Having “the Talk”

Part of fatherhood is living outside of your comfort zone, at least until you get the hang of whatever new thing that you’re having to do.  Changing diapers, learning to discern why your baby is crying, or reading The Idiot’s Guide to Soccer in order to coach a kimdergarten team are all examples of men doing things that they were simply never prepared for.  A major topic that takes men out of their comfort zone is having to teach "the birds and the bees" to their children; while most things are easily managed once you get the hang of them, having "the talk" will almost always be nebulous and fraught with uncertainty.  It is, however, one of the most important things that a father needs to do and that’s especially at a time when the media extols sexuality and fewer parents seem to monitor their kids.

So what are some of the things to consider?

First, having "the talk" implies that there’s actually going to be a verbal communication between you and your child.  As much as I loved my own father, my version involved walking into my bedroom while in middle school and finding a small book about human reproduction lying on my bed with no words or comments ever actually spoken.  The result, being one of the 7th grade walking dead, was that I put the booklet on the shelf and continued to get misinformation from my buddies; in today’s world, that’s the worst possible thing that could happen.  The fact that I got through unscathed is more of a testament to my own fear of screwing up, literally and figuratively.  Your kids want to know that you’re there, that they can depend upon you, and that there’s some stability and that only comes through ongoing efforts at communication. 

It’s helpful to understand that "the talk" isn’t and shouldn’t be a singular event.  There are different aspects including basic informational, aka the parts and the source of babies, then later the physical processes of puberty.  The basics of the body parts are something that can be done as early as the toddler and preschool years and a great time to do so is while they’re being bathed, naming the various parts as they’re being washed and rinsed.  The keys are repetition and simplicity, using the same terminology again and again until the kids are able to use the language themselves.  Simplicity means that you focus on the basic, visible body parts such as the penis or the vulva/vagina (actually, the vagina is inside the female and the vulva on the outside).  Don’t worry about what isn’t visible because at those ages, out of sight truly is out of mind but also expect to have to go over it multiple times until they’ve got it pat.

Since I was responsible for bathing the kids before my wife could make it home, one of the earliest questions that I faced with a young toddler was whether I should use the names for the anatomy – nipple, penis – or cute nicknames instead.  My own parents used nicknames, but after considering it and chatting with my wife, we decided to use the proper terminology.  There were several reasons for doing this:

  • Different parents might use different names and I clearly recall using the family nicknames in front of kids who laughed in my face;
  • I likewise recall hearing friends use their family’s phrasing – or even the proper terms – and having no idea what they meant;
  • It sets the standard for the years to come that in some matters, particularly involving the body and sexuality, I was clearly the parent and not a buddy or someone who spoke on the same level as their peers;
  • Using nicknames might send the signal that there’s something wrong or embarrassing with it, so you shouldn’t use the proper name;
  • It simply felt right as using cute terms made me feel ridiculous.

This isn’t about shame or something from the magical land of wonders.  It’s about body parts.

This earliest phase is also a time to start working on the basics of child safety, particularly regarding who’s allowed to touch their "private parts."  The littlest ones should hear very simple and consistent instructions with the catchphrase, tell Daddy and Mommy right away

Explaining where babies come from is a very personal choice, but remember one thing:  just because kids want to know something doesn’t mean that they want or need the full details.  Bill Cosby’s comment on children and information is spot on:  Daddy, why is there air?  To blow up basketballs, honey.  In our case, the kids knew at an early age that babies came from their mother but didn’t bother with the how and why until much later and that was the cue to go into the larger questions of love and sex – commitment, love, marriage.  These didn’t have to be lengthy conversations and in fact, could be simple comments passed back and forth.  When Eldest was a preschooler, we’d chat at the table and she stated consistently that she’d have a baby and then get married; my likewise consistent response was that marriage came before the baby and this dance continued until she further understood the idea of marriage. 

Don’t assume that the natural progression of the conversation is (1) body parts, (2) puberty/processes and (3) greater meaning of love and sex.  The reality is that most kids have little interest in the inner workings of the human body and view it like a TV set:  I just wanna make sure that it works when I press the power button.  Before they’ve reached that point of intellectual interest, they’ll have many encounters with both the media and unmonitored kids who push a physical, consequence-free view of sex so it’s important that you start your conversations with them early and often.  The point is to speak with them repeatedly and it can occur anywhere the opportunity presents itself, while riding in the car or under the driveway basketball pole. 

There will come a point at which you do have to start talking to them about the changes that will start happening with puberty.  Puberty isn’t a single event at which they’re suddenly adults and as I recall it, it sure as hell isn’t a magical time, either.  It’s a years-long process in which the body’s hormonal chemistry can change long before a hair sprouts on a face or a breast grows and it’s best that they have some clue of coming before they experience a physical event – wet dream or period – for which they’re wholly unprepared.  You can handle it like a seminar discussion with the child at the kitchen table for that specific purpose or you can look for clues or comments that it would a good time to broach the subject.  One son’s comment that he couldn’t sing as high as a few months ago led to a conversation about the physical aspects of puberty.  The point is to have the conversations and they need to be sooner than later.

One aspect of "the Talk" that fathers face is whether, what and how much to discuss with daughters.  I’m fortunate in that my wife had discussions with my daughter and most men are in the same boat.  For those men who don’t have the luxury of an adult woman in his daughter’s life, then it truly is imperative to determine how  you want to go about it.  There really is a gender divide here and it’s phenomenally uncomfortable for a father to talk about female sexual health with his daughter; when I consider the prospect of having to have done that, the concept of having my tongue ripped out isn’t so bad and the daughters find it uncomfortable as well.  In these cases, you have three options:

  • Get your information straight and enter the conversation yourself;
  • Sit down with your daughter and a woman that both you and your daughter trusts, such as another family member, school nurse or a teacher;
  • Arrange for the girl to sit down separately with that trusted woman while you remove yourself from that part of the process.

The point is that this is a bridge that must be crossed because the repercussions of not crossing it are high.  Even if you leave the female sexual health to the mother or another woman, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be involved in every other aspect with your daughter. 

The point of this article isn’t to slam using a book or booklet to teach about puberty and the facts of life.  The point is that this topic isn’t a one-off event but repetitive over the course of years and that it can’t be covered solely by giving your kid printed material.  The book is helpful in assuring that the information is correct and consistently presented and many parents hit the puberty aspect by reading such a book with their children.  But a book alone won’t ease a child’s fear that the experience of a new event is harmful or that they’ve done something wrong, nor will it present your values and place situations in the proper context.  It might even be especially helpful for you to read so that you don’t goof and refer to a female reproductive organ as a Filipino Tube.

If men are going to truly take an equal role in the raising of the kids, then they must reconcile themselves to the notion that they have as important a role as the mother in teaching about the body, reproduction and sex.  Now go shoot hoops with the third grader and see what conversation evolves.

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