Last night my wife informed me that my youngest son apparently has a girlfriend. It’s hard to parse out exactly how I feel about this.
On the one hand, at thirteen he’s younger by a few years than I was before I first had a “committed relationship” with a woman; this realization carries a certain amount of anxiety about the degree to which he’s really ready for the choices that could conceivably arise when the smooching starts. On the other hand, I’m well aware that most junior high school relationships are so in name only. Often times at that age little one-on-one time is spent together, and seeking out the moniker of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” has more to do with peer jockeying than emotional and sexual exploration. I could (and will) ask him about the details, of course. But having been a teenager, I am well versed in the varying degrees with which the truth about one’s sexual activities can differ from the the stories proffered to one’s parents.
Which means that it’s probably time for me to sit down with him and have the talk.
He knows all of the basic biology surrounding human sexuality, of course – public education saw to that a while back. The job of the public school sex-ed teacher, however, is merely to teach facts and present oddly symmetrical diagrams of female organs that will mean little to him. Severely botching the teaching of wisdom is my job. And I must say, I’m dreading it. I have had but two experiences surrounding the talk in my life: My father’s talk with me, and my talk with my older son. Neither of those went particularly well.
My father was never a touchy-feely kind of guy in the best of times, and discussing the birds and the bees with the fruit of his own exploits clearly made him uncomfortable. I suspect he would have been fine with avoiding the topic altogether, but when I was sixteen my mother found a Playboy in my room. She really freaked out about it, and insisted to my father that he needed to sit down with me and explain what I was getting myself into with all of this awareness of girly parts. And so one Sunday afternoon, he called me down to talk with him as he rearranged the liquor cabinet. The liquor cabinet was actually just a large built-in kitchen cabinet at ground level. When I found my father he was on his knees, his head, shoulders and arms inside the cabinet as he shuffled bottles around.
“So, your mom want me to talk to you about the birds and the bees,” he announced.
“Um… Ok,” I said glumly.
He began to talk about the importance of never having sex before marriage for the next fifteen minutes, never once taking his head out of the cabinet – which means that from my point of view, I got my birds and bees talk from my dad’s butt.
When he finished, he asked if I had any questions about sex. The truth was I had a ton, such as: Where could I get some? Which positions did girls like? How could I find cheap, working birth control without my parents finding out? Those ads in Playboy promising to make my penis 5 inches longer – those were bullshit, right? And hey, how about them women’s breasts? Were they awesome or what? But I decided that I didn’t really want to ask my dad any of these questions, so I just said “No, but I’ll ask you later if I think of any.”
This seemed to satisfy him, and he left me with one last piece of advice before he told me I could go:
“Son, there are going to be times when you’re with a woman, and you’ll have the opportunity to go all the way. And it’s going to be hard for you to stop. So you should always remember to do this: When that time comes, ask yourself, ‘What if I were sharing this girl’s toothbrush?’ Because that’s basically what you’re doing when you have sex, and remembering that is usually enough to make you think straight.”
I remember thinking then that if using someone else’s a toothbrush were the price of admission, I would be willing to brush for hours if only someone would let me.
Because of my own birds and bees talk, I was committed that I would be a more open, honest and cool dad when my own son’s time came. Unfortunately, what I didn’t anticipate was how that time would come when he was six years old.
I was cooking “grown-up” dinner as my older son, then a newly minted first grader, sat at the counter eating Kraft macaroni and cheese. My wife came in the kitchen and kissed me, and I kissed her back.
“UGH! Gross!” howled our son. “Mom and dad are humping!”
This came as a bit of a shock to us, and my wife and I handled it in very different ways. As I recall, my wife began to turn the inappropriate comment into a teaching moment, but I waved her off.
“Where did you learn that word?” I asked him crossly, knowing before he said it that the answer would be the school playground. I explained that it was not a polite word, and one he was not allowed to use. He wanted to know why.
“Do you know what ‘humping’ even means?” He thought about it for a minute before admitting he didn’t. “Then don’t use it the word if you don’t know what it means.”
My wife gave me a look like she couldn’t believe what a moron she had married, but I was still congratulating myself for my quick thinking and awesome parenting skills. “I’ve got it covered,” I assured her later that night.
The next day of course, he arrived home from school and announced that after having asked around he now knew what ‘humping’ was. My wife gave me a “told you so” look as we sat down to deal with this newest development. We chatted a bit about how some words just weren’t appropriate to use even if you knew what they meant, before I asked what exactly he had learned.
“Humping,” he said cheerfully, “Is when a man takes his penis and hits a woman’s stomach with it.”
“Actually, that’s foreplay.”
The words were out of my mouth before I even knew I was speaking them. My wife threw her hands in the air, as she mouthed “What the hell?!” I froze up, unsure of what to say next and hoping that my son hadn’t really been paying attention. No such luck.
“Foreplay?” he asked, wide eyed and clearly fascinated. “What’s foreplay?”
That weekend I sat down with him with a few simple picture books about sex written for young children I’d checked out from the library. Holy crap, I thought as I checked them out, I’m actually making my kid into the guy that tells everybody the forbidden knowledge on the playground. As it turned out, while uttering a forbidden word was indeed an exciting adventure, learning the mechanics behind the miracle of birth held little interest. We were halfway through the first picture book when he interrupted, bored, and asked if he could go watch TV now.
“After this book,” I insisted. He gave a heavy sigh and settled into the couch as his eyes glazed over.
So now with my youngest son I face my last chance at being involved in the talk in a way that isn’t a complete disaster. And it feels important that I get it right. My parents had no idea, but by the time my mom found that Playboy and forced my dad into making our family’s own homemade After School Special I had already lost my virginity. It seemed perfectly obvious to me at the time that I was mature enough to make that decision; it’s just as perfectly obvious to me now how wrong I was. Sex carries with it a tremendous number of potential consequences, including pregnancy, disease, and a level of emotional depth I was unready to plumb at that age. So immature was I in high school that given the choice between risking being seen by my parents or their friends buying protection at the neighborhood drug store or risking having unprotected sex, I opted for the latter. Somewhere out there, there are some grown women whose fathers owe me a punch in the face.
So I’ll have the talk this weekend and I will do everything I can to make sure that my son makes better choices than I did, since I cannot guarantee that he will be as lucky at dodging bullets as I was. I’ll let him know that given the choice between him engaging in risky, stupid behavior on his own or engaging in risky, stupid behavior with our help to protect himself and his partner, he needs to choose the latter. I’ll remind him that if he ever feels like he can’t talk to us for whatever reason, he has a remarkably mature older brother waiting in the wings. And I’ll make sure he knows that no matter what, his mother and I will be here for him. And then I will sit back and spend the next decade or so anxiously hoping that he heard me.
Wish me luck.