“HAVE YOU SEEN a prostitute?” Drew’s friend from San Antonio asked him as I drove the two of them home from the airport.
“No,” Drew replied without much interest, “I don’t think it’s been to Dallas yet.”
My kid’s not slow. He just lacks the proper vocabulary. Now, if Travis had said “hooker,” some serious discussion might have ensued.
When this child was 4, he withdrew his life savings ($3.30) from his piggy bank and headed down the alley where an enterprising neighbor’s child was vending his father’s discarded girlie magazines. Moments later, Drew returned thoroughly pleased at having invested the whole sum in an anniversary issue of Playboy.
He didn’t try to hide it from me. In fact, since it was his nap time, he suggested that we peruse his treasure on my bed where we’d heretofore read Oz books and Pooh poems. Why not? Even Mister Rogers himself sang, “Every body’s fancy, every body’s fine; Your body’s fancy and so is mine.”
I hadn’t seen a Playboy in years. In the interim there had clearly been a shift in the photographer’s focus from bountiful bosoms to nether regions. As we turned past the initial aftershave ads and cartoons, I began to regret that the kid hadn’t had the sense to stash this under his mattress.
“Uh, Drew,” I stammered, “well, what do you think about these ladies… uh, girls?” I prayed that he was focusing, as I tried to, on the vacuity of their expressions. “I mean, do these look like girls you’d like to have as playmates, uh, friends? Do you think they’d be fun to talk to?”
“Sure, Mom,” he said, pointing to a page displaying Misses January through December. “They all look just like you, except they do their hair different.”
In retrospect, I was obviously conned by a 4-year-old who knew 1 couldn’t fly into a fit over a book full of mommies. When I related the misdemeanor to my husband, John, he confiscated the evidence and disappeared for the evening.
Playboy has never replaced The Jungle Book for naptime reading, but clearly our children are more worldly wise than we were at their age. The Fifties, of course, was not an era of sexual explicitness. What sex information we gleaned in our elementary school days may have been furtively procured, but by today’s standards, it was remarkably innocent. One friend and I sometimes got down her father’s heavy medical books. Looking at diseased parts, we concluded, was better than nothing.
My husband must have been more adventurous. While trying to interest his sons in the pleasures of stamp collecting, he recently came across a “feelthy picture” he had secreted away with his Mozambique triangles at age 11. “I bought that at the bowling alley where I set pins-cost me a day’s pay, I remember,” he said. “It was a little disappointing even then,” he admitted as the boys and I convulsed over this black and white photograph of a nude, overweight Hispanic woman making an obscene gesture.
Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was as steamy a tome as we passed from locker to locker in high school. Other bits of information and misinformation were pieced together from jokes, friends, older brothers, John O’Hara paperbacks carelessly discarded by adults and a Kimberly Clark publication called Very Personally Yours which I was sure had been left in my room by mistake. Movies fed our romantic impulses, but left everything to our imaginations with quick fades and mysterious gestures. While I don’t remember any grim lectures from my parents, it was an uncomplicated time to be a female teenager. The only rule to remember was don’t. And most of us didn’t.
A friend returning to his 20-year high school reunion took an informal survey of his successful male classmates several weeks in advance. Pretending to need their advice on business, he closed their office doors and presented them with a list of all the girls in the class and told them: “Just check off the ones you scored with in high school.” One after another, the men scanned the list and sheepishly slid it back across the desk unmarked. At the reunion, my friend concluded that the men of the class had either become senile, discreet or just honest enough to admit that most high school conquests were feats of imagination.
DESPITE OUR RATHER innocent childhoods, as parents we imbue our own offspring with accurate and explicit anatomical terms before they’ve learned to lisp their last names. On a car trip to visit my parents, Drew once asked his father to repeat the whole clinical outline of the sperm’s heroic journey to the ovum. My oldest son, Jack, was so mortified by Drew’s request that he hid on the floorboard. I wanted to join him, since John kept saying “the mommy and the daddy” instead of male and female. When John had completed the lecture, easier this time with his eyes riveted on the road, Drew responded, “Yuk! Don’t anybody hand me another cheese cracker or talk about stopping for a hamburger. I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Our children can’t fathom how daring it seems for us to say these words we never even heard our own parents whisper. Such candor, of course, does bring embarrassing moments. The other day I watched with great sympathy a young mother with her daughter in the grocery store check-out line. The daughter, about 3 years old, was busy sorting out the various people in the store according to gender. Pointing to Winnie, the checker, the child said, “Winnie got a ’gina. Momma got a ’gina, and you,” she said pointing to the hulking construction worker standing just behind her mother, “have a penis, don’t you?” Johnny Carson himself could not have launched into a quicker ad-lib conversation than that poor mother. “Oh,” she said, reading the man’s company shirt pocket, “I see you work for HCB. I’ve seen some of their buildings. They look very sturdy. I’ll bet you have to do some very dangerous work climbing out on those steel girders-or maybe you drive one of those big tall cranes-Ceci, he works like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. . .”
