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Talking About the Birds and the Bees

Catherine Newman shares some of her favorite books you can read with your kids to discuss the birds and the bees

That very expression "the birds and the bees" should be your first clue. Is talking to your kids about sex going to involve strange forays into ornithology and entomology, into the leggy interspecies copulation between titmouse and luna moth? No. It's not. But it likely will involve a peculiar mix of sexual facts and immaculate euphemisms -- the truth diluted with metaphors that confuse as much as they clarify. (Birdy, our 5-year-old: "So, wait -- the daddy's seed plants on the mommy's egg?" I picture a hard-boiled egg covered in sprouts, as if human life starts as edible Chia Pet.)

I'm thinking of this mix of fact and fantasy now, as my 8-year-old son Ben and I read the informative, whimsical Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, by psychiatrist Gail Saltz. In a note at the end, Saltz cautions parents against reproductive flights of fancy: "Do not make up stories involving storks or other magical events." It's wise counsel, but curious, given that just a few pages earlier Saltz tells this anatomical whopper: "The baby will come out of the mother's vagina, which is very, very stretchy. It stretches wide enough for the baby to come out and then goes back to the way it was before." Sure it does!

Of course, you wouldn't really want to tell your child the whole truth here. (Let's just do our Kegels and keep our mouths shut, okay?) Still, Ben pronounces Amazing You! "very helpful." It's one of a stack of books we've checked out of the library to address his growing interest in bodies and sex. Or if not sex, exactly, then nakedness. "But," he's saying shyly now, "the book actually leaves out that other part. The part I'm most interested in."

Holy coitus interruptus, Batman.
I'd wondered if intercourse would be missed. Like many books of its kind, especially those written for the younger set, Amazing You! loads children into a kind of informational station wagon and drives them along various anatomical roadways, chatting sensibly and comfortably about penis and vagina, ovaries and testicles.

And then, zoing! It catapults them across the canyon of sex, and the kids suddenly find themselves on the other side, chatting about uterus and baby without ever having gotten a good look at the view. "When a man and a woman love each other and decide that they want to have a baby, a man's sperm joins with a woman's egg. From the egg and sperm, a baby will grow."

It's like the filmstrip we saw in sixth-grade science: a couple sitting on a park bench, a dotted line (lust? germs?) traveling down his arm and up hers. And then -- voila! -- a baby.

Earlier, Ben and I were reading How Was I Born?, a book of those brilliant Lennart Nilsson photographs taken in utero, which offers two parallel stories: the child's narrative about expecting a new baby brother, and the science narrative about embryology. When the kids were little, we followed only the child's version, but now Ben was reading over my shoulder. "Hey, can you tell us that other part?" he'd asked then as well.

I started to, only suddenly, on the very same page with the nice, comforting story ("My mom is called Sally. She's happy and sometimes wears glasses."), I choked on this little reproductive chicken bone: "This means that the father puts his penis inside the mother's vagina and many sperm come out through his penis." This same father we've known for years? The beloved Daddy-called-Pete with the nice-smelling sweater? When I got to the end of the page, I turned to Ben and said, "Wow. That's probably new information for you. Do you have any questions about it?" His eyeballs were practically rolling around in their sockets, but he shook his head and said, "No." And then clarified, "I mean, I've got, like, a million questions about it? But none that I even know how to ask."

And isn't that sex, in a nutshell? A million questions that you don't know how to ask.
It must seem so random to a little boy: Now we're talking about your penis and what it can do. Now you're in trouble for talking about it at recess. Now we're talking about babies. Now birds and bees.

When I sift through the facts gleaned from my own childhood, it's the mental equivalent of rows and rows of tidy files (multiplication tables, cursive, how to build an igloo) and then a big trash bag of sexual odds and ends: that 1975 Sears catalog in which, incredibly, a model's penis seemed to peek out below his boxer shorts; our uncle's bosomy first wife who skinny-dipped at dawn while my brother and I pressed our faces to the lake-house window; Judy Blume's Forever ... (which ruined the name "Ralph" for me -- forever). And for all of my unsqueamish compulsion to talk frankly with my kids, I bet it's the same old trash bag for them, just different contents: the camels we saw humping noisily at the zoo, the menstrual flotsam and jetsam that shows up monthly ("so the string just hangs out your butt?"), Birdy "hatching" her doll babies by jumping until they fell out the bottom of her shirt (dream on, sweet girl).

Don't you wish there were some sort of handy talking-about-sex script you could follow?
All tested, good to go. I even tried to get Ross Thompson, an expert on child development at the University of California, Davis, to tell me exactly what to say and when. Um, yeah, no: "This is not a one-size-fits-all conversation," he said. "It's always about the context of the inquiry, the nature of your particular child and of your relationship to them. Listen to what they ask about and listen to the follow-up questions. Sex is an emotional topic: You're worried about telling them too much or too little, so the best way to approach it is by listening."

Okay, we'd done that at least. I felt that my husband Michael and I had provided the crucial, basic information to the kids: Babies grow when a male seed, called sperm, enters the woman's body and joins with one of her eggs. Birdy was satisfied with this, and Ben now had the rest: The man puts his penis inside the woman's body. It was only when Ben overheard me talking to Michael about a friend ("Considering they weren't trying to get pregnant, she sounds pretty excited!"), that I realized how much we'd left out. "How could you get pregnant if you weren't trying to?" he asked, genuinely baffled. "That makes no sense."

