My oldest son is now 21, and we have many funny stories about his childhood. If he makes the mistake of letting me speak at his wedding someday, he will probably regret that decision. No story is better than the one about his 5th grade parent-teacher conference.
I am a bit of a worrier, by nature, and I always took these conferences very seriously – more seriously than I probably should have. I wanted to make a good impression on his teacher. I would arrive on time, dressed nicely, a notepad and pen at the ready. I would listen attentively, taking notes as the teacher talked about his handwriting, his interaction with peers, and his ability to follow directions.
We had adopted our son about a year and a half earlier. As two gay men very new to the parenting thing, we were self-conscious about being good-enough parents. We were the token gay dads at this particular elementary school in the Denver suburbs, and in 2002 we felt immense pressure to show our competence. We worried constantly about being judged. We worried that Isaiah would be bullied for having two dads. We worried about not dressing him too stylishly, lest we reinforce silly stereotypes. We worried about everything.
But, nothing had prepared me for this parent teacher conference.
My partner and I sat there, listening to the teacher and aide describe Isaiah’s aptitude scores and his classroom habits. He was the best reader in the class. He avoided math (no surprise there). He was taking shortcuts like most boys his age, and he needed to take more pride in his homework. He was charming, and everyone liked him. He was a pleasure to have in class.
He was OK. We were OK. The gay dads were not ruining this child. What a relief!
Then came this. “There is one more thing we feel we need to talk to you about, and it’s a little awkward,” the teacher said.
Immediately, my partner gave me a panicked look.
“The other day at recess, we found Isaiah in a corner of the playground with a group of girls gathered around him,” the teacher said.
At the time, I was a speaker on the college circuit speaking about safer sex and HIV prevention. Every night, I stood up in front of thousands of students talking about oral sex, bodily fluids and the difficulty of walking across a bedroom with an erection to fetch a condom.
We had decided early on that we would be very open and affirming about sexuality in our home. There was no way I could, professionally, be an open book about sexuality and then be shy about it at home. We talked to our son very openly about bodies, puberty, the nature of sex, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and more. We told him that sex was something adults did for both procreation and pleasure, and that it was something he would do as an adult with other men, women, or both.
We weren’t super hippie about it. We didn’t have a shelf of sexuality books for him to peruse. We didn’t walk around naked in our house. We just wanted to be open about sexuality, hoping he would develop a healthy attitude about it. We thought that it might make him less susceptible to the shaming he might receive as the son of gay men. We also hoped that by demystifying sex, he might not spend his teenage years taking risks in the name of exploration.
He always responded well to the frequent conversations. He asked good questions, and he never seemed embarrassed. We always took a very casual, matter-of-fact tone with him during these conversations – just three dudes talking about sex.
But a group of young girls gathered around our son on the playground spelled trouble, and we had not planned for this consequence. Maybe we had been too open?
A week or so prior, we talked to our son about the importance of cleaning your genitals thoroughly in the shower, and the topic of circumcision had come up. We had shown him pictures of both circumcised and uncircumcised penises (thank you, Google Images!), and helped him understand his own equipment. As I sat in this 5th grade classroom – the teacher wearing a look of concern – I worried that he had been repeating this anatomy lesson to a group of girls on the playground, complete with a personal demonstration.
“It’s not bad,” the teacher said. “It was just…” she paused. “Odd.”
Turns out, my son had been explaining menstruation to the girls – describing that when puberty hit, they would start bleeding once a month from their vaginas as their bodies shed eggs. They would need to talk to their moms or the school nurse about what to do the first time it happened, and that it involved things called pads and tampons. They shouldn’t worry or be scared, because this it is natural and wouldn’t hurt.
He had gone on to tell them that boys didn’t have to worry about this because they didn’t have eggs. “Boys have sperms.” The girls thought this was very unfair, but Isaiah had told them that it was fair because girls didn’t have to worry about erections. It was here that the aide stepped in and asked the children to go find something else to do.
Somewhere in our many conversations about sex and how his body would be changing, we had explained what happens to girls. We didn’t expect him to care much about that. He had a complete aversion to girls at that age, like most boys. I didn’t even remember the details of the conversation, and I’m sure that with my extremely limited knowledge of the subject, I had been quite vague.
But, here was our son, giving playground lectures. Isaiah wanted to share his knowledge about periods, and apparently the girls were interested in hearing about boners.
My partner and I started laughing. The kind of laughing when you know you shouldn’t be laughing. Thankfully, the teacher and the aide started smiling, and then they chuckled, too. I could only imagine the conversations in the teacher’s lounge that day. “That kid with the gay dads is giving sex education lessons at recess.” Then, I asked the big question.
“Did he get it right?”
From the short amount she had overheard, the aide said, he had done a pretty good job.
They were concerned that our son should not be giving unauthorized lessons about human sexuality on the playground. There had been no shaming. They hadn’t chastised him, and they couldn’t say he had done anything wrong, per se. However, they wanted to avoid complaints from other parents, and they wanted us to talk to our son about the appropriate time and place for these discussions.
I guess we were supposed to be mortified, but we felt pretty proud. Do you remember playground or locker room lessons about sex from your classmates? How much did they get right? Don’t you wish those kids had parents who were sex educators? Think of how much less frightening the idea of sex might have been, if so.
We went home that evening, and in an act of defiance, we “forgot” to mention it to our son. If there were complaints, we would take responsibility for anything he got wrong. We would mark it up to pre-pubescent curiosity. We would be proud of the fact that we discussed these issues openly with our son. Most of all, by “forgetting” to mention it to him, we didn’t send any mixed messages that might make him feel ashamed.
Kids are going to talk about sex. That was unavoidable. We would just continue to make sure our son was getting the right information.
In high school, his male friends learned that our house was a safe place to have the honest discussions about sex their parents wouldn’t have. We never heard about any more menstruation lectures, but his girlfriends would later report that Isaiah is a “good guy.” We hope that goodness, openness, respect and comfort translate into his intimate relationships.
Our son did not grow up to be a gynecologist. That would have been a terrific ending to this story. Instead, he slings packages for a parcel delivery company. Most importantly, he turned out pretty well for a devout heterosexual raised by a couple of worried gay guys.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Thomas Leth-Olsen