Smartmom doesn’t remember her parents ever talking to her about the birds and the bees. Sure, her mom probably gave her some kind of pamphlet about menstruation and told her about sanitary napkins.
But sex and all the rest: Smartmom has no memory of ever having that conversation.
At school, Smartmom has a vague recollection of watching films from the 1950s about puberty. It was in Mrs. Jarcko’s science class and they blend in with her memories of films about malaria, elephantiasis, and other tropical diseases.
When Smartmom got her period for the first time, she was just about to leave for sleep-away camp. It couldn’t have happened at worse time. Her mother packed a big box of sanitary napkins and a belt and sent her on her way. She was 12-years-old and felt nothing but embarrassment and shame. The last thing she wanted was for her bunkmates to know that she had her period. It really did feel like the curse. Instead of putting her soiled sanitary napkins in the bunk’s garbage pail, she took long hikes and disposed of them in the woods. No one would ever know except the raccoons and the deer.
Because of those difficult memories, Smartmom has always tried to create an open atmosphere in which information (and conversation) about puberty and sex are readily available. The funny thing is this: Teen Spirit and the Oh So Feisty One don’t always want to have “the talk” when she brings it up. They are, however, very open to books that tell the tale in an interesting and age-appropriate way.
In other words, they like to get the info they need, but in a private and discreet manner, and only when they’re ready.
When Teen Spirit was in second grade, Smartmom read a review of a book called “It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth Babies and Families” and rushed out to buy it.
She figured: why not? It’s never too early to learn the facts of life in an age-appropriate way. Indeed, it was one of the best purchases she has ever made. And a great spur for conversations about sex.
Recommended for kids ages 7 and up, the book by Robie Harris with illustrations by Michael Emberley, uses a variety of techniques, including cartoons of an inquisitive bee and an embarrassed bird, to dole out the facts of life. But there’s real information on these pages. With great illustrations and text, topics covered include changes in boys’ and girls’ bodies during puberty, intercourse, birth control, chromosomes and genes, adoption and adjusting to a newborn sibling. There are even gentle and age-appropriate discussions of masturbation, sexual abuse, HIV and AIDS and homosexuality.
Smartmom put the book in a prominent spot in Teen Spirit’s bedroom and knew that he would get around to it when he was good and ready. They looked at it together when he was in second or third grade and talked gently about what was in there.
“It’s So Amazing” is the kind of book that can grow with the child. When a girl in Teen Spirit’s class announced that she had two moms, Smartmom used the book to answer some of his pressing questions about gay parenting (which mom is the dad? How did they make a baby? Etc.).
A few years later, when his need to know was even more urgent, Teen Spirit read the book on his own cover-to-cover one evening. And then read it again, cover-to-cover, the very next day. Smartmom could tell he was relieved to have all that information under his belt (so to speak). And he was relieved not to have the conversation with his mom or dad. Thanks to that book.
It’s a bit harder — although vitally important — to have the safe sex conversation with a kid once he or she reaches high school. Unfortunately high-schoolers are notoriously resistant to receiving any information from their parents.
Smartmom knows that he’s pretty up to date and that there’s a condom-dispensing machine in the restrooms at his school. She also knows that he collects those stylish NYC condoms because she found an unused condom being used as a bookmark in his copy of “Death of a Salesman.”
Sure, they make great bookmarks, but she hopes that, if he is sexually active, he’s using them correctly.
When OSFO came along, Smartmom knew from the start that she was going to be very open with her about her body and how it works. As for those funny sticks in the blue Tampon box on the bathroom shelf, OSFO has been well aware of them and their function for years.
In other ways, too, Smartmom has tried to undo some of the shame and secrecy she experienced as a child. When Smartmom was a girl, she needed a bra at least a year before her mother bought her one. That’s probably because she hit puberty in the heyday of bra burning and 1970s-style women’s lib. But Smartmom remembers feeling funny about her floppy breasts in a see-through white T-shirt one day in sixth grade. And that’s when she and her mom finally went to the bra store on Upper Broadway, where an elderly Jewish lady with a tape measure expertly (and somewhat invasively) fit her for her first bra.
For at least two years before OSFO showed any signs of budding breasts, Smartmom dropped hints about shopping for training bras. Just in case. Not to rush things, Smartmom just wanted OSFO to know that her mom would be there for her whenever she was ready.
When OSFO was about 6 or 7, Smartmom asked if she’d like to look at the funny cartoons in “It’s So Amazing.” She was interested but only to a point. Smartmom learned then that OSFO only wanted as much information as she was comfortable with and it didn’t pay to overwhelm her with too many details.
That’s why it’s important to take cues from the child about what they are and aren’t ready to learn about.
For OSFO, “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls” from the American Girl Library has been a lifesaver. She’s had it around since she was about 8 years old and has consulted it for information about everything from proper tooth-brushing technique, healthy eating, hair care, braces, pimples, periods and bras.
OSFO keeps the book in a private spot near her bed and it, like “It’s So Amazing,” is in heavy rotation.
While these books are fantastic resources, nothing replaces those important conversations between parent and child — though those conversations never quite go according to plan.
What if Teen Spirit had discovered Internet porn when he was just a 13-year-old? It would have been inevitable, right? If so, Smartmom and Hepcat thought it would be a good time to have the “sex is beautiful” conversation and the “what goes on between you and your body is personal and private” chat.
But Teen Spirit would be so mortified to have that talk, given that it meant his parents knew that he’d been looking at porn sites. If Smartmom knows her boy (and she does), he would storm out of the apartment and spend the next 24 hours in his room sulking.
Some of Smartmom’s female friends handled the situation by telling their sons that porn was disgusting and exploitative against women. But Smartmom wouldn’t want to create any kinds of shameful or bad feelings about Teen Spirit’s potential discovery of sex — even if it was on a Web site exclusively devoted to large breasts.
Sexual orientation is very personal and no parent should ever get in the middle of it. It’s all about knowing what to say and what not to say. If it involves health and safety, parents should talk. If it involves legislating ideas about sexuality, parents should stay out of it.
Sometimes sex talks can feel like an intrusion. When Smartmom decided to impart important details about menstruation to OSFO, OSFO already knew everything and wanted to keep the whole matter on the down low.
Smartmom has big plans for when OSFO finally gets her period. She fantasizes about a mother/daughter bonding ritual that will include circle dancing, pagan prayers to the goddess, candle lighting and life affirming chants.
But Smartmom knows that’s not going to happen. While she does strive to create an open atmosphere about sex and the body, she must, of course, take cues from her girl.
And OSFO is simply not the circle-dancing, goddess type.
Sex education, like everything else when it comes to parenting, requires loads of trial and error. It’s important to stay attuned to your child and the way he or she likes to receive information (from you, a book, a film, or at school). Rest assured: if you provide kids with what they need to know in an open-hearted, age-appropriate, and non-invasive way, parent and child should survive the experience just fine.