A mom who cares
Dear Patrick: I have asked my three children to start doing their own laundry, but my son forgets. I had some free time so I grabbed the hamper full of his dirty clothes so I could run them through the washing machine. I found some sheets that had dried fluid on them. There were also some items of clothing that had similar stains. I just washed the clothes, dried them, and told him to take them out of the dryer and fold them after dinner. I didn't want him to feel that I was spying on him.
But I also feel like I shouldn't just let this go. My husband has always said we should not discuss sex with the children until they are old enough to understand what we are talking about. He didn't want to confuse them or scare them. At some point I realized that if I listened to my husband, the kids would never be old enough for sex education. So I went ahead and told our daughters about where babies come from, how to deal with getting sexual pressure from boys, and the dangers of unprotected sex. I told them I would rather that they waited to have sex until they were quite a bit older, but if they made a mistake or needed birth control, they should please talk to me so I could help them. I want them to know that I understand what it is like for young women in the world today. There is no support for saying no. Sexual imagery is everywhere. I want to make sure they can't get pregnant. If anything bad were to happen to one of them, I would want her to feel safe talking to me. God forbid one of my daughters is attacked or molested, and she keeps silent because she is afraid I would yell at her!
We are a Catholic family but I don't agree with the church's position on family planning. The men who wrote the Bible never anticipated overpopulation, and I notice that they never asked a woman how she felt about having one baby after another! My husband and I had a major disagreement about this topic, but I felt that three children was all of the family we could afford. I come from a large family that could not send me to college. I don't want my kids to lack the opportunities that you only get with education.
I told my husband I thought it was time for him to give our son “the talk.” It was always my understanding that if I talked to the girls, he would speak to our son. Isn't sex a topic that a boy would rather not hear about from his mother? Now my husband is waffling and claiming he never agreed to do this. He wants me to take care of it. Or just keep ignoring it because today a young person can learn everything they need to know about sex from the Internet. But I do not want my son to learn about women's bodies from porn sites (which we have blocked on our home computer anyway). The biological facts of sex are much less important to me than the values about it. I want my son to respect women, to understand what a huge responsibility it is to share his body with another human being.
My husband is a good man. I know his heart is in the right place. He loves our children even if his job makes it hard for him to spend a lot of time with them. Why is he ignoring an opportunity to be close to his own son and pass on some of what he has learned? It seems unfair to me that our daughters were prepared for menstruation and able to ask questions about becoming young adults, while our youngest child is neglected
When sex education was first proposed for public schools, parents went ballistic. Many of them objected on the grounds that schools could not be trusted to promote their family's values. The only way to guarantee that was for sex education to take place at home. Then parents realized that meant they would have to figure out how to discuss sex with their children. This is usually a difficult project to tackle. How many of us feel that we have enough expertise about sexuality to answer all of a curious child's questions? What language or terminology do we use? A medical vocabulary sounds clinical and goes over the child's head. But slang terms often have a sleazy ring that make them inappropriate for a positive, mature conversation. Most adults have got questions about their own sexuality, or areas where they feel unfulfilled. This is not the ideal position to be in when a young person wants reassurance that sex is a healthy part of a satisfying life. Many parents got little or no sex education from their own parents, beyond a curt “Don't do that,” so they have no role models.
This may be the situation your husband finds himself in. Perhaps because of menstruation and fertility, women are under more pressure to get information about sex, and more motivated to share it with their daughters. This is not to say that all mothers automatically do a great job of being sex educators. Having a lower level of experience with sex than men, or less familiarity with discussing it in explicit terms, can work against them. Women can also feel more social pressure to give an outward appearance of virtue or restraint, and this makes it hard to address the subject of pleasure.
For example, you think your son is ready for sex education because you have evidence he is experiencing nocturnal emission or he's masturbating. Both activities are linked to the experience of physical pleasure. What do your daughters know about the female equivalent, the pleasurable side of sex? You've told them about the uterus and fallopian tubes and ovaries; they know where babies come from. But have you talked to them about the clitoris? Do they know about masturbation or female orgasm? Are they clear that people have sex, not just to make babies, but to express love and desire for each other? Do you know as much as you personally wish you knew about female sexuality?
