Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex. Or Not. - My Messy Beautiful

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Talking about sex has always come easily to me as a parent. This might be surprising to hear from a mother of three boys, but it’s absolutely true.

As preschool and elementary school came and went, so did the inevitable questions.

“Why is that turtle on top of the other turtle?” was pretty easy. I answered questions when they arose. I was matter-of-fact in my answers. Breasts were for nursing babies. There were differences between girls and boys. I didn’t shy away from recounting birth stories. We looked at picture books about the body and all its glorious functions, and as they became pre-teens, I made sure there were several books in the house about puberty. My husband and I have always been very clear that the boys can ask us anything and we will give them a straight answer. Everything is very open and honest. Or so I thought.  

A few days ago during the morning craziness before school, a boy handed me a pen at the kitchen table, and presented a worksheet strategically folded so that only the signature portion was visible. (Note to Teenagers: This is a sure way to provoke parent suspicion.)

“What am I signing here?” I asked, taking the pen.

“Nothing. Just sign it,” the boy replied.

I grasped the paper, unfolding it as the boy’s face fell. “I don’t sign anything without knowing what it is first. You shouldn’t either.”

He sighed. He may have rolled his eyes.

I scanned the page and words popped out. Gonorrhea. Chlamydia. STD. HIV.

Now I understood his hesitation. He had scribbled and scratched out answers, his pencil marks so light I had to squint to read them -  like he was too embarrassed to even touch his pencil to the paper. This was the Health class (I use that term loosely) that my seventh graders were forced to endure instead of Athletics on a sporadic basis. It looked as if the coaches had shown a video and the worksheet had accompanied it. I gathered they were supposed to fill in the blanks as they watched to confirm their understanding. They were required to get their parents to sign their completed work on this most sensitive subject.  

Words like sperm and genitalia and fluid littered the page. The boy was mortified.

“Why can’t you just SIGN IT??!!” he shouted before stomping out of the kitchen.

His twin brother sat calmly, eating his bowl of cereal. They were in the same class.

“Where’s yours?” I asked, continuing to scan the worksheet causing so much angst. He rummaged through his backpack and handed me his. Written in dark black ink, only half of the front side of his was complete.

“You didn’t finish?” I asked.

“Coach said he would tell us the answers, but he never did!” he whined.

“So you just left it blank?”

“I don’t know…” he trailed off.

“Why is your brother’s all filled out then?”

“I don’t know…” another mumble.

I saw that some of his filled-in answers were correct, where his brother's had not been. How was I going to approach that? I took a closer look at the last question.

What is the only way to eliminate the risk of contracting an STD?
The answer?
Don’t have sex.
I was appalled. What a manipulative and emotionally charged question. This abstinence only program had probably scared the crap out of them.

I explained to the boy who was brave enough to remain in the kitchen that while that answer may technically be true, it was unrealistic to act as if you were never going to have sex - ever. I dove right in. “So they should have explained to y’all that there are ways to have sex safely - to protect yourself and reduce the risk by wearing a condom.”

I didn’t expect a response from the boy and I didn’t get one. I took a deep breath as I walked down the hall to the bedroom where the other boy had retreated.

He sat in his desk chair, his back to me. “There are a few answers here that you need to change,” I explained. “This should be bacterial…” The boy sighed, but corrected his answers as I pointed them out.

“Why are you acting so mad?” I asked.

“Why do you have to turn everything bad?” he blurted. As the accusation left his mouth, his voice cracked and tears came. He wiped them away furiously, dragging his forearms across his eyes.

I didn’t give up.

“You can always ask me about any of this stuff. You don’t have to be embarrassed. Or you can ask Dad. Or we can give you books to read that explain everything if you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s life. Sex is part of life. You’re eventually going to have sex and you need to know these things. That’s life.”

“Just go away!” he croaked through more tears.

So I did.

I went to my room and sat at my desk in front of my laptop, pretending to work. I was rattled. Here I was, thinking we had this open and honest relationship with our boys and that they knew they could come to us for information and, most importantly, that they would. And yet I had just been rejected. The boys not only didn’t want to ask me any questions, they didn’t want me involved at all. And could I really blame them?

That I prided myself on being a parent who considered no topic taboo didn’t mean I had kids who felt the same way. Maybe that wasn’t what they needed or wanted. Maybe they wanted a mother who was there, but not pushy. A mother who could be counted on in a pinch, but didn’t insist on doing things her way.

I shudder to think where and how they will acquire their sexual education, but I’m backing off. Because maybe this is less about the type of parent I want to be and more about the type of parent my boys need me to be. And you know what? I think I owe them that.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! To learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry on Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!


  1. You can always remind them they have an uncle who spent several years teaching sex ed and HIV prevention through his theatre company. Always willing to talk on the phone without any parental embarrassment. (And I never agreed with abstinence only education!)

  2. I think we might just take you up on that, Favorite Uncle :)

  3. I hope you have an inkling of what a wonderful mother you ARE!

  4. Good post, Kate. Is there a book on puberty for boys that you found particularly good and would recommend? Our son is getting there fast. Thanks!

  5. These are the two we have:

    What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys by Lynda Madaras
    It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Harris and Emberley

    This one helped me understand it all and have sympathy for what they are going through as part of puberty:
    The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine (and also to understand men better in general). She also wrote one called The Female Brain that is great.

    Good luck!

  6. Great essay and thanks for the book recommendations.