By Mary E. Plouffe
Just when you think you’ve done it right, you’re wrong.
Wait ’til they are ready; wait ’til they ask, the advice goes. So I did. And one winter morning just after breakfast, my son, age 5, posed the question. “So, I get how the baby might look like you ’cause it’s growing in your tummy. But what I don’t get is how it could look like Dad”
The sex talk. Right then and there. Ready or not and perfectly primed, I began. And my son listened intently as I discussed sperm and eggs and the process of conception. He offered no expression, no comment, no reaction.
When I was done, he was still silent. So I asked “Do you have any questions?”
“Yes, Mom I do,” he said, looking at me sternly. “This is very important information. Why haven’t you told me this before now?”
He looked betrayed. I trusted you, his expression said, and you let me down.
I was chastened, chided by a kindergartener, shamed by my own son who found me wanting. His words echoed in my head. “Very important information, why haven’t you told me?”
Reponses flashed through my mind. You didn’t ask. We’re having a baby in a few months… It didn’t seem necessary until now.
But I was looking at an expression that would have accepted none of them as an excuse.
And he was right.
This was the infant who locked onto new faces from the safety of my arms, his expression frozen as he absorbed the new image with disconcerting intensity, until the subject squirmed.
This was the two-year old who tugged on my arm in the midst of festivities at the office Christmas party. “Mom, can I interrupt? I have two more questions about death.” The three- year-old who pleaded for workbooks on letters and numbers and addition and subtraction at the grocery store. “I don’t care if it’s hard. I want to learn it.”
This was the almost 4-year-old who tackled fractions on a long bus ride from Maine to Maryland. “Mom, how can I still be three? I’ve been three for so long.” he asked as we headed to visit his cousins. So out came the paper, and we drew circles and halved them and quartered them, and talked about months in a year. Later that weekend, we ended up in a Quick Care center to clean up a nasty scalp wound that flattened the left side of his blond curls with blood. A nurse took his hand.
“Hi Justin, I’m going to clean up your cut, Ok? How old are you?”
“Three and eleven-twelfths” he said, as I followed them down the hall toward the exam room.
So, as I stood in the kitchen that morning after our sex talk, I realized he was right. He’d let me know since the day he was born that he wanted to learn everything as soon as he could. Not when he needed it, not when he asked, but as soon as he was able to understand.
And the look of betrayal on his face said something else to me as well. Something that made me very uncomfortable. “If you didn’t tell me this, what other important things have you not told me?”
So I apologized. And we had a different talk. One about how Moms and Dads aren’t always sure when to explain things to children, and so they wait. And about how that didn’t really work for him. “I like to learn things,” he said firmly, his steel eyes blue eyes mirroring disappointment. “You know that. And I want you to teach me.”
We agreed that if there was important information I knew about things I should tell him that.
“Even if it might be boring grown up stuff? I asked
“Just say ‘I know lots more about this. Do you want to know it?'” he coached. “If I don’t, I will tell you.”
“Deal” I said. And it was. Over the years there were a few odd reactions from other parents, when I’d follow a quick definition with “and there’s lots more to know about that” but he was happy to say “You can tell me the rest after baseball practice, Mom.”
We got through the sex talk, even though I clearly got it wrong.
But looking back, it was the trust talk that really mattered.
That was the most important information of all.
Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.
illustration © art-girl