On a car trip a couple years ago, my six-year-old son, Eli, asked randomly, between bites of his granola bar, “How do babies get here?” I looked over at my husband, who was quickly turning from red to green in the driver’s seat.
“Well,” I began, “they come from mommies’ bellies. You know, after the seed gets planted?” My fingers were crossed in my lap. Hopefully the lame explanation would work, again. It didn’t.
“No, I mean how does the seed get planted?” he asked, forcing an impromptu hushed-tone conference in the front seat.
“Tell him you can’t tell him, that he’s too young!” my husband hissed, begging, as if for his life. Fear shone in his eyes.
I laughed. “We can’t tell him that we can’t tell him – that’s terrible. He wants to know.” I said, patting his arm. This was an inevitable conversation – if maybe a bit early.
“Well,” I said to Eli, trying to lend lightness but also gravity to what I could imagine would seem like a garish idea. “A man puts his penis to a woman’s vagina :” I couldn’t even bear to say “in.” I thought proximity would suffice.
My explanation was met, strangely for my typically wild, potty-talking pups, with silence. Eli, after a bit, offered one word: “Gross.”
The experience offered valuable food for thought. First, I realized that kids are often ready far before we are to talk about things we think they shouldn’t be thinking about. And then I started wondering why the heck my husband was no help. What if I hadn’t been there? Would he have actually told him he couldn’t tell him?
Mulling over the idea of why men seem to skedaddle when it’s time to have “the talk,” I decided to poll some other parents. Michele, a Brooklyn mom with girls aged 4 and 7, nodded vociferously when I voiced my suspicion that moms seem to be the ones most likely to field the difficult questions.
Apparently her older daughter had taken her father aside to ask him, “Are babies made when daddies stick their long things into mommies’ butts?”
“What did he say??!!” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “He said, ‘I can’t talk about that right now.’”
Why such fear and panic?
Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character, says that “talking about things in general is not the strong point of our puritanical culture, but, for Dads especially, there is horrible embarrassment, shame and avoidance talking about any intimate feelings – feelings about desire, grief, hope, really any emotion – with anyone, but especially with their own children.” The result, she says, is that when the tough topics arise, “Mom is always left holding the bag.”
Ted Lempert is the president of Oakland, California-based Children Now, which for years has run a program called Talking with Kids About Tough Issues. Still, Mr. Lempert acknowledged sheepishly that “even though I’m the ‘expert,’ it’s really my wife who has most of the conversations with our three girls.” Like Dr. Berger, he says, “Moms are just better in general about having conversations.”
Lempert does say that moms end up being The One because sometimes they’re the only ones around. Beth, a 40-year-old writer in York, Pennsylvania, agreed that when it comes to bodily questions (mostly raised by her 9-year-old son), “It’s always me, mostly because of timing. Someone says something at school and it’s on his mind, so it comes up in the car with me on the way home or at night when I’m tucking them in.”
One time, Beth’s son came out with a doozie: “Mom, so and so said he’s getting laid on so and so. What does that mean?” After a bit, she offered that it was something grown men and women do together in private when they want to make a baby. But then he zinged her, raising the question about a childless aunt and uncle: “Do they do it? They must not ’cause they don’t have any kids.” He then proceeded to list how many times various aunts and uncles must have had “The Sex,” depending on their number of children.
Beth was forced to come clean, explaining that it’s also used to “practice” making babies and is a “very special way married grown-ups show each other love.” Luckily his next question simply asked her to turn up the radio so he could hear the song that was playing.
In my house, Eli’s curious mind has continued to pursue the finer points of sexuality, like how semen comes out (at which point I attempted, badly, to explain erections and orgasm) and why someone might do it if not just to make a baby (“Um, because it feels good?” I offered boldly). Most often I have been the one there to answer as honestly as possible, as my husband continues to make himself scarce.
Kathy Whitham, a Brooklyn-based behavior parenting coach, explains that “when something comes up that triggers discomfort in the Dad, all of a sudden, there is a lot of tension surrounding a seemingly innocent question, and these non-verbal cues can cause a child to stop asking [him] questions.”
Whitham suggests creating a strategy to determine how moms can help dads field these questions before they come up and to find an opportunity to explore why such talk might trigger emotions like fear and shame. “It’s crucial to helping kids grow into a healthy sexuality that when they’re asking questions, you’re fully present, both of you,” she adds.
Dr. Berger also points out that it’s not just the official “talk” that matters. Kids begin to learn about their own and others’ bodies, about marriage, love, and divorce, and about their parents’ attitudes about these matters from the very beginning of their lives, she says. “Much of this learning is not verbal but gets expressed in the way that the parents touch the child and touch each other, and the communication of love and enjoyment in these activities.” Something as simple as parents’ responses to a child’s early flirtations with the opposite gender parent “has a big effect upon the child’s confidence and pleasure in these roles later on,” she says. Something as simple as parents’ responses to a child’s early flirtations with the opposite gender parent has a big effect upon the child’s confidence and pleasure in these roles later on.
Children Now’s Mr. Lempert feels that dads, himself included, have to be better about communicating to children their thoughts about sex, especially the idea of respect in relationships. “Verbal and non-verbal messages create models for kids and have a deep impact on their romantic lives later on,” he says.
To move beyond their discomfort, he suggests that dads can use books, TV episodes, playground conversations, pregnant friends, or any situations that “offer the opportunity to start the conversation and establish a trust level so that the child knows they can come back and talk to you with questions and concerns.” But don’t wait too long out of fear, Lempert warns. “If you wait until the time you think kids start thinking about this stuff, it’s too late for you to be trusted as a guide.”
At the risk of prompting a divorce, I’m a little skeptical that my husband will be able to jump easily aboard the body-talk bandwagon. When I told him that Eli had asked why vaginas have hair and penises don’t, he looked perplexed. “Penises have hair …” he said. I laughed. “Look again! The hair is not actually on the penis!” Maybe I really should be the one doing all the talking.