A dad tries to explain sex to his son

Washington Post
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In 2011, my oldest son, then just weeks shy of his eighth birthday, perched on the corner of my wife’s and my bed, his head tilted just far enough to the side so he couldn’t quite see the home birth of his baby brother. He wanted to be in the room; we told him he was welcome.

In anticipation, we had purchased several children’s books about birth, some with vivid illustrations. I only fully realized later that we never explained how the baby got into his mother’s womb in the first place.

Although I consider myself a progressive individual, when it comes to discussing sex, apparently I have more Puritan in me than I had ever imagined. Over the years, when my son would ask about sex, I would hear a warning whisper in the back of my head: “Only answer the question being asked.”

If my son wondered about art, or history, or stars in the sky, I would never pre-emptively edit my answers – on the contrary. I’d want him to feel what it was like for those countless stars to just sit there in the immense beauty of the infinite universe. I’d want him to imagine exploring those stars figuratively and literally. I’d want him to dream of stars and look up every night, finding the one that guided him. I’d want him to walk away from our musings wanting more, not because I hadn’t been forthcoming, but because together we were just so fascinated.

Yet whenever a topic touched upon sex, my body would tense up, my words were limited, and I never over-answered the specific question asked.

When my son was 9, we took an ambitious and sprawling summer vacation. During the trip, he had the chance to connect with an amazing group of kids, and I perceived a difference in how he reacted to certain girls he met. Back home, I asked him about it. He told me that he’d had a strange feeling in his body: This sensation started in the stomach area, touched his heart a little, but then shot down to his waist ... and he didn’t have any idea what it was. I assured him that the feeling was normal.

At age 10, the subject arose again, when he wanted more information about how babies are created. I told him about the eggs women carry inside them (that felt safe) and about men’s sperm, and that a sperm and an egg need to come together to make a baby. (Science! Cut and dry.) But naturally, he followed up: How do the sperm and egg come together? I wasn’t sure how to respond. I was avoiding the question. I called a timeout. I told him that I needed to wait to answer his question. I’m sure he thought I needed to look up the answer.

Several weeks later, my wife and I attended a talk by Deborah Roffman, a sex education expert and author. Her latest book at the time was titled Talk to Me First. She started by explaining to us where Puritanical instincts originate: The actual Puritans. Sure, it’s an obvious revelation, but one that’s easy to forget. Our relatively young American society was largely built on a foundation of sex as sinful and virginity as virtuous.

Roffman acknowledged that there are age-appropriate ways of communicating what we think of as sophisticated information. To a 3- or 4-year-old, for example, you might simply offer that there are two pieces to a reproductive system; like two Legos, they fit together.

While listening to Roffman’s insights, I had my own epiphany on the subject. I was ready. I sat down with my son, brought up our recent, unfinished conversation, and went all in. I clarified that there are two halves to the reproductive system, and both are needed to create life. I described exactly how the sperm and the egg meet. “The male penis is put into the female’s vagina.” My son looked at me with utter shock. “Dad, please tell me that you and Mom only did that to get me and my brother.” Well, actually. ... We covered it all. He asked a lot of questions, and I did my best to keep up. “How does the sperm come out of the penis?” I circled back to his experience a year prior, the feelings he had in his stomach and his shyness around some of the girls he met that summer. “That’s your body telling you things and sometimes when you’re an adult, you then share those feelings with the person you love.”

He was interested, but also grossed out. He asked if there’s any other way to have kids. I mentioned adoption, which he already understood, and I covered in vitro fertilization. He then posited that if he understood the deeper reason humans need or want children, he would be less afraid of a process that didn’t sound remotely appealing.

He thought in silence for a moment and then realized the question he really wanted answered. “Dad, why do people want babies?” I suggested that he ponder it himself and see what comes up.

Later that day, he found me and declared that he had the answer. He looked at me straight in the eyes and with complete awareness stated, “It’s not about us as individuals; it’s about us as a world. We need children because we need people, to make the world a better place.”

I acknowledged the thoughtfulness of his comment. He then paused and asked me his next question. “Why are we here?” And with that, “the Talk” turned into the conversation about the stars in the sky and, ultimately, the meaning of life.