Dan McGlynn came home to find that his kids had Googled ‘Big Butts” and knew it was time for the talk.
By Dan McGlynn
Despite their preternatural talents with all things electronic, my sons are clueless when it comes to covering their tracks. When I pulled up Google on my iPad the other night, I found, among their still-open tabs for video game cheats, skateboard tricks, and public farting, the phrase “big butts.” At 9 and 7, the boys are fascinated with body parts, especially their noises and excretions, and it seemed logical that watching people break wind in Times Square would get them wondering about the source of such a hilarious offense. My first impulse was to laugh.
But when I clicked on the tab, I got a little nervous. The images were a lot more sexual than I expected, even with the SafeSearch turned on — a collage of derrières, nearly all of them female, bent over car hoods and countertops and beach towels and clad in striped bikinis or lace thongs or nothing at all. And when I opened the search history, my worries grew sharper still. Just a few spots down were the words “big breasts,” “babies being born,” and the perennial favorite of preadolescent boys the world over, “naked ladies.” The hardcore stuff had been filtered out, but there was still plenty of tanned and oiled flesh. Enough, in any case, to titillate a 9 and 7-year-old until their heads exploded.
“Uh oh,” I thought.
Unsure of what to do, I switched over to FaceTime and called my father. He nodded sagaciously at the news, as though he’d been expecting it sooner or later. The more I thought about it, so had I. Back when I was their age, the internet wasn’t really a thing (I wouldn’t have an email account, let alone stumble upon the net’s vast reliquaries of smut, until college), but I could remember sneaking down the hallway after my parents had gone to bed to watch the late-night skin flicks on HBO and Showtime, my mouth chalky and my pulse galloping as I sat before the television in the dark. Or the first time a friend’s older brother reached between his mattress and box spring and produced a Playboy. In the generations before skin rags, there were peep and burlesque shows, tableaux vivants, holes in the curtains of the local brothel. One day archaeologists will discover, perhaps a little ways downriver from Lascaux, a cave wall covered in drawings of Paleolithic women au naturel. Curiosity about sex is an integral part of childhood; for boys, it is as fundamental as playing with matches or turning sticks into swords.
So, on one hand, I wanted to shrug off my sons’ Google searches as normal and let the matter drop. As long as the parental controls remained on, they wouldn’t be able to see anything too porno, and once they’d satisfied their curiosity, they’d likely move on to other things. But the controls on my iPad were nothing more than a single locked gate in a thousand-mile fence. When would the boys ever not be curious about sex? I thought of the line by the comedian Ron White: “Once you’ve seen one woman naked, you pretty much want to see the rest of ’em naked.” I knew I had to say something.
But say what? And say it how? Is there ever an easy way to talk with your kids about sex? Does any well-adjusted adult look back on the conversation he had with his parents and think that was the right way to handle it? The next day, during a break in my afternoon class, I polled my college students about how their parents had broached the topic. A number of them had already written frankly about their sex lives, some in such graphic detail that an anthology of class essays would read like an edition of Penthouse Letters. Yet when asked how their parents had talked to them about sex, they all put their hands over their faces. Oh my God, so awkward! One guy said his dad had initiated the conversation while they were in the drive-thru at Wendy’s; another recalled his architect father drawing diagrams on a napkin at a restaurant. One of the women in the class said her parents had left the matter entirely to her Catholic school health teacher, a pot-bellied gym coach who passed out Maxi pads while anxiously pacing the classroom in his nylon wind pants.
It’s a make-or-break moment in the life of a father. What dad doesn’t imagine that when the time comes, he’ll be cool and casual, or else direct and factual, a corrective to the floundering conversations we ourselves had to endure when we were kids? But while we’re busy trying to be cool, nonchalantly tossing out the subject while picking up burgers before heading to the game, our kids will remember the drive-thru, the paper napkin we scrawled upon. Talking with my students, it struck me that, though still a few years from puberty, my sons would be in college in a mere decade. They’d one day laugh with their friends about how their old man had handled the talk — perhaps the one conversation they were guaranteed to remember for the rest of their lives. The margin for error was small.
Later in the week, after several sleepless nights, I saw my chance. My wife worked late and left me home in charge of dinner. I made spaghetti and set the table for three of us. Hayden, the 7-year-old, sat on my right and Galen, who was 9, sat on my left. I waited until their mouths were full before I said, “We need to talk about something.”
