By Vincent O’Keefe
Like most parents, panic set in when my children started to ask about the mysteries of human sexuality. My slouch toward the sex talk began in an unlikely place: the grocery store check-out line. As a stay-at-home father of two daughters for over a decade, I have made many blushing journeys past those magazine headlines: “Orgasm Guaranteed,” “5 Sex Tricks Every Guy Craves,” or “Sex Right Now! Right Here!” (this last one’s exaggerated, but only slightly).
When Lauren and Lindsay were younger I didn’t notice the titles much, but once they started reading, the dark side of literacy reared its head. (“Daddy, what is an orgasm?”) Lindsay nearly narrated a sex trick scenario during a trip through the check-out line when she was six years old. While a mother in front of us unloaded groceries, her baby followed Lindsay’s movements with delighted eyes. Thrilled to command his attention, Lindsay said, “Dad, look at that baby. He likes me! He’s saying to himself, ‘Hot Girl’!”
While I was happy Lindsay liked her physical appearance, I was unsettled by her too-media-savvy language. I wondered if maybe she was reading those magazine covers more astutely than I thought. Then it got even weirder. Lindsay started waving a little toy around in her hand for the baby to enjoy and narrated his thoughts this way: “Now he’s thinking ‘Hot Girl with Toy’!” Behind my poker face I was cringing at the semi-pornographic comments coming out of Lindsay’s mouth, all the while hoping that the nice mother in front of me could not hear Lindsay’s comments.
Soon after the grocery store incident, Lindsay and I were at a playground. After racing down a series of enclosed slides, she came over to the bench where I was sitting and asked with utter innocence: “Dad, what does ‘s-e-x’ mean?”
I froze. Then I asked, “Why?”
“Because it’s written on the slide over there.”
My first reaction was “That damn graffiti!” My second was to explain the general wrongness of writing on public property, as well as the impropriety of such an “adult word” in a children’s playground. It was not my best parenting performance, but I managed to distract Lindsay enough to put the matter behind us and assured her we would talk about it later. Before running off for more play, she said matter-of-factly: “Oh, well it says if you want more sex, call Candy.”
My older daughter, Lauren, had started asking my wife, Michele, and me pointed questions about body changes and sex when she was only seven. Until then, we had not talked about sex much as a family, though as a gynecologist my wife had always insisted the girls use the correct terminology for their body parts. She believes (and I agree) that the earlier a parent models a healthy attitude toward sexuality, the easier and more natural learning about it becomes. Such age-appropriate disclosure, however, often resulted in Lauren correcting adult euphemisms for female private parts that almost always ended in “oochie.” “The right word is VAGINA,” she would announce in a loud, clear voice.
Because Lindsay did not talk nearly as early as Lauren did, we sometimes forgot to model as much language for her. Michele was appalled one day when Lindsay publicly referred to her private area as her “front butt.” The gynecologist in Michele nearly fainted; the writer in me roared.
Michele believes a key reason she became a gynecologist was to make up for her lack of sex education as a child. She still gets agitated when describing her introduction to the need for personal hygiene. After a high-energy roller skating party when she was nine, her traditional Italian-American father hollered to his wife, “This kid needs deodorant!” Around the same time, her Grandma Marie would reach for her chest and say, “Let me feel your nannies,” followed by the baffling statement: “Your friend’s going to visit you soon.” When Michele got her period, her mother hugged her and declared: “Now you have to stay away from boys.” Then she ran to tell her neighbor friends about this mysterious “period,” which Michele vowed to look up in the dictionary later. I guess you could say she has been looking stuff up ever since. Such initiative for self-education makes even more sense when you consider that once Michele became a teenager, her mom told her that if she wore a bathing suit next to a boy she could get pregnant.
For me, figuring out the best way to talk about sexuality with my children began with self-analysis. I tried to think back to the ways in which I learned about my body and sex, in the hopes of repeating the healthy and avoiding the unhealthy. Because it was a different, less open time (at least in my repressed, Irish-American home), no scenes emerged in my mind. Like Michele, I don’t remember ever talking with my parents about the ways of the nether regions (sorry for the euphemism). That seems unfathomable today, which is a good thing.
