Our son came home from second grade one day with something on his mind. It was clear that whatever it was, it was bothering him a great deal. In my awesome mommy fashion, I asked him if there were anything he wanted to talk about. He immediately blurted out, "Yes, but I can't say it... It's, it's too disgusting.... It's too horrible. And, plus, I'm not even sure it's real. It may have all been just a big fat lie!" And then his face had an expression that was torn between being mad that someone may have lied to him and horrified that someone may have told him the truth.
I sprang into action to help him come to his own point of comfort with sharing what was going on in that amazing little mind of his. With a little Sherlock Holmes (or Nancy Drew as it were) detective work, I managed to ask enough questions to figure out that we were talking about the "S" word. To be honest, at first, I wasn't even sure which "S" word we were talking about. For anyone who has kids, you know what I mean. Sometimes, "guessing" can make things a whole lot worse than if we just wait for them to share exactly what's going on.
Lesson 1: Don't guess. Be patient and help your kids find their own voice. It'll pay dividends later in life.
To illustrate the dangers of guessing, let me share a quick story. When my son was 4, he told me someone said the "S" word at school. He said the "S" word was really bad and I agreed that yes, indeed, it was. But, I also assumed it was the four-letter "sh*t" word some adult accidentally let slip out in front of the kids. I shared with him that while some words weren't necessarily "nice," sometimes people said them and what was important was that he didn't say them. Well, when I actually said the "sh*t" word, my son had a very confused look on his face and said "What does that mean? I'm talking about the s-t-upid word." Oops, now I've gone and taught him his first curse word. (OK, maybe his second, but that's another story for another day. Let's just say that my son thinks when you say "d*mn it!" it means you are working really hard to hold back water from flooding something.)
Lesson 2: Don't be hard on yourself when you make a mistake. It won't be the first time and it won't be the last. Your kids will be just fine and well-adjusted to boot despite them.
You would have thought that I learned after that experience. But no, I walked right into the same guessing trap again three years later. Back to the story...
After a little more coaxing, I discovered that a girl in our son's class made a trip to the public library and perused through a book about sex. When I say a book about sex, I mean an explicit-sexual-positions-graphic-color pictures-with-names-and-everything-book-about-sex. Each day for a week and half, she would come into class, single out the same three boys (one of whom was my son) to explain all the nitty gritty details of Every. Single. Position. (Full disclosure here: It was kind of funny in a holy cow kind of way.)
Lesson 3: Keep a sense of humor. Be flexible. Be ready. Things happen sooner than you think.
I went back to the guessing game and asked if what the little girl said had to do with body parts and found myself ultimately asking, "Does it have to do with a boy's private parts and a girl's private parts touching?" Well, when I said that, you would have thought I said Martians had landed on Earth to conquer the world and eat our brains," because our son responded, "What?! No, ew, who does that?!!" Oops, I did it again. I guessed. Trying to quickly recover, I told him I wasn't going to guess anymore because I didn't think it was helping. I asked him if he'd rather just tell me. I think after that, he didn't want to take any more chances with what might come out of my mouth, so he just explained that the little girl was talking about a different kind of sex. OK, now it was my turn to say, "Wait, what?!"
Anyway, we got through that and I told him that we'd continue the conversation so that he'd know the truth no matter what he heard from friends at school.
Lesson 4: Ongoing, open communication is priceless and vitally important to give your kids the space to grow and learn in a safe environment.
Next, my husband set off in search of a kid-friendly book for boys we could use for future conversations. You'd be surprised how many books are out there for girls on just about everything they go through. But for boys? Sadly, not so much. I have to give it to my husband, though. He always comes through in a pinch. He's the best at finding exactly what we need, when we need it. He found a book that was both age-appropriate and good for boys. It was religiously themed, but not so much so that it didn't work for us. We believe in a higher power and live our lives in a way we feel helps make the world a better place, but we don't regularly attend church services, so we weren't sure if this approach would be quite right for us. Turns out it was perfect. (In case you're wondering, we used Jim Burns' How God Makes Babies (for 6-9 year olds).)
Lesson 5: Be open to using diverse tools and resources (e.g., religious, cultural, artistic, etc.) to reach and teach your children. Diversity can help build bridges and self-confidence.
So now, our son wanted to know more. What was sex (the real "S" word) and how did it work? We chose a warm, sunny day and sat outside with our son as we walked through the book. After every page, he kept saying, "I don't get how that makes a baby. Can you just get to the part that says how you make a baby?" I assured him that we'd get there. And when we did, as I spoke the words out loud, I noticed our son's eyes went wide. I rubbed his back and hugged him when we finished the book and asked, "So how do you feel about all this?" He looked like he was in a state of catatonic shock and took what seemed like forever to respond. Then he slowly said, "Yeah, that's disgusting. I am going to be single when I grow up." He continued staring off into to space for a minute and then said, "You and Dad must've really wanted me. At least you only had to do it once." (He's an only child.) I quietly chuckled as I hugged him again and said, "Yes, your Dad and I really wanted you." We talked a little more to help him settle into his new awareness and then he was off to play.
Yes! All was well again in our son's world. Feeling good, I said to my husband smiling, "Our work is done." My husband smiled back at me with the kind of "you-are-so-cute-when-you're-being-naïve" look and said, "No, honey, it's just beginning."
Lesson 6: It's good to leave the door open for more... because, if one thing's for sure, there's ALWAYS more.