Being a dad is strange enough. But being a dad to a 10-year-old knocking on puberty’s door breeds a whole new kind of anxiety. Seems like just yesterday I was trying to gouge my eyes out from lack of sleep. Now I have to sit my kid down and talk about what an erection is.
A couple of weeks ago our fifth-grader came home with a letter from his school, informing us that they would be holding an age-appropriate sex education course over a two-day period.
The purpose of the letter was to make parents and guardians aware of what they would be covering, giving people the option to either agree to let their child participate or opt out. A 2017 PLOS poll found that 78 percent of U.S. parents, regardless of political affiliation, were on board with sex education being taught in school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 16 critical topics that should be included in sex education classes, some of which are addressed beginning in Grades 4, 5 and 6.
My wife and I talked it over and we quickly agreed that, of course, we would let our son join in on the fun. Am I the kind of parent who willfully robs their child of the joy that comes from giggling uncontrollably every time a teacher says penis? NO, READER, I CERTAINLY AM NOT. But we also decided that, as the “Man of the House,” I would go over the material with him beforehand, open up a dialogue. In this case, that material included mood swings, erections and wet dreams, or what one of the informational brochures called “nocturnal ejaculations.” The idea was to reaffirm that our home is a safe space for our son to ask any burning questions, whenever he feels the urge to ask them. This way he could walk in to school prepared, fully confident about his grasp of anatomical terminology.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think he’s completely ignorant to some of these concepts, even if now and then he tries to play dumb. Lord knows the clueless exchanges me and my equally clueless friends were having at recess when I was his age. I’d had the sex talk with him and his younger brother when they were 7 and 5, respectively, so he knows the basics. I was reasonably hesitant about broaching the topic back then, but they were asking the sorts of questions that indicated it was time. Their curiosities opened up a nuanced and surprisingly constructive exchange about romantic relationships and the nature of consent.
If I’m being honest, one of the best things about having kids to begin with is the fact that the mere mention of body parts, or even better, bodily functions, will spark immediate laughter. Anything about testicles pretty much guarantees, at the very least, a mild chuckle.
Here’s a thing that might surprise you, especially if you’ve read this far: I AM NOT A TRAINED SEX EDUCATOR. And I’ll admit that I often find it difficult to accept that my boys are growing sexual beings with impressively smelly armpits. The reality can be daunting. I just try to address things as they come up and make sure I’m prepared to talk about whatever they want to talk about. The thing about sex is that it’s everywhere: billboards, magazines in the grocery store check-out line, half-dressed teens standing outside of Hollister when I’m trying to get to the Cinnabon. The images are already there, they simply need context.
The day before the thing at my son’s school, he and I sat down after his three younger siblings were upstairs asleep, hopefully not wetting the bed. I went over all the stuff they’d be covering the following day, some of it familiar to him and some of it perhaps not. All he did was crack up and make fart noises and funny faces.
When I asked if he had any questions, he stared at me blankly, kind of like the little girl in “Bird Box” as they were drifting down the treacherous river. Then he mentioned a scene from the movie “Mr. Mom,” which we’d watched during family movie night several months earlier. He wanted to know about the part we fast-forwarded through, where Michael Keaton’s character and a troop of cackling house moms are having a jolly old time watching musclemen bust out of spaceman costumes. So I explained what a strip club is all about and that was that. He had no further questions, and this made me think two things: either he already knew all this and legitimately had nothing to add, or he just wanted to go to bed and be done with the conversation. Maybe it was both.
The next morning was like any other; my wife took our youngest to pre-K and I drove the big three to their school. As they were getting out of the car, I winked at the 10-year-old cheesily and wished them all a great day. Truth is, I couldn’t wait to come home after work so he could tell me about everything he’d learned. What new knowledge had he gleaned, if any, about the human body and its awkward-yet-completely-normal stages of development?
When I walked through the door later that afternoon, I found him sitting on the couch playing Fortnite or some other game. “How did it go?” I yelled with a level of excitement not properly suited for the occasion. He didn’t even look up at me over his iPad. He just gave a dismissive thumbs-up and muttered, “It was fine.”
Juan Vidal is a writer and author of “Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.” He tweets at @itsjuanlove.