Sex ed at home comes naturally when you have a boy and a girl embracing the nudity-is-awesome childhood development phase. Letting little siblings bounce around the house unrestrained is kind of like roadside geology—it's just there, exposed.
I have not had The Talk with my kids. We talk about our bodies and see each other naked, and I answer whatever questions come, but I hope to avoid The Talk.
My son, 7, and daughter, 4, take baths together. Until recently, my sister and I would bathe our combined four kids, two of each sex, in a one-tub assembly line. They no longer fit, but they were schooled together in general and genital hygiene.
Since my son is uncircumcised, foreskin health enters our conversations. But you're never far from discussing penises and testicles when you have a son, circumcised or not. One friend talked testicles and their "balls" honorific while driving her sons to a baseball game. "Mom!" exclaimed the son who wore sports jerseys exclusively for two years. "How did they know I like balls so much?!"
Penis tricks propel bemused little boys to share their wonder, like the morning our son rushed into our room wide-eyed, naked and pointing: "Look at this! It's sticking out! All by itself!" It never fails to fascinate. Boys play with their penises, a lot. It feels good and they're always on hand. That said, we're working on not playing with toys at the dinner table, including penises.
Also: You're the only one who may play with your penis. When our daughter tugged on her brother's penis in the bath—making him shriek and giggle, which made her shriek and giggle—my mind instantly went to incest taboos and VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic. I resisted pulling her hand away with the shaming energy of a swat. Instead, this became a tutorial for the privacy of private parts: Her brother's penis is his; it's only for him to touch. Her vagina is hers, only for her.
She likes exploring herself, too. Little kids are sexual beings: They're sentient beings responsive to physical stimuli. They're curious, about their world and their bodies—and that's normal, healthy and great. It isn't fair for us to impose on their curiosity all that "sexual" means to us.
My kids will get confusing, contradictory, unhealthy messages about their bodies from all kinds of sources as they grow. My job is to make them comfortable learning, respecting and protecting their whole bodies. They say "penis" and "vagina" easily, which I consider early sex-ed success.
A friend's kids recently staged a musical revue of their sex-organ observations:
"My brother's penis looks like a turkey with that little wrinkled thing hanging down," sang the 8-year-old sister, as she and her brother performed a post-bath living-room dance. They were silly, giggly and honest.
"Vaginas are like a hole with a tongue," laughed the 6-year-old. The parents, eyeing the nearby grandparents, hovered between hysterics, humiliation and pride.
Parent friends are invaluable in addressing the multiple "Os" of talking sex to their children: openness, observation, obfuscation and, "Oh? Where did you hear that?"
One 8-year-old boy declared he knew how babies are made with schoolyard conviction: "So, the boy pees in the girl's mouth."
Eyebrows up, his mom glanced at her younger daughter and the playdate friend in the car, and said, "No, that's not how it happens. But I don't know how your friend's parents feel about this conversation, so let's talk about it later." She did.
Another friend admired this mom's restraint in not broaching oral sex. "I'd be like, well… you know, that's kind of one way to start it," she said. I may send my kids over to her house at some point.
Presented simply, the how-sex-works report often earns shrugged acceptance or shrinking disgust from young kids. In the car again, a friend explained the basic logistics to her elementary-school children and got: "The boy's penis goes inside the girl's vagina!?!? EEEEEeeeewwww!"
She< > —and parents everywhere— < >was tempted to say, "Yes, ew. Let's keep it that way until you're 25, okay?" Instead, she left it there, a conversation to continue another day, another year, another developmental moment.
That's why I don't want to have The Talk with my kids. Instead of one, capitalized Session of Extreme Awkwardness, I want to welcome sex talks whenever they come.
This aspiration may overestimate my ability to talk to my kids—calm and collected—about sex and sexuality. It's actually something like Mongolian throat singing, where vocalists produce several tones simultaneously. I'd like to maintain a fundamental pitch of informative neutrality, but my own experiences register, too.
I checked out anatomy books at the library the other day and randomly opened one of them. My son glanced over, interested for half a second. "Is that the penis?" he asked about a roundish mass with a thin protrusion.
"No," I said. "That's your stomach."
"Oh," he said. "Where's my Ninjago book?" Anatomy has nothing on the seductions of Lego's Visual Dictionary for the Masters of Spinjitzu.
The anatomy atlases are stacked on our coffee table. When my children want to examine them, pore over the genitalia pages and ask me lots of questions, I will answer them in my best Mongolian throat singer's voice.
The World Health Organization deems sexuality an intrinsic part of human experience, and I hope to communicate this perspective to my kids: Sex and sexuality are not separate from other parts of our lives. So the books are just there, available when questions arise—open-ended, no-pressure invitations to keep talking.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents pointers for talking to their kids about sex and sexuality. healthychildren.org
The AAP suggests that school-age kids should at least know:
- Proper names of body parts
- Functions of the different body parts
- Physical differences between boys and girls
When parents talk with their kids about sex, their kids are:
- More likely to use contraception
- More likely to delay intercourse
- Less likely to have a teenage pregnancy
SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, provides unbiased education and information about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health. siecus.org
SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education form the basis for the “Our Whole Lives” sex-ed curriculum adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Some parents might find this helpful. uua.org/re/owl
Talking about sexual awareness with kids includes teaching them boundaries. Locally, Impact Personal Safety helps children, teens and adults protect themselves against violence and set boundaries for healthy relationships.
IMPACT is offering a kids’ workshop in Santa Fe, April 18-19. impactpersonalsafety.org