I’ll never forget the first time a colleague asked me for a tampon. I was flummoxed. I was 20 years old — in my first real job and completely floored by this kind of publicizing PRIVATE information. To curb my embarrassment, we agreed that if someone needed a tampon in the office, they’d ask, “may I have a dime?” And so began my journey to normalize normal things.
I began to practice talking out loud about natural things like periods, childbirth, and bodies. Later, when our lamaze class nurse said we would be naked in the delivery room, I laughed out loud. And I most certainly was not naked. I physically pulled down my gown while pushing my baby out to cover as much up as possible. Yes I know it sounds silly, now.
We know that in order to truly understand calculus, we begin by learning addition, subtraction, and multiplication in first grade. And to become a thoughtful writer, we must first know how to make letters, spell, and comprehend words on a page. But when it comes to our bodies, we make up funny names for genitals and deem related subjects untalkable in polite company. And then, when puberty hits, it’s time to be in a relationship, have sex, or make a family (arguably more important than calculus!), we don’t even have the fundamental information.
So I vowed that with my kids, we would speak openly and accurately about bodies and sex. We may have gone a little overboard in the early days — as evidenced by the anatomically correct snowman craft that came home from preschool. My daughter’s teacher was gracious but, did suggest the picture be hung in the bathroom instead of on the refrigerator. In third grade, I hosted a “puber-tea,” lead by an incredible RN with a passion for making fallopian tubes fun. My friends, our kids, and I learned about armpit hair, puberty, and nutrition. The unfettered questions these sweet 8- and 9-year-olds asked brought me to happy tears. We did it again in sixth grade and talked about periods, social media, and body image. It was amazing to watch these girls NOT be embarrassed to talk about feminine hygiene, ovaries, and deodorant. In fact, they were proud of their bodies and all they could accomplish. With a strong foundation, we crossed our fingers, prayed, and hoped that they were ready for the conversations that come next — hormones, gender identity, birth control, consent, intercourse, and more.
I was a little squeamish to talk about these subjects with my daughter. So I was delighted to find out that AMAZE — a collaboration between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Youth Tech Health — created an online sex education resource for young adolescents. My daughter, Maddy, and I recently watched the videos together and though she’s 15 — they’re generally made for tweens 10-14 — each vignette provided ample fodder for conversation. The site offers videos and supplemental resources about puberty, identity, personal safety, and more. They’re short — between two and five minutes, and they kept my teen’s attention, which in today’s Snapchat world is no small thing. We giggled together through “How the Boner Grows…” but did YOU know that it’s normal for boys to get 4-5 erections a night? And, more importantly, did you know that boys feel alone with their awkward puberty? My daughter had thought that was just a girl thing. When we watched “I’m So Happy, I’m So Sad,” I realized that no one ever told me about what it feels like to be a hormonal teen. EVER. Maddy mentioned that she and her friends sometimes wonder if mood swings are normal and don’t know what the heck is going on inside. This video suggests what is normal and also when kids might need to seek out help.
The videos are mostly judgment free. They lay out facts and allow parental follow-up with conversations about your own beliefs and values. We engaged in nervous laughter, truth telling, and question asking, like when we watched the video “When Will I Be Ready?” (here’s where I give myself a “you can do it” pep talk). This kind of interaction is exactly what I hope for as my teen gets older and the topics get more complex.
One of the cool consequences of these body and sex conversations we’ve been having since toddler-hood is that my daughter is far less nervous about this stuff than I am. With practice, I’ve gotten better — but for her, it’s second nature. We, like everyone else, are figuring this stuff out as we go (exhibit A: snowman penis!). As we continue to learn and grow together, our conversations become more and more natural. And we’re building knowledge upon what we have already learned — like discovering an exciting, complicated new equation for a math concept we already know.