A few weeks ago, I did it. I had The Talk with my 10-year-old daughter. I’d been semi-anxious about this for the past few years, unsure as to when the best time would be to have the puberty talk, the sex talk. Not yet thinking about her potential questions, I had so many of my own: Do you have the puberty and sex talks separately? Both at the same time? What’s enough info? What’s too much? What’s the right age?
Like many women of my generation, my recollections of The Talk were none too empowering. I remember that day in fifth grade when the boys and girls were separated, and we watched an animated film showing an egg floating down a fallopian tube, and all the rest of it. Then, I believe we were handed a sanitary napkin, and basically told, “Good luck.” Some time later, at home, one of my sisters who is more than ten years my senior, sat me down with some paper and drew some pictures, reiterating what the film had taught me about the mechanics of the menstrual cycle, but then she went further and explained the mechanics of how babies are made. Frankly, I was mortified. I then found my mother (who had slipped out of the room once she heard the topic of discussion) and looked at her in disgust as I quickly calculated the implications of my new body of knowledge. She had had six children. I exclaimed to her with a twisted scowl on my face, “Mommy…you did that SIX times?!?!?!?”
Needless to say, I’ve acquired much more info and experience on the subject over a lifetime. And, as I faced this parental crossroad in my own life, I really wanted to make the issue far less loaded, far less gross, because, let’s face it…our bodies are absolute wonders, and sex, in the right contexts, is pretty phenomenal. So, what are the answers to those questions I had about when and how to approach this topic with my own children, so that I am building up a healthy knowledge of their sexuality instead of a distorted one? Well, in my opinion, there’s no one-size fits all approach, but I’ll share with you what I did.
1. What’s the right age? I decided to take my cues from my daughter, ask friends with older daughters what they had done, and make sure I was informed about when girls are getting their periods these days. Several books suggest the age range is 10-13 years old. However, some girls get it earlier, some later, and I learned that our elementary school nurse had girls get their period as early as 8 years old. When other signs of puberty begin to show (e.g., breast buds, pubic or underarm hair, and the best of all: increased BO), we’re being given a heads up as to what’s around the bend. As some of things began happening with my daughter, we began talking about how her body is changing, the need for good hygiene and grooming, and how more changes will be coming. After witnessing some of her friends develop breasts and decidedly become more womanly looking, and then learning that a couple of them had indeed already gotten their period, I knew the time was at hand.
2. Do you have the puberty and sex talks separately or at the same time? Since there is a lot of ground to cover here, I decided to have the talks separately. Learning that your body is going to discharge blood on a monthly basis is enough to digest in one sitting, I thought. Our talk focused on the mechanics, and when questions came up that would easily have lead to a discussion about sex (e.g., How does the egg become a baby?), I simply told her that we’d talk about that another time and that I just wanted to make sure she understood these things about having a period and how to take care of her body. The sex talk happened a few months later. My main concern was making sure she was informed by me first before watching any school films (which is coming up for her this year.) I was sure she was already getting bits of info from friends.
3. What’s enough info? When it came to the puberty talk, I explained the anatomy and physiology of developing a woman’s body and how she would need to take care of herself, some of what she might experience emotionally and physically, and some of my own experience. As far as the sex talk goes, I decided to begin by asking her what she thought sex was. I loved her answer. With a smile and eyes looking heavenward, she sighed and said, “Well…it’s when a guy puts his gender stick into a woman’s….” OK…already I was cracking up. After trying on a few phrases, she decided the “gender stick” went into a woman’s “gender valley.” (This girl has known the official terminology since toddler days, but I loved the tween originality.) I then elaborated on her explanation, discussing the mechanics of intercourse, how babies are conceived, and my thoughts on the best context in which a person should do that for the time and in general. Discussing these basics provided plenty of fodder for questions, and we discussed those as they came up.
When having both of these discussions, I had already armed myself with books that my daughter could read and explore at her own pace, so that we didn’t have to formally discuss every graphic detail in loaded conversations. For the puberty discussion, I gave her the American Girls’ book, The Care and Keeping of You. For the sex discussion, I found slim pickings at my local bookstore, but ended up getting Sex, Puberty and All That Stuff: A Guide to Growing Up by Jacqui Bailey and Jan McCafferty. In both cases, I told her these books were for her to explore at her own pace, to keep them where her seven year old sister couldn’t find them, and that when she had any questions, I’d always be happy to talk with her. With the sex book, I told her I wanted her to read a chapter, leave the book on top of my bedroom armoire so that I could read it too, and that after I had, I’d come to her one evening at bedtime and we could discuss any questions and thoughts either of us had (that book is loaded with info, so I really wanted to discuss those issues with her over time.)
As you can imagine, after both of these conversations, I let go a huge sigh of relief…another parental landmark passed. I also felt and expressed to Life my gratitude that the 10 years I’ve spent doing my best to have a relationship with my children that shows them respect and love, in which I’m honest own my own fallibility, and allow them room to be who they really are, created this awesome space in which my lovey and I could have these direct conversations and laugh together and move an inch more towards our both inhabiting and sharing that incredible world called womanhood.