I was driving my 7-year-old to baseball camp last week when I realized, too late, that Matty in the Morning was interviewing a woman with two vaginas.
I’m pretty sure my son, on the other hand, caught on from the first reference—having superhuman radar when it comes to all things genitalia.
No sooner had I heard “one in front and one in back” and “there could be two pregnancies” and “could the child go down the dead-end,” when Finn piped up:
“What does a vagina have to do with pregnancy?”
“We’re here!” I replied.
What I should have told him: The vagina is the orifice out of which babies are born. Except probably without the word “orifice.”
Apparently, this is a subject on which kids aren’t very clear. The son of one of my friends thinks babies are born from a hole in the stomach; another pal’s boy is pretty sure his little brother came out of their mom’s “butt.”
Another friend witnessed her very own focus group on the topic:
“I was driving [my son] and two of his friends to NARA and they were discussing how to make a baby,” she says. “I turned the radio down and kept my mouth shut. So this is how you get pregnant: saliva! Who knew?! When your saliva touches another person’s saliva, you get pregnant. One little cutie said, ‘My mom and dad share toothbrushes and since they have saliva on them, that must be how my mom got pregnant.’ The final verdict was when you kiss, you exchange saliva and get pregnant.”
The trio then tackled the mystery of how a baby gets out of its mother:
“We had three different answers from where the baby comes from,” says my friend. “One, your stomach. Two, ‘down there.’ And three, ‘maybe from the nose, except your nose would be huge.’”
I’m not sure if my own sons have an opinion on this Great Birth Debate, but I’m thinking I should have a game plan before they start asked pointed questions.
Expert Louanne Cole Weston Ph.D. says I should be ready even before the questions come. Here’s the advice she gave on WebMD:
“Never avoid a 'teachable moment.’ Dive in and offer accurate information whenever your child sashays anywhere near the topic of sex. Don't wait for the point-blank question to be asked.”
How old should your kids be when you dive in? As soon as they can talk, she says.
“Parents often ask, ‘How old should a child be before we start talking about sex?’ My answer always is: ‘Younger than you think.’ Here’s why. If you talk about sexual matters from the beginning of a child’s use of language, there never needs to be the big ‘birds and bees talk.’ It's just a series of small conversations spread out over many years. You, as the parent, become the obvious go-to person whenever there's a question.”
Of course, depending on your child’s age, diving can be more about dipping your toe in than a full-on cannonball.
Parenting.com has a great age-by-age guide to what kids can understand about sex—starting at age 2 or 3 with the use of the correct terms for body parts (it’s a penis, not a willy; a vagina, not a cha-cha). The article also offers tips on how to address particular subjects like body changes, masturbation and online porn.
“Use age-appropriate language and correct anatomical terms, but talk, talk, talk,” says Deborah Roffman, a sexuality educator and author of Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex.
As Roffman explained in a workshop of parents recently: “Sex shouldn’t be hidden away in a little box in the basement, only doled out on special occasions.” (That’s what he said.)
“Data consistently shows that conversation helps postpone the age of first intercourse and it slows kids down,” she added. “Same with all other risk-taking behavior. Parents matter.”
If you’re not comfortable doing all the talking yourself, there are some great books that can help. Weston (and more than one of my friends) recommend two by Robie Harris: It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health and It's So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families.
But I figure if we don’t give our kids the correct information about sex and bodies—including the aspects about emotions, values, respect and relationships—they’ll get it elsewhere.
Like in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
One mom I know learned that first-hand:
“I had grabbed the mail, sorted through and ditched the Victoria’s Secret catalog into the recycling box in the garage, knowing I should keep it away from my 5-year-old son,” she says. “We were in the driveway playing, and sure enough he finds his coveted VS centerfold, walks over to me, catalog open, and says with full grin, ‘Mom, look! My penis got hard again!’”
Her response: “I know it feels good, but perhaps we should look at something else right now.”
Not making kids feel ashamed or abnormal is important, say experts—as is making it clear that no topic is off-limits.
As Weston says, “If you become an ‘askable’ parent, you will have offered your child an incredibly valuable gift.”