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.