A lot of parents, in an attempt to make children’s lives less burdensome by shielding them from “adult things,” are simply prolonging and complicating the inevitable explanations of living.
I never saw the point in telling my daughters ridiculous stories of storks dropping babies on porches, fabricating the use of sanitary napkins, or downplaying the difference in the size and shape of our chest lumps. Children will only be confused by and embarrassed about their bodies and its functions if we teach them that they should be.
It’s not as though I go out of my way to remind my daughters about puberty. “Just wait until you’re 13 and bleeding every 28 days!” I don’t quiz them on the function of testes; “But where does the semen come from?” That would be overkill, and quite possibly considered child abuse. I learned a long time ago to treat children’s questions respectfully and age-appropriately, without making the mistake of giving answers that are too long or too deep.
So how does one answer the big scary questions being asked by a blank-faced toddler, an inquisitive preschooler, a skeptical kindergartener? It ultimately depends on the maturity level of the child, and the adult’s ability to control the cards in this game. Children want answers, but they aren’t always the sit-you-down, hour-long, life-altering answers you think you’ll have to give them. They may not dig too deep; I don’t dive in before knowing.
The first time my daughters asked me where a baby came from I didn’t divulge all the details of intercourse. In fact, they still don’t know exactly how a man and woman’s cells come together, but it will only be so long before they ask. Simple, candid answers are all they’re after. “From their mothers” lasted them quite a while. When they got wise enough to ask how the babies got into their mothers, I answered that the babies grew there. How did the babies come out? Well, the mother either pushes them out of her vagina or the doctor opens the mother’s belly to pull the baby out. Sure, they were squeamish about my answer, but I’d told them the truth, and perhaps it will kill that I-can’t-wait-to-be-a-mommy childhood fantasy.
As any mother knows, mothers get absolutely no privacy. Some time ago my daughters witnessed the retrieval of a tampon or a maxi-pad from beneath the bathroom sink. After their attempts to berate me for hiding what they thought were big-girl craft supplies I kindly informed them that those weren’t big cloth stickers they’d just stuck to the walls, and that we would not be painting with the cylindrical cotton balls. Of course, this led to more questioning. What are those things? They’re called maxi-pads and tampons. What are they for? They’re for women who are on their menstrual cycle. What’s a menstrual cycle? It’s when a woman’s body sheds some endometrium and bleeds a bit from her vagina for a period of days every month. Does it hurt? Not the vagina. Will I get it? Not until puberty; it will probably start for you around age 13. What does it mean? It means that your body is physically capable of producing babies. But trust me, you won’t be ready.
These questions don’t typically come all at once. Children may only ask the surface question. Weeks later you may get the second, third, and fourth ones. The trick is to know when it’s appropriate to elaborate, and to always give honest explanations, without making the subject seem scary or dirty or wrong. It’s not just with womanly issues that I practice these methods. The tactic works the same for any type of question. What are we eating? Beef. Where did it come from? The farm. Was it alive? Most certainly. Did you kill it? No, but I would’ve had it been necessary. My daughters know from which animals or methods of production all of their food arrives which has given them an intense appreciation for what they eat. However, my three year old still refuses to consume “the nice fish.”
I feel bad for the children who are told comforting, yet fictitious stories about the facts of life. My children know a lot about being human: the way we came to be, the things we eat, the natural world with which we interact. They’ve begun to understand human significance because they’ve been given the opportunity to embrace it. I have not spared them from the fact that all living things die, and though this saddens them it also teaches them to value their lives. They ask to eat vegetables, do yoga, meditate, all things that I’ve associated with being healthy and living for a long time.
I wouldn’t be doing my children any favors by sugar-coating their realities. Kids don’t have nightmares because they’re going to start puberty around age 13; they have trouble sleeping after their parents tell them that the family pet “went to sleep” and it wasn’t ever seen again. Tell children the truth.