We sat together on the sofa, my daughter's slight, 5-year-old frame tucked neatly next to me. She leaned in, draped her arm across my burgeoning belly and asked, “How is that baby going to get out of there?”
That moment 11 years ago is the one many parents dread, but I was prepared. I had heard that the best way to respond to a child's question about reproduction was to answer minimally but honestly, on the theory that the child will direct the conversation. “He's going to push his way out with his feet,” I said.
My answer was accurate, if not confusing.
My daughter pressed me for more information, resulting in a lovely exchange about how he got inside me in the first place and what would happen when he arrived.
When I had explained as much as I thought my kindergartner needed to know, I reassured her that she had years of growing ahead of her before she would become a woman. “Your body will change in many ways, and as it does, you can always ask me about those changes and I can help you figure things out.”
I thought I had given her plenty to mull over, but just in case, I left the door open. “Is there anything else you need to know right now?”
“Yes,” she said, knitting her brows together in her most serious expression. She took my hand and gently traced my veins with her finger. “When does a woman get these veins that pop up on her hands? They're gross.”
OK, so that was one question I hadn't anticipated.
I have learned much about how to present the “facts of life” since that first conversation with my daughter. For one thing, I have learned that this is a conversation you must have over and over as children age. The lessons I taught my 5-year-old were just the beginning.
I also learned that children don't ask as many questions as you think they will. If I waited for them to ask about sex, our conversations might be few and far between.
My second daughter was afflicted with an alarming lack of curiosity about human bodies and the origins of life. Worse, when she was younger and I broached the subject, she covered her ears and sang loudly to block out the sound of my voice. I wasn't sure what she knew at that point, but apparently she thought it was enough.
By the time she reached middle school, I had no choice but to force her to sit down to listen to some vital information and quickly, before the sex education classes began on the school playground.
Once again, we're faced with initiating “the talk.” The baby who prompted my eldest daughter's curiosity 11 years ago will enter the sixth grade in a few weeks, so I have been urging my husband to find the right moment for a frank discussion with him that will go into greater detail than the bits and pieces of information he has shared up to now. We think a man-to-man conversation is in order because I lack a good deal of direct experience with some of the issues they need to cover.
But instead of sitting our son down for some old-fashioned home-schooling on sex, my husband has consulted the dads of the other boys on his sports teams to determine whether they have yet to do the same.
It seems my son and his friends are walking around in a fog of ignorance perpetuated by their fathers, who are convinced, to quote my husband: “The guys aren't ready.”
Aren't ready for what? “We don't want to wait until they're married with children to tell them about sex,” I said.
My husband, committed to giving our son a long and innocent childhood, thinks this information may send him too soon down the path to puberty.
On the other hand, I think when you're walking the prepubescent road, you ought to have some idea about the direction in which you're headed before your hormones start raging and you are suddenly, hopelessly lost.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there communicating with young people about sex, but the ones doing most of the talking are pop and rap singers, advertising executives, TV writers and Hollywood producers. Unfortunately, most of the time, these folks aren't sending messages I want my children to hear.
Not to mention, I suspect the images about sex portrayed through the media are a big reason children ask fewer questions than we expect they will. Children may be under the misguided notion they already are well-informed.
When it comes to teaching our children about sex, my husband and I walk the tightrope between innocence and ignorance. We respect their right and need to know about how their bodies will grow and develop. We want to reassure them that sexuality is natural and normal and good. We also want them to feel secure about where they came from.
Context is everything. In our home, when we talk about sexuality, we stress the moral and religious beliefs that inform our opinions about right behavior. We never offer information without strong messages regarding modesty, chastity, responsibility, and respect.
My husband promises it's just a matter of finding the right moment this summer for “the talk.” Knowing him, that conversation will be filled with love and learning as he teaches our son not only the way boys grow, but what it really means to be a man.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)