(Edited and updated from an old article I’d written for a parenting website).
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there were so many taboo topics. Even my reasonably progressive family had its share of we-don’t-talk-about-that. As a child, I found all the hush-hush both fascinating and exasperating.
I’d want to know why my older cousins wore bras, what a “sanitary napkin” was, and why did the commercials always pour blue water on it? I was also curious about divorces and whether dead people could still eat ice cream. There was much that made no sense to my little kid’s mind. I once cornered an older friend and asked her about the logical impossibility of having a baby before getting married. She got all wide-eyed and flustered, shushed me, and that was that.
It wasn’t until much later I learned about… well, everything. I was 11 when I got my first period and 12 when I had my first brush with death and grief, and 14 when I learned how babies were made. Though woefully unprepared and shocked each time, I accepted it all with false bravado. Confused by this strange, adult-esque world, where painful and permanent things could happen to me and everyone I loved, I pretended everything was fine and not terrifying.
Before motherhood, I promised myself I would gently expose my children to life and all its secrets. And much to my surprise, those conversations have gone over swimmingly well. They run up with follow-up questions at (very) random moments. Still, there is zero shame, awkwardness, or confusion. I’m hoping they grow up to be respectful adults, confident in their bodies and preferences.
And since I’m a stickler for rules:
- I only talk when I’m ready to have “the talk.” If it has been a long day or I’m not sure how to word my facts appropriately, I always pause and postpone. Children can sense discomfort or uncertainty, so it’s best to wait for a later time. “This is an important question, and I’m glad you’re curious. May I get back to you tomorrow? I just want to make sure I’m giving you the correct information.” Words to that effect. Keep it simple, concise, and honest. This leads me to my following rule — honesty.
- When asked a question, I have only two choices. Respond with facts or table the discussion to when the child is mentally/emotionally older. I never lie, even by omission, because that’s how mistrust happens. The whole point to handling big little questions is to educate, with no half-truths and confusion.
- Stick with science when in doubt. Anatomical terms are always age-appropriate, and bumbling around with cutesy descriptions just perpetuates awkwardness. I mean, I wouldn’t point to my leg and say, “ooh, that’s my leelee,” or some nonsense. So why are other body parts so taboo? Breasts (boobs for children with difficulty pronouncing the “r” sound), penis, vulva, buttocks, anus. Not “peepee” and “hoohaa”. Normalizing every inch of the human body goes a long way to self-acceptance and respect for others. Plus, it’s hilarious when your toddler screeches,” Amma! My anus itches.” (true story!)
- Bodily functions are ordinary and universal. Everyone poops, urinates, farts and sweats. Yes, younger kids love potty humor (my daughter screams “Poo” and giggles, and she’s almost 7), so it’s fun to laugh at fart jokes. But reinforce that there is nothing secretive or exclusive about toileting.
- It’s never too early to educate your children (both genders) about how women’s bodies work. If they’re old enough to understand toileting, they’re old enough to understand menstruation. Periods are a very natural (though annoying) part of a girl/woman’s life. You don’t have to go into too many details about fallopian tubes and ovulation. Keep it simple, factual, and at their comprehension level. And don’t forget to assure them that blood doesn’t mean mommy suffers an injury every month. My daughter cried and offered to share all her candy with me because she thought I was getting hurt like clockwork every 28 days. Much as I would have loved to score all that chocolate, I had to comfort her. Keep your partner involved in these discussions too. Every father should know and feel comfortable talking about menstruation to his sons and daughters.
I will post Part 2 of “Sex, Death and big little questions” tomorrow.
And Part 3 – “Bloopers – Sex, Death and big little questions,” on Tuesday.