Their eyebrows shot up, expecting trouble.
“We’ve been looking at naked pictures on the iPad,” I said. The decision to use “we” instead of “you” was calculated. “We” were in this together. Besides, I’m no connoisseur of internet porn, but it’s not like I’ve never wandered down that dark road before.
The boys’ faces turned as red as the sauce in their bowls. “I promise I’ll never touch the iPad again,” Galen said, a hand to his brow.
“No one is in trouble,” I said. “I just want to talk about it.”
“I know about sex,” Hayden said. Much less abashed than his brother, nary a trace of guilt in his conscience; he was pleased to take part in the conversation. “Sex is about your privates.”
“What about them?”
“The three Bs. Butts, balls and boobs.”
“Girls don’t have balls, genius,” Galen said, looking up.
“What do they have instead?” I asked.
“I really don’t want to talk about this,” Galen said.
“I know,” Hayden said. “The bagina.”
“The fourth B,” Galen said.
“Pretty close,” I said. “Do you know how sex works?” Now they both looked confused. I was more than a little grateful. Their Google searches had not, it seemed, led them to any images or videos of couples actually in flagrante delicto. Nevertheless, my heart was pounding. This was the moment of truth. “Does your penis ever get” — I struggled for the right word: erect was too technical, hard too dirty — “stiff? Do you ever feel your penis get stiff?”
They nodded. I said, “When that happens, a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina. Some stuff comes out that goes up inside the woman’s body. Seeds for a baby.”
“Pee?” Hayden asked, looking down at his lap. “You pee in there?”
“Not pee,” I said. “Something different.”
Galen put down his fork. “Does it feel good?”
“No,” Hayden interjected. “Not for the woman. The baby’s head is too big.”
“Well, that’s when the baby is coming out,” I said. “Making the baby feels nice.”
“Did you do that with Mom?” Galen asked.
“How do you think you got here?”
“Really?” Galen scrunched his eyebrows together and pursed his lips.
“Really,” I said.
The technical stuff out of the way, I hoped the boys would ask me more questions, not just about how sex worked but why it mattered — what it meant to be ready for sex, how I’d known their mother was different from all the other girls, how making a baby was an act far richer and more mysterious than simply a sperm fertilizing an egg. But Hayden squirmed in his chair and Galen stared at his bowl as though his pasta had gone bad. “Can I finish dinner now?” Galen asked. “Please?”
I picked up my fork. “Good idea.”
I had the boys in their PJs by the time their mom came home. They’d brushed their teeth and washed their faces without putting up a fuss. I’d have called it a miracle except for my worries that the talk had opened a gulf between us and none of us knew what to say next. I was ready for the night to be over.
My wife and I were leaning over to kiss Hayden goodnight when he asked, “Are you and Dad going to go have sex now?”
“What?” My wife turned and looked at me.
“You know, when Dad puts his penis in your bagina.”
“I guess this is a good time to tell you what we talked about at dinner,” I said.
“I see.” Her face said: better you than me.
“Your penis has to get stiff for it to work,” Hayden said. “Like this!” He threw back his covers to reveal his underwear, small navy blue briefs, a baseball stuffed down the front. He looked like he had elephantitis of the balls. Hayden smirked and wiggled his eyebrows. “Big penis.”
“Oh, my,” my wife said.
“Not quite like that,” I said. But he was on the right track. The Talk, I realized, wasn’t an isolated occurrence; it wasn’t a one-time thing. It was a conversation we’d have again and again. Nine-tenths of parenthood — like sex, if you think about it — is the willingness to keep trying if the first time doesn’t go so well. It’s what I’d forgotten and my students hadn’t grown up enough to see: All those awkward conversations had in common an adult who cared enough to brave the giggles and the squeals in order to talk about something that really mattered. And sex is the fire of human existence. Either someone teaches us how to handle it or we end up burned.
Hayden pulled the baseball from his underwear and set it on the shelf beside his bed. “That’s one big ball,” I said. He erupted with laughter. What was a joke now would turn serious soon enough. When the time came, I’d help him figure it out.
This article originally appeared on AskMen.
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