As I have mentioned before, I thought about a lot of weird stuff as a kid. In fact, I spent a good part of my childhood in strange thought experiments, pondering this and that, trying to work things out. Why were there so few colors and could I think up a new one if I really tried? How would Math work if humans had six fingers on each hand? How do they get the music on to those vinyl records? But when it came to where babies came from – I was only ever-so-slightly intrigued. Not enough to really spend time pondering it all. Men and women got married and spent a lot of time in each other’s company. Babies happened. No storks were necessary ( – that story was so lame). There were no questions.
That made it all the more shocking to me when all my non-existent questions were answered late one winter night in a cabin full of girl scouts at Camp Minikani. (See, Bitter Ben – once again it is those darn scouts! They are to blame!) Our hippie counselor had snuck out to join the other adults and the bunk-bed discussions began. An older girl started explaining the . . . production process . . . to a younger one and I listened in. Basically I had no choice.
Like many young kids (I assume) my first reaction was “Eewww!” Then came the realization – like a tidal wave rolling over me – “My parents did THAT!?!” Then the third wave crashed: “And they did it FIVE times!” While I was dealing with the undertow, the younger girl was made to repeat it all (to make sure she really understood, they said. Right. There was no sadistic pleasure happening here – this was all purely educational.) Then one of the good Samaritans said it was my turn to repeat the information. I pretended to be asleep.
It was only after this camp experience that I noticed the books. They were casually placed around our house for any of us kids to find. Masters and Johnson, David Reuben’s “Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex* (*but was afraid to ask)” . . . there might have been more. The first time I took one off a shelf to look at, I saw that it had been read a lot before. If I stood it on its back and let it go, it would always fall open to pages with interesting illustrations. My mom saw me looking at one of them once and said “If you have any questions, you can ask me.” I thanked her politely and she left the room. That was sex education in the early 70s.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and I was now the mom. But, once again, I was confronted with the topic a bit too early. My daughter was only in the 3rd grade when a letter came from her school. They wanted to offer a program with a team of social workers who would come to the school and talk to the kids about various topics. The title was something like “My Body Belongs to Me – Sexual Abuse Prevention” – who doesn’t want that for their kids? The first stage was a mandatory parent’s evening during which they ran through the entire program with us first. It was exceptionally well done. And yet . . .
At the end, the parents were encouraged to ask questions, make objections, . . . whatever. The silence was deafening. Slowly, a hand started going up and it surprised me to realize it was my own. I thought “Oh, shit!” when they noticed and called on me. Slightly panicked, I fell back on my training in negotiation: Begin with a compliment.
“I think it is very important what you are doing here. But . . . I am fairly sure my daughter doesn’t know about sex yet. And I’m worried about her learning about sexual abuse before she even knows what sex is.”
There was a murmur in the crowd. Then came the response.
“I understand your concerns. You should have the talk with her before we begin.”
The murmurs got louder. I responded.
“I don’t have a problem talking to her about this subject. But I have always gone with the principle of waiting till the question is asked and then answering it honestly. She hasn’t shown any curiosity about this yet. And if she had, she would ask me, I know that.”
It was a strong argument I thought. I had used this same approach to deal with all the questions my kids had about their adoptions and birth parents. So far it had gone really well. The social worker, however, was not convinced.
“Because of internet and cell phones today, it can happen so fast that your child is shown a porn video or confronted with something trashy from YouTube. It’s better they hear it from you than be introduced to sex in that way. You should have the talk with her before we begin.”
(Fast Forward: Years later, this exact thing happened to a very young student of mine. The drawings he started making in art class set the alarm bells off. A parent/teacher conference ensued quickly and I observed the mother’s face going white as she looked at her son’s artistic renderings. I felt so bad for her . . . )
After that, one of the parents complained that one of the points in the program (sexual abuse committed by a mother) was completely unacceptable. A mother would never do such a thing! I watched the social workers carefully as they dealt with this subject. They were fantastically diplomatic as they stuck to their guns. I also felt they were right. (I had read “Sybil” in Junior High School. It got passed around from student to student and it was another one of those books that simply fell open to the most insidious chapter. The kitchen scene. It haunted me for years.) It was during this discussion that I decided – if they were right about this point, they were probably right in their advice to me.
I related the whole evening to my husband later and we ordered the books suggested in the parents’ evening. They arrived quickly and we placed them casually around the house for our daughters to discover. Days and days went by and, still, they didn’t take the bait. The day of the school program approached as the books lay untouched and gathering dust. We clearly needed a Plan B.
Two days before the program, my husband got the girls up and ready for school as usual. The bus was late. Suddenly my husband noticed that it was only 5:30 am, not 6:30. They had an hour to kill. “How about if we read a book?” he suggested.
He called me from work later in the morning to tell me about it. According to him, the girls were not particularly impressed. There were no questions.
I sat there, sipping my morning coffee, feeling just a little relieved. The Talk had happened. I thought about my girls on the school bus that morning and how they might have felt. I thought about my husband’s completely uncharacteristic clock reading “mistake”. I was ever-so-slightly intrigued. But not enough to really spend time pondering it all.