I myself have blanched in the drugstore when one of mine yells across three aisles with total nonchalance: “Mom, don’t forget to get something for that mosquito bite on my scrotum.”
PERHAPS WE WERE hasty in discarding the wonderful euphemisms of our own childhoods. Certainly we have deprived our children of a rich heritage of language that could eliminate some of this embarrassment in public places. I had a great-aunt, who either from living through droughts or perhaps with outdoor plumbing, never believed in long, luxurious baths. She felt that a sponge bath done properly was perfectly adequate, and used to dispatch me to the bathroom with the instructions: “Just wash as far as possible…and then wash possible.” And then there was Granny Paup, my friend’s grandmother, who, when referring to male private parts (and believe me, it wasn’t often), used the term “his fatal thing.” While I wouldn’t wish my children to be limited to Victorian “possibles” and “fatal things,” a few hilarious alternatives to grim anatomical terminology are surely in order. As one friend says, “Sex is fun and funny. What more can you say?”
At 14, 12 and even 7, there is scarcely any cold fact about sex that these boys haven’t heard. A first-grader can and does sound out the word “rape” in the headlines. The recent glut of newspaper and television reports on child abuse and controversy over abortion have left no ugly aspect of life unexamined. At school, my boys are cautioned about child molesters. At their friends’ houses, I have no doubt they have watched movies on cable channels that would scar me for life. John, who works as a trial lawyer, frequently discusses cases in great gynecological detail at the dinner table. When we leave our favorite Mexican food restaurant, my sons quickly abandon their father to walk hand in hand with me because they are well aware that we are in the middle of a predominately gay neighborhood.
We seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing aberrant sexual behavior with our children. The world intrudes with more candor than we intended.
The important things we want them to know can never be communicated quite so directly. Like all conscientious American parents, we have bought them books on the subject. I bought Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening To Me? primarily because the cartoon drawings presume that a sense of humor is essential to any discussion of sex. The printed page inevitably treats sex as an abstraction, however, something separate from the rest of life. Biology teachers at school may suggest that it’s just another bodily function like sneezing. The phrase “having sex” always sounds to me like “having chicken pox” or worse, like having a standardized Big Mac in a Styrofoam container. We don’t want our sons to view sex as fast food, as something that has no bearing on life except for the moment of gratification. Separating sex from social and ethical considerations trivializes life itself. As George Leonard wrote in his book The End of Sex, “Such thinking ignores the fact that we’re dealing with a powerful urge that can enhance a life-long relationship, transform a human body and even lead to the creation of life.”
BUT WHERE DO kids bombarded with TV titillation and the instant thrill of video games pick up on the subtleties and mysteries that can’t be pictured in textbooks?
I hope it’s communicated as wordlessly at our house as it was in the home where I grew up. Somehow, without worrying about it the way we do, my parents managed to communicate the broader implications of sexuality that have to do with a man and a woman loving each other so much that even after 50 years together, they still sometimes dance in the kitchen. They created a hugging, kissing, laughing and sentimental crying family. But aside from these obvious gestures, when my parents are together, there is an implicit sense of intimacy that has to do with eyes and hands and hearts.
As a child I knew their bed as a source of comfort to my brother and me. It was also a place of hilarity, a place for giggling with the lights out or for talking about the things you couldn’t say face to face. Their bed was a good place to be.
I think I’ve passed that on. I’ve given up on the linen pillow shams that could make our bed with its ornate Victorian headboard look like the ones in magazines. Our bed is usually a mess. The boys’ tag team matches often begin there as they jockey for position to hear their favorite stories. Sometimes we do difficult algebra problems there, and on a cold morning, John and I may snuggle a boy or two.
No child, I’m convinced, wants to think about his parents having intercourse, much less have a conversation with them about it. Some things are better learned by osmosis. In my parents’ house, I learned a lot about giving and receiving affection. I learned that a rich and intimate relationship thrives on patience, trust, forgiveness, humility and laughter. If that, absurd as it must always seem to a young child, was also a part of it, then so be it. Their experience was uniquely their own, and mine would be another variation because love is not a standardized commodity.
Dr. Jerry Lewis, director of research and training at Timberlawn Psychiatric Institute in Dallas, has been shocking audiences for many years in his talks on healthy families. He says, “I’m in favor of as much sexual education for children as possible. Certainly the home is the best place for them to learn-and to be more specific,” he’d say as the thunderous applause died down, “in the kitchen.”
There was always a collective gasp while he pursued the theme that, in addition to learning about the heroic journey of the sperm searching for the ovum, there is the even more important business of learning what it is like to be male and to be female. Important lessons in this are frequently held in the kitchen. Children observe the way husbands and wives greet each other in the morning and at the end of the day. Do they kiss? Does it look like fun? Or is it perfunctory? Do they touch? Hug? Are they sensitive to each other’s fatigue? Basically, it’s just one place where children learn a lot about human beings giving and receiving affection.
The kitchen is also where I learn my youngest son William’s latest riddles:
“Igor for your body.”
“Know what rhymes with China?”
You don’t want to know.