Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sex and Death

I recently read an essay about having “The Talk” with your child, or more accurately avoiding that talk. The female author begins by recounting a car ride in which her young child asked her first question about sex.  The author breathed a sigh of relief when her child accepted her poor and confusing answer (in my opinion, not hers) to a straightforward question, and moved on to another topic.  The child’s father, who was also in the car, remained silent throughout the question & answer session.  Drawing on this incident and similar ones experienced by her female friends, the author develops a thesis that discussing sex is a burden of motherhood because fathers are unavailable, incapable, and unwilling to discuss sex with their children.  I of course found the mommy martyrdom annoying, but what I found the most frustrating was the author treating parents’ lack of comfort talking about sex as a universal fact. I believe many parents, like myself (a father), not only talk to their children about sex but are comfortable and confident in doing so.

I don’t anticipate talking to Ezra about sex will be difficult or embarrassing.  I would be terrible at my job if I did. 

I work at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction as an art, photography, and artifact curator.  For the last three months, three-fourths of his life, Ezra has been coming with me to work.  He has attended staff meetings, tagged along on tours, listened to lectures, and watched as I have worked on two separate exhibits for our gallery: one featuring amateur erotic art, and the other looking at the diversity of the human body.   “That’s a funny looking penis isn’t it?” is not an out of place statement in our day-to-day life together.  As Ezra gets older I hope this casual, open, and frank approach to sexual subject matter will encourage ongoing and evolving conversations (not a dreaded talk!) in which he gradually learns about the differences between boys and girls, where babies come from, how his body will change, masturbation, sexuality, becoming sexually active, and relationships.  Even if I didn’t work at a sex institute I would find these to be uncomplicated topics to explain and discuss.  Several are really not much more than explanations of biology.  Why is sex the topic parents most wish to avoid? If I had to pick one topic I would like to never broach with Ezra it would definitely be death.

Obviously death can also be explained as a fact of biology as I suggest with sex, but unlike sex, the questions children have about death are more abstract and philosophical than simply how it happens.  What happens after you die?  Why can you no longer visit people?  Where do you go?  These are questions that have no clear, if any, answer.  Many people turn to religion for explanations.  For example, “Grandpa is now in heaven with Jesus, Grandma, and our cat, Mr. Wiggles,” is an easy and comforting explanation.  As a child I never found an answer like this satisfying.  As an atheist family we don’t have a simple answer like that to give Ezra.

Because of our uncertainty in how to best explain death, Amanda and I have already spent a fair amount of time thinking about how we wish to approach the topic with Ezra when it becomes necessary.  I found a beautifully illustrated and written children’s book, Old Coyote, by Nancy Wood and Max Grafe about a male coyote who realizes he has come to the end of his life.  He has lived to be “as old as coyotes get” and knows his life is coming to end.  He visits the friends and places that were important to him.  He reflects on how his body, his life, and the world have changed over his lifetime.   He is satisfied with the life he lived and knows the time comes when the “circle is complete.”  On a perfect rock he drifts into sleep as he “dreamed his way into a whole new world.”  The book is comforting because the old coyote is in control and ready for his death.  As the last few months have tragically pointed out to Amanda and I that is not how death always approaches.   Death often comes unexpectedly.  Death often takes those at what should be life's beginning and not its end.  Death is mysterious, unpredictable, permanent, and inevitable. How do you not frighten children when discussing this?  Maybe it is best to acknowledge that death is scary and sad, but it is part of life – and then change the subject to a more positive aspect of life.  Maybe sex.

*Three years later, I revisit this post. Read part two here.


Ann Marie Neeley Burkhart, IBCLC said...

I love this post. My husband and I have always answered our daughter's questions and curiosities about sex in an age-appropriate, honest way. I think that "sex education" is comparable to a science lesson and you can teach that like a curriculum at any age (very straight forward biology).

Sexuality, on the other hand, is learned more through observations and sharing values. Adults get mucked up talking to their kids about sex when "sex" and "sexuality" collide in their own minds.

When my daughter was younger she asked more questions about the biology of sex. Now that she is getting older, she's asking more about relationships and love. It's interesting to see all parts of her develop, including (gasp!) her sexuality.

I think dads play a critical part in this development, regardless of the sex of their child. Both parents' attitudes and willingness to talk about sex have a HUGE influence on a child.

Also, on a somewhat unrelated note, I wish that parents would teach their kids the difference between a person's sex and their gender. I'm sure that would be asking too much! :)

stef b. said...

Ezra is very lucky to have two parents that are always thinking and discussing the best way to approach and interact with different aspects of his development.

You both are the best parents!!!!!!

Garry said...

Thanks stef b. We realize there will be times in Ezra's life that he wishes we would stop talking so much about something, but overall I hope our discussions lead us to making good choices for him.

Thank you for your comments Ann Marie. We feel lucky to have experienced and thoughtful parent friends to go to for advice. I agree that gender is a huge issue that parents rarely address directly – though they indirectly reinforce gender roles everyday. Nothing has pointed out to me more how much our society still pressures the sex=gender rule than having a baby. Infants are greeted with “It’s a boy!” balloons and immediately placed in appropriate blue or pink. I have been surprised and frustrated at how hard it is to find gender-neutral clothing for infants! Sorry, to go on about this - Amanda and I could write about this issue weekly. Did you see the recent cover of the tabloid Life & Style (

Anonymous said...

@Garry, take this all with a grain of salt... after all I'm anonymous and months late on this conversation.

Some advice from a parent:
Don't try to micromanage Ezra's life worrying about gender neutral this and that. it doesn't matter. They're going to be who they are.
My daughter had a pale blue room, and clothing that was handmedown and often not "feminine" when she was young and do you know what she begged me for for her 4th birthday... pink. EVERYTHING pink.

Contrast that with Her favorite toys: Thomas the train, Mom's old cabbage patch dolls, Disney Cars matchbox cars, disney princess barbie dolls, and legos.

Her two favorite things to play with her imagination on the other hand: Spider Man and Star Wars.

Just let your kid be a kid... encourage them to explore different things.

You might end up with a son who likes fluffy bunnies or a daughter that likes laser guns. It's the parents who make a big deal out of this usually.
Don't go so far into "universal tolerance" and gender identity to lose your child's actual own identity.

Garry said...

Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that our ultimate goals should be for Ezra to be happy with his own identity. I don't think our goal has ever been to be gender neutral, but for gender to play less a role in his decisions than his personal preferences. For example, I want him to be able to choose from a wide range of play activities that include traditionally boy as well as traditionally girl activities. This seems to be something you have accomplished with your daughter.