My first memories of wanting to know more about sex feature “tween me” begging one of my older brothers and his friend to give me some details. They probably did not know much either, but they wielded their apparent wealth of knowledge over me like warlords, taunting me with words whose meanings I did not know. One particularly memorable word rhymed with the name of our neighbor’s dog, who was named after the main character from The Hobbit. I got so angry that I chased them down the street with a monkey wrench, all the while screaming for them to define the mysterious word that rhymed with Bilbo.
Hoping to answer our daughters’ questions in a more enlightened way, Michele and I decided on a two-step strategy. First, we would search for age-appropriate books so they could feel comfortable learning from a neutral source (as a former professor, I’m a big fan of solutions via research). Then, we would follow up and answer any questions they might have
As we began looking for appropriate books, it was not hard to find several candidates. But there was one book in particular that grabbed our attention:“Where Did I Come From?” by Peter Mayle. It is a humorous book that uses cartoon people to convey the information about sex in an accurate but comfortable way. It even has an endorsement from Dr. Spock on the back cover. As Michele and I started reading it together, we liked how potentially embarrassing information was handled in a funny way.
Gradually, however, a disturbing realization crept over us. As we looked closer at the nude cartoon man and woman, we could not deny that they looked rather like us! The man’s starkly receding hairline and the woman’s short curly hairdo certainly bore a resemblance. Granted, the characters are much more rounded and exaggerated than my wife and me, but that did not stop us from doubling over in laughter right there in the store. Many parents might have shut the book and put it back on the shelf; we bought it right away for our own amusement, though we did not end up using it for Lauren’s education. I suppose the taboo against picturing one’s own parents having sex applies to their having sex in a book as well. Perhaps the funniest irony of all is that there is actually a line early in the book that reads: “Don’t worry if the pictures don’t look too much like your mother and father.” In our case, no worries. On the other hand, it was not exactly comforting to read that over two million copies have been sold.
Ultimately, the range of books we discovered taught us that we could address the topic of body changes first, and discuss actual sex at a later date. We settled on the popular American Girl book titled The Care and Keeping of You, since it covers body issues but stops short of addressing sex. There are many other books that do the job nicely as well, and parents should certainly do research to see which ones fit their values best. Later, we found additional titles that discussed sex more directly in age-appropriate ways. (Examples include Growing Up by Susan Meredith and It‘s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris.)
After Lauren started reading these books, Michele decided to take the advice of a male colleague and “Go for a drive.” In the car, neither person has to make eye contact, which may lessen discomfort or embarrassment. We had decided that Michele would be the better parent to address these topics (much to my relief), and she reported that because of the books’ helpful groundwork, most of her conversations with Lauren went quite smoothly. One of the only snags was when Michele had to correct the pronunciation of the word “condom,” which Lauren kept mispronouncing as “cone dome.”
I suspect sex will always be challenging to talk about. Michele and I often laugh about a night long before we had kids when we were driving around town with Grandma Marie in the back seat. As we passed a house in the area known for the rowdy teens inside, she surprised us by saying, “There’s the house where they have those screwing parties.”
Together we turned around and said, “What?!”
With a smile on her face, Marie said simply, “You heard it.”
Many parents probably wish they could talk about sex just one important time, and then simply repeat “you heard it” for the rest of their years. But we know that the healthiest process is an ongoing dialogue that changes over time. Now that my daughters are fourteen and eleven, they pronounce things more accurately, and we have all become more comfortable addressing new questions. Overall, if parents are honest, resourceful and open to constant communication with kids, sex education can be a very positive experience—no slouching necessary.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a humorous memoir about gender and parenting. He has been featured on CNN Parents and his writing has appeared at Time Ideas and The New York Times “Motherlode,” among others. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com.