A few weeks ago at the park, I overheard a mom ask a friend what she thought of using the word “vagina” with her kids. My (somewhat judgmental, I admit) ears perked up as they discussed this. I was truly shocked. Here were these two educated-seeming women who were genuinely afraid of using the correct term for a female body part. In the end, they decided it would be “safest” to use a euphemism for the offending anatomy, and it was all I could do not to chime in from my high horse. The birds and the bees. The sex talk. Why are we so afraid?
Do you call her legs “walkie thingies” or his eyes “winkers”? If you’re not giving cutesy pet names to all his body parts, then sticking to the correct names for sexual parts is your best bet. More importantly, calling your daughter’s vulva a “hoo-ha” or your son’s penis his “wee-wee” increases their risk of being targeted by sexual predators. Calling their genitalia “down there” or “your dirty bits” just makes it sound like you think their private parts are something disgusting, something unclean, something they should be ashamed of—which could lead to sexual problems later in life. Stop the madness, mamas! Say it with me now: Vagina. Penis. Labia. Testicals.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can forge ahead. I was surprised the first time my son asked me where babies come from—back when he was barely three and a friend of ours became pregnant. I thought I’d have several years before I had to have that conversation with him, but he asked and my husband and I had already discussed our feelings on being open and honest with our kids—especially when it came to the sex talk—so I dove right in. I explained that a daddy has sperm and a mommy has an egg; and when the daddy and mommy decide to have a family they put their sperm and egg together, and it forms cells that become a baby. Little did I know that this conversation was going to lead to a LOT more questions.
A few days later, he carried out his attack. “How does the spain get to the egg?” I choked on my toast. “The what?” “The spain,” he repeated seriously. “The daddy has spain. How does it get to the mommy’s egg?” “Well, first of all, it’s sperm, not spain. Spain is a country in Europe.” I said all this slowly—hoping he would lose interest. He did not. The thing is, even though I always knew I wanted to be honest and open with my kids about the birds and the bees, here was my three-year-old asking me how the daddy’s sperm gets to the mommy’s egg. Is three old enough for that information? My sudden genuine fear was that he would want to then try it out on his baby sister, who he had repeatedly told me he planned to marry so she could be the mommy and he could be the daddy.
Of Note: At this point in their delicate ages, I’d already begun the (still ongoing) process of teaching them boundaries—especially as it related to their private parts. This is tricky. I don’t want to shame them or make them think anything is wrong with their genitalia, but teaching boundaries is important for a healthy sibling relationships as well as a healthy sex life later on. “Your penis is a private part. No one is allowed to touch your private parts except for you.” I reminded him of this every time he and his baby sister took a bath. I reminded him of this when his baby sister grabbed his penis in the bathtub and he giggled and told me matter-of-factly, “It’s ok Mom! I don’t mind.” I remind my daughter of the same. “You may not touch someone else’s private parts, and no one may touch yours. They are just for you—not for anyone else.”
Also of Note: sexual exploration among children is normal. SO NORMAL. If you catch your kids playing “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” don’t freak out. It’s all innocent and borne of natural curiosity. Just remind them of the boundaries and offer them a snack. Distraction is a great tactic. They’ll forget about the game instantly.
I didn’t feel like my three-year-old son was old enough to grasp how an egg is fertilized, so I told him “When mommies and daddies decide to have a family, the dad gives the mommy his sperm. Now, let’s play with blocks!”
It still wasn’t over, of course. A few days later, we were in the car, and he asked me again. He tends to do this when I haven’t answered him satisfactorily. In his six years on this earth, there have been some real head-scratchers on my part. “Why is the sidewalk?” “Where is God?” “What does gravity look like?” He’ll ask these again and again because my answers frankly suck. So he’s al,l “But how does the daddy give the mommy his sperm?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s something only grown-ups know how to do.”
When it comes to sex, my policy is to be open and honest—to a point. I’ve read that the best way to answer delicate questions is not to give more information than is requested. I supplement this method with some awesome half-truths. “Your private parts are just for you.” While technically true, my kids won’t always feel that way. But for now, I think that works. “Only grown-ups who are mature consenting adults and ready to make a family together know how to give the sperm to the egg.” Clearly, that’s an outright lie. But I think it’s enough for now.
As the years have gone by, the questions have not let up. My son is six now, and he’s still slightly unclear on all of this, but I have provided all the necessary information (again, for right now). He is totally icked out by the thought of a daddy putting the sperm into the mommy because that means he has to touch her vagina, and that is the grossest thing he can contemplate. For now? I think that’s a probably a good thing.
We’ve all heard the joke about the little kid who asks his mommy where he came from, and she sits him down and gives him a full-blown lesson in sex education while he stares at her in horror. She finishes talking and asks if he has any comments. “Well,” he says, “I just wondered because today in class Alex said he comes from Michigan.”
I made a similar mistake once when Noah asked me what a sperm looked like. I explained it kind of resembled a tadpole with a head and a tail for swimming—so it could swim UP THE VAGINA. I knew I’d gone too far as soon as the words were out of my mouth (this was before he knew the vagina had anything to do with anything), and sure enough—the sound of gagging soon came from the backseat. And then a whole lot more questions. I think it ended with a discussion on Caitlin Jenner and one seriously confused little boy. Basically, I’ve tried to block it out. Don’t be a walking joke, mamas. And don’t be like me. The rule of thumb is this: don’t give the kid more information than they ask for. Be honest and concise. Don’t talk about Caitlin Jenner unless your kid asks you about Caitlin Jenner.
Now that he knows he can’t marry his sister (it was a devastating truth he learned from his grandpa), he’s on the hunt for another suitable partner. He told me recently that he was in love and knew who he wanted to marry (the little girl of some friends of ours). “What makes her that extra special person?” I asked him. “Why not another friend of yours, like Samantha? Or Eva? Or… Jack?”
Sometimes I worry about my language. “When a Mommy and Daddy…” “When a man and a woman…” “Someday you and your wife…” all assume heterosexual relationships. What if those don’t apply to my kids? I don’t want them to think they have any reason to hide who they are or fear rejection from us, their parents. I try my darndest to be all inclusive with my language, but heteronormativity got in there anyway, especially because really he’s most interested in the actual making of a baby.
“Jack!? Jack is a BOY. I can’t marry a BOY.” “Why not?” I wondered aloud, cursing myself for my language choice. “Because then I’d have to wait, like, a hundred years for a girl to donate her egg so we could have a baby,” he scoffed. YEP, THAT’S WHAT HE SAID. (I sipped my coffee and didn’t answer. I had to remind myself that I’m not trying to convince him he can or should marry a boy. I simply want him to feel loved no matter what.) I know we’ve discussed what happens when same-sex couples want to have a family, but I could swear we didn’t leave him with the impression that egg meets sperm is the only way to have a family. Furthermore, now I’m truly lost. Is he showing us his sexual orientation already? Or is he simply showing us that he has no idea what adoption means?
The Bottom Line
Your kids are going to ask you where babies come from—if they haven’t already. Be ready for the sex talk. Don’t tell them some baloney about a stork. You want them to keep asking YOU those questions—and not resort to finding out from classmates or creepy neighbors. Use the right biological terms for their anatomy. Try to be inclusive in your language. And do not, under any circumstances, accidentally tell your child everything they could possibly need to know about human sexuality when they’re actually asking you to identify the location of their birth.