At any given time of the day, my son Felix can be seen pulling his underwear up to his belly button, securing what my dad sometimes referred to as “his boys.” You might also find his hand down there, his lips tight with concentration. He loves playing with phallic objects. The wand attachment on our hose. Cardboard tubes. Rocket ships.
Recently, Felix has ventured further afield and discovered his testicles. “What’s in there,” he asked me one summer afternoon.
It was hot, and we had just taken turns cooling off in the shower. I came out of the bathroom to find him on my bed, naked in the sunlight, two fingers pinching his scrotum. “I think there’s a rock in there,” he said. “What is that?”
“It’s your testicles. They… well, they help your penis work right.”
“It feels funny when I squeeze them like this.”
And then he twisted his fingers such that my stomach turned summersaults. “Be careful down there!” I said. “Go gentle.”
A pretty harmless exchange, right? Oh, but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, he wanted to know how babies are made. Aside from the myth of Santa Claus, we try to have a policy of complete honesty in our household. We encourage scientific rigor and candor when it comes to discussing both the natural world and our emotions. (Which is not nearly as robotic as that sentence makes it sound, trust me!) And yet, this gave me pause. The kid’s four years old. I had hoped to have a good ten years before having to confront this subject. What’s the developmentally appropriate answer here? I didn’t want to lie and tell him that babies are found in the cabbage patch. Nor did I want to explain sex from soup to nuts, as the case may be. So, I used a metaphor he might understand: plants.
“There’s a part that comes from a man, like pollen, and an egg that comes from a woman, and together they create a baby,” I told him. “That’s why you’re a bit like me and a bit like your mommy. We made you together.”
“An egg…” he said.
I could see his little mind going, envisioning that somewhere inside my wife’s body was a brown chicken egg, like the ones we get from the store. But I let him have that misconception, if indeed he had it at all, and left my explanation at that. Even I draw the line somewhere.
Then, the other night in the tub, he confronted my wife. She told him to stop playing with his scrotum, and he said, “I have these two things in there. What do they do?”
Not knowing that Felix and I had already kind of talked about this, she gave him the full truth. “When you get older, they make sperm. And then you can help make a baby!”
“Yeah. With you, Mom.”
“No, not with me.”
“I’m going to be like daddy and make a baby with you.”
Usually, when kids say they want to grow up to be a daddy just like their daddy, guys have one of those rare, tender moments. In my case, I felt creeped out. Felix doesn’t want to be like me, he wants to be me.
No wonder dads can have such fraught relationships with their sons! I’m annoyed by him when he hangs on my wife and throws a tantrum when I’m talking to her. That’s my wife, kid. But he sees her as his wife too, if not now, then in the future. I’m just an obstacle standing between him and his true love. It’s the return of Lil’ Oedipus!
Only now Lil’ Oedipus knows how to make babies.
Seriously, though. How do you talk honestly about sex with a four-year-old? Or do you not do it, and instead fall back on imaginative stories about storks and the like?
Parenting, my friends. It’s never easy.