day. Thankfully I had the where with all to ask a few questions before getting into an accident.
“Um, what is sex?” I asked.
“It’s when you kiss really hard on the mouth, but not on the cheek,” he replied. “They kissed on the mouth today.”
“That’s not what sex is,” I told him and prayed my six year old wasn’t listening.
Naturally, she was. I anticipated the call I’d get the next day from her kindergarten teacher explaining Margaux’s show and tell wasn’t entirely appropriate that day.
So I promised my son that I’d tell him anything he wanted to know as long as his little sister wasn’t in the room.
“Okay,” he said. “Can you tell me tonight?”
I assured him I would, as if the sex talk was our new bedtime story.
Other friends of mine also on the third grade front lines had reported their own talks with their own third graders. Some reported their kids begged them to change the subject citing that they just weren’t ready to stop being kids and hearing about adult things made them not kids. Other parents suggested giving their kids books about what goes on in the body during puberty, while others had said it never occurred to them to talk about at all.
So that night armed with no books, nor a well thought out speech, I entered the conversation hoping I wouldn’t muck it up. Every kid remembers the time mom or dad taught him or her about sex. This was as much a milestone for my son as it was for me. He’d remember it. I owed it to him to do it right.
The words came out easier than expected as I explained, in the most clinical fashion possible, what goes down down there. He seemed focused on changes in the body and wondered why grown-ups get fur. He worried he’d get a large Adam’s apple noting he didn’t like the look of it and said “it’s not really my style.” He asked how old people are when they have sex. I was tempted to joke, “37,” but knew I had to better in that moment. This was a time for honesty, not jokes. So I suggested when most people have sex for the first time and why. I suggested that a lot of people have different beliefs about sex and that none of them is right. There’s just what’s right for you.
My husband had come in just at the beginning of the conversation, which had me relieved. I was worried he’d be mad at me if he missed this milestone. But it was one of those in the moment things, happening just as it was meant to happen without much fanfare or preparation.
My voice was calm the entire time, but I was sweating like I had just run a marathon. I hoped my son wouldn’t ask questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. He’s still just 9. There’s a lot he’s not ready to hear. And a lot I’m not ready to tell.
But he listened intently, asked a few questions, and said he was grateful I told him the truth. He looked genuinely relieved after the conversation and I’m fairly certain I did, too. When the conversation was clearly over my son got up to go to bed and said, “Hey mom, thanks for the chat.”
Turns out, to him this was just a chat. It was a milestone he’d recognize later, but for now he was just clearing up confusion in his mind. He was just getting information. The milestone was for me. It was the beginning of a different kind of parenting.
See, I’m no longer solely responsible for keeping my kid safe from the world. I’m responsible for teaching him how to navigate it. There are no books or carefully crafted talks that prepare you for that. There is no right time for any of it. There is only the attempt to do a good job, the attempt to get information to your child before someone on the play yard (or You Tube) gets to them first, and the knowledge that someday your child will criticize how you navigated their childhood, despite their gratitude for the fact that you did.
So I’ll cautiously approach my son’s tween and teen years with sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and an attempt to not muck it up. And I won’t be so scared of the next chat or parenting milestone. I’ll just hide the Sharpies and hope for the best.
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