09/08/2010 02:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Confessions of a Failed Parent

I never had the talk.

I blame my wife for this even being an issue. For years, our conversation followed classic lines:

"When are you going to have the talk?"

"Which talk are you talking about?"

"You know very well which talk I'm talking about."

"Are you serious? They're only six!"

When I was a boy, my father had the talk with me. No doubt he meant well, but the crude anatomical detail left me traumatized for years. Worse, it made me think of my parents having sex, which still makes me cringe.

Of course that was just an excuse, as my wife well knew.

"If you don't have the talk," she threatened, "then I will."

Here was the problem: my embarrassment aside, I had no idea what the talk should consist of. My father's "this goes there" explanation was not an option. Nor did the "when a man and a woman care deeply about each other" route. I'd had sex with several women I didn't care deeply about.

I envisioned sitting down with the boys on a bed and starting with, "When boys and girls get older... " only to have them roll their eyes and groan, "We know about that, dad."

Of course they knew about it. What was I thinking?

Uncertain how to proceed, I did what any responsible parent would do. I reminded my wife that the boys would be getting their information in a well-thought-out class in school.

This was true. My boys went to a Montessori school, which scheduled a fifth grade "sex and pizza" program. The first night it was the kids alone; the next it was children and parents. So one evening we all gathered in a classroom and watched a video from Planned Parenthood. It showed two possible ways to proceed. In the "bad parent" scenario, a young boy approaches his father who is in the garage tinkering with a car engine. "I'm busy now," says the moronic pop. "Let's talk later."

The good father says, "I'm so glad you asked me, Bill." Then he wipes his hands on a rag and they proceed to sit down in the living room.

If only it were so simple! My kids weren't about to ask me anything.

Two weeks after sex and pizza night, my wife said, "When are you going to have the talk?"

I sought help at Barnes & Noble. I took the escalator to the Parenting section and found a book titled, "How to Talk to Your Children about Sex." I was hunched over it, stealthily turning the pages, when a man's voice cried, "Jonathan! What are you doing here?"

It was another dad from my kids' school. We exchanged hugely embarrassed grins. His wife, too, was on the warpath. He had not had the talk either.

I did an informal survey. Approximately two out of three dads had failed to have the talk. Those that had reported mixed results. One had sat on the bed with his son, who immediately pulled the blanket over his head and moaned, "Please stop, please stop." I didn't think that counted as the talk.

I looked for reassurance from Armin Brott, a parenting expert and writer whose book "The Expectant Father" sold two million copies. Brott was sympathetic but not inclined to let me off the hook.

"You need to talk about AIDS and sex-transmitted diseases," he said in a tone that sounded a lot like a lecture. "They may know a lot, but they don't understand the consequences. Their brains aren't fully baked. You may feel silly but it's important. If you don't lay down the law you've lost them from the beginning."

I sought out a second opinion. Dr. Marcy Guddemi, Executive Director of the Gesell Institute, which specializes in childhood development and teaching values, was clearly in my corner. "Boys mature so much slower than boys. A six- or eight-year old boy is probably much too young," said Guddemi, and related a funny story she'd read in The New York Times about a father who took his 10-year old to Hooters. The kid said, "It's a restaurant. So?" She told me about the oral sex lecture she'd given her own sixth grader, who asked, "Is that when you're on the telephone?"

Then she got all serious. There was pregnancy and the disease transmission thing ("Mistakes they could live with the rest of their life"). There were kids who turned having early sex into a status symbol ("You need to think about values"). There was a parent's obligation to teach facts and responsibility ("You want to be a model for them when they become parents").

I have decided on a proactive approach. I will go to Walgreen's and buy two packets of condoms and use them as conversation starters. I will do this very soon. As soon as my wife stops her nagging.


This is the third in a series, Confessions of a Failed Parent