My parents didn’t give me “the talk.” In fact, I never heard the words “penis,” “vagina,” or even “maxi pad” cross their lips. To be fair, they grew up in an era when married couples on television shared the same bedroom but slept in separate beds. Certain aspects of life simply weren’t discussed.
I learned about sex and the human body in my own way. Like many of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a friend whose parents owned a copy of The Joy of Sex. Those explicit black and white drawings told us a lot, even if we didn’t bother reading the words.
The absence of frank discussion with my parents had ramifications beyond sex. I believed that adults wouldn’t listen to or understand the problems of children and teenagers. I was bullied by my classmates from almost the first day I walked into elementary school. The torment continued until I left high school. The disconnect between the children and adult worlds was so vast. I couldn’t imagine telling my parents or, if I did tell them, what they might do about it. I thought that if I exposed those mean girls the bullying would only intensify.
The first time I remember crossing that adult-child gulf was not for my own sake, but to try to help a boy in my class who was beaten by his father. My best friend at the time was furious that I told my father about the abuse, assuming that tattling would make his situation worse. I don’t remember what happened to the boy.
“The absence of frank discussion with my parents had ramifications beyond sex.”
When I had my own children, now eight and ten, I resolved that they would not feel the same way about adults. I wanted them to be comfortable talking to me and their father about anything. I knew that we had to lay that foundation immediately.
First, I discarded some time-honored attitudes about communicating with kids, especially, “children should be seen and not heard.” The assumption is that adults are taking care of important business and children’s utterings are just a nuisance. Children are taught never to interrupt adults’ conversations and even not to speak unless spoken to (another time-worn saying).
We teach children to be silent because we want them to know the world doesn’t revolve around them and they must think about the needs of others—an important lesson. However, children also need to know that their opinions and views have as much value as everyone else’s.
Other adults give me incredulous looks when I let my children break into a conversation, especially if they say something off-color or inappropriate. While I always talk to my kids later if I think they said something hurtful or rude in public, I am willing to risk a little embarrassment for the sake of open communication. Even if it means hearing about how big my butt is.
“However, children also need to know that their opinions and views have as much value as everyone else’s.”
Whenever my kids start to tell me something—no matter how insignificant—I try to put down whatever I am doing and say, “I’m listening.” I have endured hours of long and convoluted recitations of my children’s dreams, their musings about My Little Pony, and tales about the lunchtime antics of their school friends. I try to treat every story as though it is as meaningful to me as it is to them.
Because soon, it won’t be My Little Pony. Soon, it will be drugs, sex, alcohol, social media, bullying, shaming, and all of the other problems of teenagers and young adults. By then, I hope they will already be in the habit of talking to me and it will seem natural to have a conversation about any subject.
Another one of my least favorite sayings is “don’t talk back.” The idea is that adults know best and children should never question their assertions or their authority. Allowing my kids to contradict me certainly makes life more difficult. Every time I tell them to do something, they argue and try to negotiate an outcome they prefer.
My parents’ generation typically sees this kind of discussion as a clear parenting failure, but to me, it is necessary for healthy communication. If allowing the kids to complain about how much they hate my cooking makes them more likely to tell me something important, I’ll listen to “your food smells like sweat socks” all day.
“I try to treat every story as though it is as meaningful to me as it is to them.”
“Yours is not to question why, yours is to obey” is another golden gem from my childhood that I reject. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are not allowed to do whatever they want. No matter how many arguments my son tries to make to the effect that every other parent allows their kids to play video games constantly, he is restricted to a half hour per day. My daughter can tell me as many times she wants that I should buy sugar cereal like her friends’ parents; I still won’t put it in the shopping cart. But I will listen to their arguments.
Sometimes they actually do convince me. I have been known to compromise on how long we can stay at the park or whether they can earn extra allowance money for doing chores.
It would be easier to tell my kids to just be quiet. It would be easy to ignore the uncomfortable questions and punish them every time they said something I didn’t like. Then, I could avoid my daughter asking about how babies are made just as we are walking into Whole Foods. I wouldn’t have to explain menstruation to her four times because she forgets and asks again. I wouldn’t have to listen to my son talk about how gross my armpit hair is.
My parents didn’t have to endure any of that. But I know if I tell my kids not to talk about uncomfortable things, I also won’t hear about the boyfriend who refuses to wear a condom or the teacher who stands a little too close to the kids’ desks.
They might still not choose to reveal everything to me, but I will have left the door open so that hopefully they will always know they can.★
Emily Beck Cogburn is the author of Ava’s Place and Louisiana Saves the Library. A freelance journalist and fitness instructor, she lives in Louisiana with her two spirited children, two dogs, two cats, one fish, and one very patient husband. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.