“I’ll never do THAT like my parents did,” said maybe every kid on the planet at one time or another. We can be fairly critical, and I certainly was. When I became a mom, I knew immediately that in some ways I would raise my daughter the same way my parents had raised me. There were family values and traditions that I knew I wanted to pass along. But there were dozens of other things that I would do differently. At the age of 24, I clearly already knew everything. And I had taken every class on adolescent female psychology in college, and had read Reviving Ophelia 10 times, so duh, I knew how to raise my daughter the right way.
It required a lot of explaining. I had to explain to friends and family over and over again that I didn’t want to ascribe gender roles to my kids. The nursery was decked out with a John Lennon theme, every pink gift that was dripping with lace was promptly returned or donated, and we stocked up on overalls. My daughter received a play kitchen and a play tool bench at the same time. Where there were dolls, there were also trucks. For every tiara or tutu, there was also a Buzz Lightyear or Spiderman costume nearby.
The harder part was in talking about sex or sexuality. Since I was already going to be the best mom ever, I taught my kids the names for the parts of their bodies right from the start. There was immediate fear amongst family members. “What if we are in a store and she starts to yell VAGINA!” I had to point out, that it seemed improbable that she would randomly yell vagina, elbow, or shoulder blade for no apparent reason, and that as a toddler none of these words seemed loaded to her. If she was going for shock value at that age, she was more likely to yell poop or booger. But still. It was a step.
I gave myself a congratulatory pat on the back. I was doing so well. MY kids knew about penises and vaginas, and they were taught that these were not bad words. I answered questions as they came up, told them where babies came from when they asked at ages 4 and 5, and was as open as possible. As the years went by we talked openly about body changes, puberty, hormones, and periods as well as gender identity, gender expression, and sexual identity too. They had me as a resource, they each had books in their rooms, and they both went through Our Whole Lives at church. I was all over this. I was providing them with so much more than I ever received, and we were talking openly about things my parents NEVER would have talked to me about. When my parents handed me a book and a dictionary that was the extent of my sex education. I was so evolved. Obviously, I really was the best mom ever.
Until I was blindsided. I was talking to some friends when I saw something in my Facebook feed.
Me: “GAH! I was just tagged in a post about masturbation!!! Make it go away!!!! (the first line of which read: “Which brings me to my point – masturbation is really important. It’s really important for all women and it’s equally important for teenage girls.”)
Friend: “Is she just thinking of you as a parent of teen(ish) girls?
Me: “I hope so….but even as a supporter of OWL…I am still a New Englander, and I will not be having a conversation about masturbation with my kids. I can’t do it.”
Friends: “You should have that conversation with your kids.”
“How incredibly challenging. And I agree that it’s important to find a way to talk to them, because awkward is better than ignorant, and no one should think that embarrassing and awkward are the same as shameful, which is what our culture, our YANKEE culture, teaches us, wrongly.”
“But still…important to get healthy messages from you because parents are their children’s primary sexuality educators.”
And I was mad. I was mad because they were right. They were right without hesitation. Why didn’t I already know that? Maybe I wasn’t actually the best mom ever.
The article was called The Most Important Thing Teen Girls Should Do But Don’t: Masturbate. I read it and cried. For all that I had done differently than my parents did, I still wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t talking openly about so many important things with my kids. It made me uncomfortable and I didn’t know how. There was no question in my mind that I wanted my kids to have this information (I even contemplated sending them the article), but I didn’t want to have to sit down and be the one to talk about it either. But if not me, then who?
I support comprehensive sexuality education for our children. I will show up at the meetings, drive them to every class, order every book, and do whatever it takes to ensure the program is available. But Our Whole Lives and health classes in school are only pieces of the puzzle. They cannot be the end all be all.
I may be more open with my kids than the generation before me was with theirs. But it’s still not good enough. I can’t find comfort in knowing that my kids will do a better job at it with their kids someday. They deserve better than that now. As my wise friends pointed out, parents are their children’s primary sexuality educators. I dare say most of us don’t know how to do that well. And we need help. I need help.
Our congregations have taken on the life saving ministry of providing sexuality education for our children and youth. We need to provide it for their parents and caregivers and mentors too. We need to support our parents and help them to be the adults our kids need. We need to help them find ways to have those awkward conversations because we know they matter. We know all too well, the stakes are high. I may not actually be the best mom ever, but my kids, all of our kids, need adults in their lives who are going to try.
If you need help, and don’t know where to begin, or if you want to practice having these conversation with other adults who are still figuring it out too, join me on Star Island this summer. My friend, colleague, and sexuality educator Cindy Beal will be facilitating a workshop called: Revolutionary Awkwardness. More than a book and a dictionary: Not your parent’s sex education.