You know you’re getting old when . . . your daughter asks you about sex. Fortunately, Tony and I have discussed at length how to talk about it with our children (even though I wasn’t really expecting these questions yet from my seven-year-old). In fact, in a way, we’ve been having “the talk” with them in various ways ever since they were tiny. How? Well, let’s see.
We chose to have 2 1/2 year-old Axa present in the room when Raj was born. To help prepare her for the birth, we read this sweet picture book together:
It tells the story of a homebirth from the perspective of the new big brother. And yes, it portrays things like the mom being naked during labor, and the placenta. So from the time she was very small, Axa had a pretty good understanding of where babies come from. Here we are as a family, five minutes after Raj was born. And I think this is the very best introduction to sex ed that a child could possibly have: a baby being born into a loving family.
Raj and Axa also already know about women having periods, because . . . well, when you’re a mom you don’t always get to go to the bathroom alone, especially when you’re at the mall with two toddlers. So they asked, and I told them that every month my body cleans out my uterus to get it ready in case we want to make a new baby.
But the bulk of their knowledge about reproduction has come from their study of biology. They have watched a lot of birds and bees. They know that the yellow powder clinging to the bee’s legs is pollen, and that the bee carries it from one flower to another to fertilize the flower so that the plant can make fruit, and the fruit can mature into seeds, which grow into new plants. We’ve planted seeds and watched them sprout too.
On the animal side, a few days after we got our chickens, five-year-old Axa rushed in to report that the rooster was sitting on one of the hens. She was worried, but I explained that he was only snuggling the hen to fertilize her egg, so it could hatch into a chick.
I don’t allow my children a lot of screen time, but almost every day they watch a fifteen minute segment of BBC’s excellent video series “Planet Earth,” or its sequel, “Life.” These are really first class nature documentaries (not sensationalist, like so much of the material on Animal Planet, for example). They are full of incredible footage (with David Attenborough’s cultured, wonder-filled, and charmingly accented narration) of animals in their natural habitats all over the world, engaging in fascinating behaviors. And one of those behaviors is mating.
Mating rituals in the animal world are diverse, and often beautiful. A few days ago we watched a segment about the male bowerbird, who builds a romantic bower decorated with flowers, moss, and even sparkly beetles to impress a potential mate. If she likes it, she stays. Other birds engage in intricate dances before mating. For many species of fish, it is the male who prepares the nest (or in the case of the seahorse, is “impregnated” himself) and then cares for the young until they mature. In fact, Axa got a lovely little betta fish for her birthday last month. Here he is, keeping his bubble nest always at the ready, in case a female should chance by his tank.
Then there is coral, which we watched releasing clouds of sperm into the ocean during the night, or the mother poison dart frog, who feeds her tadpoles by laying an extra unfertilized egg for them to eat. Axa asked me a long time ago about whether humans have eggs, and I told her about the million eggs she already has inside her. Months later, I overheard this conversation between her and Raj:
Axa: You have sperm and I have eggs.
Raj: [pause] Eggs like a chicken?
Axa: No, my eggs are very, very small. When one gets fertilized by a sperm, it grows into a baby, and then the baby comes out!
So when Axa asked Tony last night as he was tucking her in, “how humans mate,” there wasn’t really that much to fill in. He answered her questions, explained it matter-of-factly, and expounded on the virtues of premarital abstinence (i.e. explained that’s what we mean when we say it’s not good to snuggle or sleep in the same bed with someone before you’re married).
Axa doesn’t think she’d ever want to do anything like that anyway. We’re just glad she felt comfortable enough to come to us with questions. How do you talk to your children about sex?