As it happens, I can gab the day away about making babies -- but sex for pleasure?
This conversation is as natural as sawing off my own foot. "That thing grown-ups do to make a baby?" I said in my Talking to Children About Sex voice, which is as paranormally loud, calm, and clear as my Talking to Foreign Tourists voice. "It actually feels good to them, so sometimes they do it anyway." I wish I'd gotten a shot of Ben's grimace, just to make his future wife laugh.

Luckily, reading Amazing You! now, I stop to think before responding to Ben about "that other part" -- the one he's "most interested in." I recall the advice of psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting: "Don't assume that you understand what your children are asking." Which reminds me about that old joke where the kid asks, "Where did I come from?" and after the parents finish their big, long story about ovulation and ejaculation, the kid says, "No, I mean was it Cleveland or St. Louis?"

And so I ask Ben, "What other part, honey?" And he answers, laughing, "The booty!" Then I say, "Um, honey? Tell me what part you think your bottom plays in making babies." And Ben laughs again, and says, "Oh right! The booty is more like bathroom talk."

If grown-ups confuse sex and love, maybe kids confuse sex and pooping. In a Venn diagram, my children's understanding of reproduction would overlap mysteriously with fart jokes, even though it's more a vague blur than any precise kind of misunderstanding. "Oh, they think everything's butt," Saltz says when I tell her this story. "They think babies come out of butts, everything comes out of butts. It's important to clarify."

Ben is happy to clarify. "Now this is a great book," he says about the 1973 classic Where Did I Come From? He points to his favorite picture: someone's bare bottom reflected in the medicine cabinet mirror. But he barely notices that the book has an actual reference to orgasm: "All the rubbing up and down that's been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them."

Ah, the '70s! So awash am I in sex-ed nostalgia that I write a fan letter to illustrator Arthur Robins, who sends back a delightful e-mail. "It was a very long time ago and I haven't drawn a bum since," he writes when I convey Ben's enthusiasm. "I don't know what became of Peter Mayle," he jokes about the book's author, who went on to write the best-selling A Year in Provence. "I think he wrote a book about France, but it didn't have any illustrations, so I doubt if he will have much success with it."

Maybe it's that sense of fun I'm missing from today's conversations about sex.
When I speak with Saltz, she cautions, "Avoiding talking about it makes it more sexually charged, ironically." And this makes perfect sense to me, as does her point that it's important to name all the parts -- especially with little girls, for whom vulva, vagina, labia, and clitoris can cut through the fog of shame and confusion about what goes on "down there." Absolutely. And yes, whether I like it or not, children do need to be told about good touches and bad touches. Of course.

But I agree with Robie Harris, author of It's Not the Stork! and It's So Amazing!, who says, "Adults make jokes, teenagers make jokes. Probably cave people made jokes about sex. And kids pick up on this." Indeed they do. I confess to Harris that my kids cracked up when the kids in her book look at their butts in the mirror. "It's really important for them to have information that's accurate and accessible," she says. "But the flip side is that it all sounds completely absurd." It does. It is. That's what I'm starting to grasp: As parents, our job is to offer the facts of life as clearly as possible.

And then, well, maybe we've got to let the mystery be.
Part of what makes sexuality special is the unspeakableness of it -- of longing, pleasure, the way bodies intertwine with love. And part of what makes it special is its absurdity: not just the erections springing up all across your eighth-grade math class, but the way it's amazing and hilarious and weird.

Like now. The kids are drawing from an Ed Emberley book called Make a World. "Ed Emberley should do a Make a Penis book," Ben chuckles. "I mean, that's pretty much what kids want to know how to draw, all the holes and cracks and stuff." "Make a penis!" Birdy echoes, adding the predictable "Make a booty!" and hee-hawing until she wheezes. The kids are dying laughing ("Make a penis! Make a booty!"), these kids, who started life as desire, friction, cells dividing, a flutter of movement. Whom we love more than life itself.

Literary sex-ed by the ages

4 and up
Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz, illustrated by Lynne Cravath (Dutton, $16). A wittily illustrated, not-toographic intro to anatomy and reproduction. Friendly, simple, and skips mention of The Act.

It's Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Family, and Friends by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, $12). An excited bird and worried bee prompt conversational Q & As in cartoon panels with no-nonsense text.

How Was I Born? A Child's Journey Through the Miracle of Birth by Lennart Nilsson and Lena Katarina Swanberg (Dell, $17). Alternating Nilsson's spectacular in-utero photographs with everyday pictures of parents and kids, the book parallels miracle-oflife biology with a young girl's story of her family's loving preparation for a new baby.

7 and up
It's So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, $13). The bird and the bee now grapple with more complex issues, including (gulp) sexual intercourse. Emberley illustrates the rich diversity of bodies in a breathtakingly matter-of-fact way.

"Where Did I Come From?" The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins (Lyle Stuart, $10). Exuberant cartoon-style illustrations and cheerfully explicit text make for a delightful, if a tad dated (as in 1973), baby-making primer.

10 and up
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, $13). Here the bird and the bee chat pubescently about all the changes (sexual, anatomical, psychological, social) that adolescence brings. The book is both playful (if embarrassingly so for some teens) and comprehensive, covering everything from birth control to HIV to mood swings. Kill me now.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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