I was once friends with an administrator at a nearby elementary school. Every year, the fifth grade boys were separated from the fifth grade girls for a few hours. They sat through a sex ed talk and since my friend was one of only a few men on campus, he had to lead the talk for the boys.
“They never know anything,” he told me. “Those kids have never had anything explained to them and so they really don’t know what their bodies do. It’s sad. A few of them don’t even know the correct names for body parts.”
That is why I never referred to Jacob and Zachary’s penises as dinky-doos.
I wanted them to be comfortable in their own skin, sure of themselves and knowledgeable about what their little bodies could do, and not at all like the dumbasses in a fifth grade sex ed class.
We started off with correct names for body parts and a few innocent questions about where babies come from when they were in first grade.
Then the boys started second grade and got serious.
“Mommy, what does s-e-x mean?” Zach asked.
No matter how prepared a parent is to answer such an inquiry, the Big Question still comes as a surprise. None other brings with it so many different ways to answer with repercussions if those answers aren’t adequate.
I wanted to be honest with Zachary, but didn’t want to offer more information than necessary.
Personal anecdotes are more than a little inappropriate, I told myself, so no over sharing. Zachary doesn’t need to hear about the ways Mommy and Daddy had to practice to get it right. Just the facts.
I took a deep breath. How to answer?
Children should feel safe and comfortable asking their parents anything; I certainly didn’t want my boys to learn more from the knuckleheads at school than from the knuckleheads at home. At least Marc and I didn’t wet the bed at night or get all our information from teenage siblings.
Yes, the Internet is so much more informative.
My response to sex questions should never imply that the inquiries are dirty or bad. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to act flippant, like the whole episode, while a bit awkward at times, was just one big joke. Let’s face it – who wants to be reminded in family therapy years later that smirks and explicit answers led to sexual dysfunction?
Or the priesthood?
I stood there looking at my impressionable eight year-old son and pretended not to understand the question.
Because that’s enlightened.
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” I sported my best confused look. “What are you asking?”
“What does s-e-x mean?” Zachary said, all innocent and curious.
Okay, here goes, Katie. Try not to fuck this up.
“It means lots of things. Tell me how it was used in a sentence.”
What? Context matters.
“I heard it at school,” Zach said. “Colin said s-e-x is a big deal.”
“Well, I suppose it is a big deal. S-e-x spells sex.”
Standing in the kitchen, I realized I’d left the refrigerator door open and the faucet on. I snapped out of my horrified trance and tidied up, trying to think straight as I went along.
“It’s another word for intercourse. Sex is how mommies and daddies make babies.”
Parents have several choices and different tacks to take depending on the kid’s age when this question comes up. Eight year-olds should get the less is more, conservative version. For everyone’s sake. Condoms and foreplay are another talk for another time.
“How do mommies and daddies make babies?” Zachary asked.
I knew this was going to be a lengthy conversation, so we sat down on the couch in the living room. Jacob made his way over to us. Reading his mind was easy: Forget Sports Illustrated; what’s Mom talking about?
I took a deep breath and plowed ahead. “A man has sperm in his penis and a woman has an egg deep inside her belly. The sperm and the egg meet in a special hug and then nine months later a baby is born.”
If memory served, we’d been through this a year earlier when my sister got pregnant for the first time. Back when they were six, this explanation was enough to send them satisfied and on their merry way.
Not no more.
“How do the egg and sperm meet?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah,” Zachary said. “Do you find someone you like and them boom – the sperm comes out of the man all over the woman’s belly?”
Sometimes. If alcohol is involved.
I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I’d be introducing terms like vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to my children. If I had known, I would have stayed in bed and watched television instead.
“How does the penis go into the va-gi-na?” Jake asked.
I turned on the overhead fan.
“When a man and a woman finish graduate school and get married, they decide to have a baby. They hug and they kiss and the penis finds its way. Sperm comes out and fertilizes the egg and a baby is born nine months later. Or seven if the mommy is carrying impatient identical twins with big heads and stubborn streaks.”
“It’s a wonderful and beautiful thing,” I added. “A miracle.”
Please say we’re done.
They looked confused, resembling my high school students when I’d tried to explain The Patriot Act and how in the name of God it passed Congress.
Zach suddenly smiled. “I get it. The mommy and daddy are naked. That’s how the penis finds its way!”
I nodded. Less is more, Katie. Less is more.
“Where do you make the babies?” Jake wanted to know.
The bed, hallway, kitchen table…
“Usually in bed,” I said.
“What if someone walks in while you’re making a baby?” Jake stuck out his tongue. “That’d be gross.”
Well, not always, but you don’t need to hear about that one time at Mardi Gras.
“Typically people don’t walk into other people’s bedrooms at night time. For just that reason.”
“Aunt Michi is having another baby,” Jake said. “Is this what happened to her?”
I pictured my Catholic sister and her husband at the next family function getting quizzed by two sexually charged nephews. Michi had been dealing with morning sickness, a toddler, and relatives who want to know how natural family planning is working out for them. She’d been through enough.
“Sex is okay to talk about here at home with mommy and daddy, but let’s not go around discussing this with others. It makes people uncomfortable.”
This seemed to satisfy Jacob and Zachary and they got ready to play outside. I stopped sweating and hoped I’d answered everything correctly. Knowing full well this was only the beginning of their question-and-answer sessions, I wanted them to feel like they could ask me anything.
“We shouldn’t discuss sex at school either,” I added. “This is private talk and you all are big boys now. So let the other kids’ parents decide when to tell them, okay?”
“Yeah, cause Colin still believes in Santa.” Zachary tied his shoes. “Let him wait until graduate school to find out what his penis does.”
I watched my children play in the backyard and chuckled a little. I’d seen Colin. He’ll be in his forties before he finds out what his penis does.
But that’s another talk for another time.