Experts say that sex education should begin as soon as children are old enough to communicate. They should be given simple answers to their questions. Don't worry about explaining everything; you'll just overwhelm them. “That's your penis” is a better response than a thesis on the physiology of ejaculation. Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again. Children don't have fully-developed memories.
Your task has several purposes. The most obvious one is to communicate facts. But you are also communicating important values. By calmly answering questions, you are making it clear that this is a part of life that we can talk about. It's not a scary secret. But by setting boundaries on when and where or how questions about sex can be asked, we also communicate important ideas about privacy, respecting our own and others' personal boundaries, or being aware of others' discomfort.
You and your husband have some catching up to do. A good place to begin is by educating yourselves. There are many excellent books about sex written for parents and children or teenagers. I can recommend The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex for you and your husband. Amazon.com has a lot of books listed in a search for “sex education for parents,” including books appropriate for kids of various ages and genders. Take a look at a few different books to find some that are consistent with the values you want to highlight for your family. You can also look for suggestions and informative articles on this website.
You probably already have a book shelf in your home. Make room for these books along with your others. This allows your children the freedom and privacy to pick them up and consult them whenever they want to refresh their own knowledge or freak out their friends. Kids might not react to sex education in a mature way. It's normal for them to shriek and fall over and say, “That's so gross! I'll never do that!” It's also normal for them to be upset at the idea that their parents ever had sex—or continue to do so. Affirm that you have a love life without revealing details. This is a very important boundary-setting action that affirms everybody's right to privacy.
Be clear with them about the fact that sexual topics are not appropriate in every venue. They should also be aware that people can get very upset with those who don't share their values about sexuality. If your family supports a woman's right to choose, your kids might get static from other kids whose families have a different attitude. Learning how to handle differences of this magnitude is one of life's most difficult lessons. You and your husband might also hear from other parents who don't like your openness. It can defuse an angry situation to listen to the other person's concerns, empathize with them, and insist on your right to make your own choices. They get to make their own choices about what happens in their family—not yours.
After your husband has a chance to brush up on his sexual knowledge, he might be more willing to take on this task. For one thing, he should definitely NOT try to tell the kid everything in one go. That's just too much for anybody to remember. It would be better to arrange a father-son activity and include an invitation to have an ongoing conversation about sexuality. Your husband might want to tell his son a story about his relationship with his own father. Were there times he wished he could talk to his dad about certain topics? Does he want his relationship with his own son to be different? He can let your son know that he has noticed he's getting older. And as he gets older, he will face situations that didn't come up when he was just a child. Your husband can say he hopes his son will come to him if he has questions about the changes connected with growing up. He can also ask if his son has any specific questions he'd like to talk about right now.
It's okay to tell your child that this conversation makes you nervous. You don't have to instantly know the right answer to a question. This models coping skills. When we run into something that's important, and we don't know enough about it, we go looking for more information. We look at what other people have to say, compare it to our own beliefs and values, and then formulate an answer that fits into the kind of life we want to have. If we believe something and it turns out to be false, we can continue the search for more information and a better point of view.
If you follow my advice, you have created two levels of help for your children. They have the written word if they need to look up a topic in privacy and mull it over on their own. And they have living, grown up people they can consult. If a kid seems unusually shy, it may also be a good idea to let him or her know it's okay to send mom or dad an e-mail. That way, the situation can be discussed on-line without the embarrassment of trying to figure out how to use unfamiliar terms.
Once childhood is over, adolescents lose their innocence and openness. Teens feel a real need for privacy. Even if they are sure a parent will not disapprove, they may keep secrets just because they want a life of their own. Things that adults discuss without a qualm can make a teenager squirm with agonizing humiliation. The biggest attacks of sensitivity have to do with attraction to others, popularity, fashion, friendships, dating—in short, with sex. The process of growing up and gradually setting up your own life as an adult is a rocky one, illogical and emotionally overwhelming, proceeding in fits and starts. It takes a lot of patience on the part of parents to support maturation while keeping a young person safe.
I can tell both you and your husband care about your children a lot. It's great to hear from someone who doesn't want to avoid the responsibility for raising the next generation so they are better prepared for some of the most important events of our lives. Feel free to write again if a situation comes up that you are not prepared to handle.