I was speaking to my dear friend, Nadia, exchanging anecdotes about our boys. A couple of the things that came up were the awkward questions we are asked by our young sons or the new words they are now discovering since they started school; how we each try to answer the questions or explain new concepts often zigzagging and carefully selecting our words.
“It’s so freakin hot, Mamma! Please turn on the air-condition,” Nadia’s young son said as he sat in the backseat of the car. He had just started kindergarten. Nadia did a double-take. “What did you say?”
Her boy innocently reiterated his previous statement to his suddenly deaf mother. Nadia had to calm her awry nerves and slowly explained that the word freakin is not a nice word and that it was not appropriate for him to say.
I shared my recent experience with my son, Jarrod. A few weeks ago, my family and I had just finished dinner and I think Glee was on television. It just so happened the word s-e-x was mentioned. This wasn’t the first time Jarrod has heard this word. But suddenly, our eight-year-old turned to us and asked the dreaded question.
“What’s sex, Mum?”
In a split second, there was a loud ringing in my head. All the alarm bells and sirens were booming in my ear and I was momentarily stunned. Andy had turned deaf as well, hearing the same thunderous chiming. We were both taken by surprise. We felt it was way too early to have this kind of conversation. But it was not something that we could just ignore, could we?
I turned down the volume on the TV and asked him to stand next to us. I held both his hands and looked him in the eye. Innocence stared back at me. I paused, frantically scanning every part of my brain for some answers, praying that I say the words right. My husband must have been doing the same thing, his hand was squeezing my knee, anticipating.
“Sweetheart, sex is an act of love, an expression between two people who give each other permission to show that love.” Another pause. Scanning continued. “You are very young at the moment to understand what it truly means. But as you get older, you will learn more about it. And we can talk more.”
I checked to see if he was still following what I was saying. Unfortunately, for me, he was listening attentively.
“Right now, all you need to know is that it can be absolutely beautiful but it can also be dangerous. Does that make sense?” I asked hesitantly.
“I think so, Mum.” He sensed that his mother was choosing her words carefully.
To my great relief, my husband added, “And we are very glad that you asked us, son. Thank you.”
Did we tell him the right things? Did we handle it appropriately? I hope so. Parents are faced with awkward questions at some stage of their children’s lives. And we all deal with it to the best of our intentions in the best way we can.
I know that our son will discover more words and ideas, as he gets older. And he will also soon discover more of our world, the good and the bad. My hope is that he continues to ask his Dad and me, trusting us with his awkward questions, giving us the opportunity to be part of his learning journey.
And yet, I worry. I don’t know if what I share with him, what I tell him, will be enough. If I could protect my children from all the danger in this world, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Just like my father before me, I arm my children instead with knowledge and wisdom with the hope that it will get them through life safely. It is this same armor that my husband and I give to our own children, with the same hope that it will get them through life relatively unscathed.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem