Are you expecting your offspring to grab the keys and take off when they turn 16 or will you require they practice, take classes, and be tested so as to qualify for a license? We don’t just let our teenagers drive away because they’ve turned 16, although they may attempt to convince us that would be fine. Like many other life skills, we need to be discussing it repeatedly as the child grows, pointing out examples of people who aren’t doing it well, and providing clear expectations and consequences.
Here’s a subject that didn’t necessarily unfold the way I projected – wanting my kids to know they could always tell me anything and would be helped more than punished. From the time my boys were babies and for as long as they let me tuck them in at night, in a singsong tone I’d tell them,
"There's nothing you could say or do that would make me stop loving you."
I wanted to instill this foundational knowledge, so when they became adolescents and choices/consequences got more serious they’d know in their bones they could come to me with any concern or mistake, thinking they would want my involvement in the details of their lives. (I know, I know.)
Then, I raised one son who preferred to ask for forgiveness instead of permission and another boy who felt uncomfortable keeping things from me. Same house, same parenting. No magic bullet. Still, when my younger son came to me with information, I praised and rewarded his action while providing negative consequences to the son who had lied or kept things secret.
In middle school, they’d ask if they could ride bikes up to the closest community shopping area a few miles from home, and I’d review the rules before giving permission – every time. Luckily, it’s a pretty small community, and neighbors or friends would serendipitously mention seeing my sons up the hill, doing this or that off-limits activity, which I would then use to test my kids’ honest reporting. When they got banned from the local grocery store for running around and making loud noise, all trips up to the stores were cancelled. My older son took this as a suggestion, while my younger son didn’t go along with him and would fill me in, if he knew. My neighbor across the street once saw my older son with a friend when she waited in the front row at a red light while the kids moved through the crosswalk. She mentioned it harmlessly, and I held that son accountable while providing some kind of reward to the one who didn’t go. I couldn’t figure out why the older child didn’t see the benefits reaped by the younger one when he was honest.
Another example, I started talking about how babies are made early on. We talked about body parts openly and by their real names. One day, going to a lesson or a game somewhere, my 4th grade son asked, “Mom, what does muff mean?” I sighed. What to say. First I tried, “It’s an old-fashioned accessory like gloves. Women would put their hands in a muff to keep them warm.” He was quiet for a moment and replied, “Noooo. That’s not it.” To myself I thought, “Okay, give him the real info. I’ve told them we can talk about anything.” To my sons, I said, “Sometimes people refer to the pubic hair between a woman’s legs as a muff, it’s slang.” Once again, he answered, “Nooooo. That’s not it.” The discussions we had about anatomy or sex had become pretty commonplace so he didn’t overreact to my suggestion, not even laughing. I asked him what I should’ve clarified off the top, “How did you hear about it? Who said it?” He piped up,”My teacher looked at my paper and told me I really muffed something.” “Oh, that meant you made a mistake.”
Unfortunately, as he reached puberty, the youngest son went quiet. Not just about misadventures being made known to me, he got quiet about everything. When I quizzed him about things, he was no longer as forthcoming. Damn it!
We found another way to communicate when they began exploring sex. The oldest son had borrowed our minivan to go see his “girlfriend” a mile away, near the local swimming hole in our little river valley, which I thought was more about driving than the girl because he’d said he didn’t know if he liked her as much as she did him. After his outing, my husband and I got in the minivan to go buy some flowers for our yard. When we loaded the new plants, we came across a pair of female bikini bottoms in the back of the van!!! My husband smiled, but I immediatly thought: CONTRACEPTIVES! EMERGENCY! TEEN PREGNANCY! CONTRACEPTIVES!
As we came home with the new garden foliage, our son was riding his bike. He pulled up to the driver’s side window, and my husband held up the little black panties with one finger. My son’s face went through at least three shades of red. His father handed them to him and said, “Don’t have sex in our cars,” and drove on towards our house. Later, we went to a pharmacy and bought the largest box of condoms they had. I think it was a couple hundred, maybe? The supply went under the sink in the bathroom they shared, and I learned that my sons were done talking to me about body parts and how they work. I did explain, again, that if they made a baby, they would be a fully involved daddy, both financial and in presence, knowing they couldn’t realistically understand the full responsibility.
We had done our best. We want to have such open and honest discussions, practicing, and addressing problems that arise from ignoring or hiding the truth, that the child is able to take in information and judge for themselves how to handle circumstances. The spiral of childhood has us teaching and guiding about subjects that will recur and be discussed again at the next stage of life and the next, less as you go, until you are an observer, providing advice mostly when invited, allowing them to suffer consequences without us jumping in to relieve or settle a situation.
And remember, if you urge them to tell you anything, be prepared when it’s uncomfortable. My face probably went through the same stages of red my son’s had reflected.
Parent is Also a Verb (PAV) is a series within the blog “SurvivingSara.net” by Sara Zuelke, M.S. Counseling
p.s. With each son, I brought them into my room and shut the door. We used a banana and a condom to practice putting it on correctly. Thought it was funny the older one didn’t tell the younger. Both were curious, we talked about holding the tip. It was very helpful.