Certain parenting moments are burned into my memory. I recall Dr. Hansen’s wide smile as he delivered my first baby. “You have a little football player here. It’s a boy,” he said. Or the time I got the call from a frantic babysitter telling me that our 5-year-old daughter, Camryn, had launched off the backyard swing, breaking her arm in two places. I remember that phone call like it was yesterday.
Other memories, although less dramatic, still pack a wallop. About three years ago I was sitting in our family room one evening with Bronson, then age 10. We were joking our way through some Boy Scout badge requirement when his face suddenly grew serious, and he asked where babies come from.
My mind did a double take. Maybe he had asked “where the ladies came from”? I know. It doesn’t make sense, but when you are that stressed, the mind grasps for anything not remotely connected with the “S-word.”
Bronson’s voice faltered and he said, “You know, babies, infants. . . How do they get in your tummy?” I was starting to break into a cold sweat when I remembered a similar conversation I’d had with my own mother when I was much younger than Bronson. She had explained the general dynamics of intercourse to me, complete with the whys and why-nots (mostly the why-nots), all the while continuing to fold laundry, cool as a cucumber.
I always hoped to handle the topic of sexual relations just as calmly as my mother did. I had just hoped I wouldn’t have to do it quite so soon.
I asked Bronson if he knew why girls’ and boys’ private parts were different. He looked a little disturbed and shook his head. I then explained how God made our bodies so they fit together perfectly, and that a baby needed sperm from the Dad’s penis and an egg from the Mom’s vagina to form the beginnings of a baby.
Then he asked me how the sperm and the egg get together. I told him in a simple sentence or two the dynamics of how that happened at which point he took on a deer-in-the-headlights look and said, “OK. Does it always happen that way?” I nodded.
I could see his brain processing this new information. For some children, I think understanding the basics of sex turns their world on its end. I mean, who in their right mind would ever believe babies were made that way?
I am sure that I am not alone in wondering how to talk about such a sensitive subject as sex with our children. Jane Brooks wrote in The Process of Parenting that many young people don’t know what their parents’ beliefs are about sex. Of those who are sexually active, about half reported if they had understood their parents’ values better, they would have likely delayed sexual activity. That knowledge puts an onus on us as parents to take the bull by the horns and open a difficult topic with our young people.
Kelly Welch, renowned family scholar and author, also weighs in on this topic. She advises parents to be clear about the family’s values and expectations concerning sex. She adds that parents should still be truthful about facts vs. beliefs and advises parents not to preach.
I know when I start adopting that “thou shalt not” tone of voice on almost any topic, I can see my children’s eyes glaze over and at that point I’ve lost them. Instead, I’ve found it more effective to talk with them, not at them. Listen carefully. Try and gauge their understanding of sex and their opinions about it. Counter any misconceptions.
Welch counsels parents to keep the conversation going. We parents tend to think, “Phew! That’s one awkward conversation I’ll never have to have again.” However much that might ease our minds, sealing the subject from future discussion is not the best approach for your child, who will find she has new questions and needs new information the older she gets.
Alan and I have tried to always be available for Bronson since our initial conversation, in case he has any new questions about sex or where babies come from or any other related question. We know at some point, he will. We hope we’ve laid the groundwork, so that when issues arise, we are the people he turns to—not his overly hormonal, often misinformed friends.
As a 13-year-old, though, our son is still pretty grossed out by most aspects of the topic—especially when it dawned on him that his parents were active participators.
I didn’t think it would be such a revelation. I mean, as I pointed out to him, we do have five children, at which time he clapped his hands over his ears and said, “Ewww!” Information overload; it’ll do it to them every time. That’s OK! I respect that. Even at the age of 40, I can’t rationally process the fact that my parents engaged in hanky-panky regularly under the very roof where I grew up. I second that! Ewww!
Still, as our children grow and mature, discussions about sex-related subjects will crop up again. I am resolved that next time I won’t cringe and start hyperventilating. I am determined to be ready to offer both facts and values in order to prepare my children to enter adolescence with a healthy knowledge of this important and beautiful part of life.
Kelly Taylor, her husband, Alan, and their five children recently moved from their Liverpool home of 10 years to Greenville, N.C. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.