People were shocked when Chicago passed a bill approving a sex ed program that starts in kindergarten. Apparently a lot of us think kids would be better off if we waited to have “the talk” when they’re ready — presumably just before they hit puberty, and long after they’ve already learned everything they should (or shouldn’t) know on the school bus. But to me, the only shocking thing about the Chicago program is the fact that it waits until kindergarten. Kindergarten is not too early to start talking about sex. If anything, it’s too late.
I get it. A lot of parents can’t even talk about sex with other adults, so of course they don’t want to discuss it with children. Actually, though, I don’t get it. Maybe my family is just nerdy, but we’ve been explaining the basics of everything from how electricity works to what a metaphor means since our kids first started to talk. Explaining sex is no different.
My daughter was still a baby when I first realized that not all parents feel the same way. A friend at a playgroup told me how her 5-year-old daughter had asked about babies and families.
“I know we kids are all in the same family with you, Mommy, because we all grew in your tummy,” the little girl said, “but why is Daddy part of our family?” T
The age-appropriate answer seemed obvious to me: Daddy puts the baby there. End of conversation. But my friend was too embarrassed to say even that. She sidestepped the issue with a “What do you think?” and let her daughter make up her own explanation.
“Guess I can put off ‘the talk’ for a little while longer,” she laughed.
Which pinpoints the exact problem with the whole concept of “the talk.” We want to condense sex ed into a single conversation so we can put it off and then get it over with as quickly as possible. But really, learning about sex is more like learning quantum mechanics or Russian literature. It’s a complex topic, and while you could theoretically compress an overview into a few hours, you’ll understand it better if you spread it out. Take it one concept at a time, let that digest, and then learn a little more.
It starts with body parts — which is shocking enough for people in my parents’ generation, but most of my friends are comfortable with that level of sex ed. And yes, teaching your kid the proper names for genitals is part of sex ed. Like most parents, I start that before my kids can talk. My 16-month-old son is learning it right now; he points to his nose, his eyes, his feet, and I identify them. When he’s diaperless, which is a lot of the time, he grabs his penis, and I say, “That’s your penis.”
This embarrasses my mom, who refers to it as his “pee-pee.” I correct her, even though it makes me feel like I’m playing that middle school game where you keep repeating “the p-word” louder and louder until one of you gives up.
“Penis, mom,” I say. “It’s called a PENIS.”
My mom is not the only one who has trouble naming parts. When my daughter was a toddler, I tried to teach her to say “vulva,” which is more accurate than vagina. But that was too hard for my daughter to pronounce, and she opted for the more generic “privates,” which was the term my husband used. My inner feminist winces at the term, but at least it points to the most important fact kids need to learn at that stage: the fact that private parts are, indeed, private.
The concept of privacy is one that most parents at least address, but it’s another where I think we do kids a disservice. It’s easy to say that “bathing suit parts” are private, and no one should touch them except — well, except who? Mommy and Daddy are the obvious choices, but that doesn’t help if a parent is abusive. Including the doctor on the “safe” list seems sensible, but doctors have abused children, too. I mention those adults, but I add a caveat: even a trusted adult should never touch your private parts unless you understand why and it’s okay with you. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s Mom or Dad or the teacher or the babysitter or the doctor: consent matters.
Consent is at the heart of all healthy sexuality. It’s often the big piece that’s missing from nearly all the conversations about pre-pubescent sex ed. Maybe we think that since kids can’t consent to sex, the concept is unnecessary. But it’s never too early to teach body integrity, and it’s never too early for a child to understand that he has a right to refuse your touch, no matter who you are. And I’m not just talking about sexual touch.
When we force a child to hug Aunt Catherine or kiss Grandma against his or her will, we make the relatives happy, but we’re teaching the child to ignore their own instincts and let adults touch them in ways he or she doesn’t want. We may as well be grooming him for abuse.
My daughter taught me this early. She’s highly sensitive, and she was often upset by people touching her. And people, I discovered, love to touch cute toddlers. Strangers would mess with her hair; babysitters would tickle her. When she cried and backed away, they would try again. I had to fight to protect her. One of the first phrases she learned was “Don’t touch me!”
If that’s not sex ed, then what is?
As for the whole conversation about where babies come from? I don’t even remember the first time it came up, although we’re still vague about the details. I told her that babies come from a mix of daddy parts and mommy parts. The daddy puts baby-growing parts inside of mommy’s belly, and the baby grows there. That’s as mechanical as it got, and she still has no idea that genitals have anything to do with it. She probably imagined Daddy opening a window in my belly. Which is good enough for now.
Even that basic understanding led to some interesting conversations, though. Not long ago, she told me she wants to marry her best friend Carmen.
I said, “Well, most girls marry boys, but some girls marry girls. You can marry a girl if you want.”
She thought for a minute and then changed her mind. “I can’t marry a girl!” she exclaimed. “I want to grow a baby in my belly, not adopt one! I need a boy to make a baby. I’ll have to marry Andrew.”
For a minute, I was speechless. Should I let her desire for children influence her thoughts about her future sexuality? Would this consideration become a long-term factor for her? Should I explain how artificial insemination works?
In the end, I let the moment pass. I guess even I have my limits. I’ll save that particular detail of “the talk” for a future date.