Just tell the truth.

As my oldest enters his teen years, and waves of young people flow in and out of our home, I am hyper-aware of the need to keep communication open on the topics of sex and relationships, and grateful that I laid the groundwork early.

The questions are getting more and more complex, but as I maneuver my way through the embarrassment and discomfort, I continue to remind myself to be grateful that the questions keep coming. “Breathe,” I tell myself. “And just tell the truth.”

I’m struck by my uneasiness, as no one ever seemed the least bit uneasy educating me about sex. My mom was the one who came to our upper elementary class and had us all put condoms on bananas. Many of us giggled. Others made sounds of revulsion. But it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Somehow, now that I’m the parent, it’s different.

During a regular old after-school afternoon in our home, the younger boys were eating snacks, practicing instruments, doing homework. I was keenly aware of the absence of my teen, off somewhere with friends, free to use his own best judgment in whatever situations he might be facing.

I seized the moment of calm and ran upstairs in search of my copy of It’s Perfectly Normal — my choice to replace Where Did I Come From?. Nothing against Where Did I Come From?. I just didn’t think I could read it one more time. Plus those drawings are so 1970s! I pulled It’s Perfectly Normal out from under a stack of books in the kids’ room, carried it downstairs, plopped it on the table, and flipped it open.
My 8-year-old was intrigued.

“What is that?” he asked, perplexed.

“That’s nasty!” said the slightly older brother.

“It’s a condom,” I responded. “Men cover their penises with them, so that when they put their penis in a woman’s vagina when they’re having sex, the sperm can’t go inside the woman and fertilize an egg to make a baby.” I left out the topic of STD’s for now, assuring myself that they’re still really young, yet absolutely aware that the clock is ticking.

The boys looked perplexed, so we talked a bit about the different reasons people have sex, and some of the many ways to prevent pregnancy.

The youngest was riveted. “How many sperm are there?” he asked.

The grossed-out boy headed back to the fridge, apparently finished with the conversation.

I decided not to reinvent the wheel and acknowledged that author Robie H. Harris and illustrator Michael Emberley had already done the research and thought long and hard about how to educate young children about sex.

I read aloud.

“Only about two hundred sperm out of the five hundred million in an ejaculation get close to the egg. … Only one sperm out of those two hundred or so break into the egg cell.”

Suddenly the rustling of the food wrappers quieted, and my grossed-out son stopped in his tracks, put his hands on hips, and, with great pride, bellowed out, “Oh! And I won? I am so boss!”

We all broke into laughter, and I let go of all my ambivalence about competition, resolute in my happiness that he “won,” and clear that this was a win for us all!

This article originally appeared in the East Bay Express newspaper in Oakland, CA.