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Part of the 2010 Blogathon to help support Scarleteen. This entry is courtesy of Tess at Urban Gypsy.
If I earned a dollar each time I’ve heard the statement, “I’m surprised you’re so strict,” in relation to my parenting, I’d be basking on a beach in Tahiti now rather than on a Metro North train whisking me off to do a sex ed consult on the Lower East Side. I’d probably be doing sex ed consults in Tahiti; you can take me out of NY but you can’t kill my desire to help people learn more about their sexuality. But back on point, I can always hear the implied, “you with your pierced nose, tattoo, open marriage and non-stop sex talk.”
The funny thing is, my friends may have been surprised but my daughter was not. When her thirteen-year-old best friend got her belly button pierced, there was, of course there was, some whining.
“But why can’t I,” she implored. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
In parenting style reminiscent of the worst of my own parents, I snapped, “You can’t because I SAID SO.”
To her credit, she stopped whining but it made me question myself and the answer was that she deserved a real answer. First, I needed to understand just why it was something I deemed inappropriate at her age and the old “it’ll get infected” wasn’t cutting it. Spending the evening examining the issue allowed me to come back to her the next day with a more well thought out answer, delivered in much less of a shriek.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you yesterday and I think you deserve a better answer to why I don’t want you to pierce your belly button yet,” I began. “The thing is when you pierce your belly button, you sexualize your body, whether or not that is your intention. It’s sort of like having an arrow painted on your belly that leads to your crotch. And it invites a sexual attention that at thirteen you’re not ready to handle.”
She didn’t say much, just nodded her head, taking it all in, and I imagine trying to form defenses in her mind, and finding none, she was content to let it go. She’s nearly sixteen now and it seems to have lost the allure it once had since she hasn’t brought it up again.
This discussion, and most of our subsequent ones, took place in the car. It’s the perfect place to get your child’s nearly undivided (cell phones and radios just won’t go away) attention and hold them captive for a short (or long) time. And on one of those long drives, returning from Pennsylvania, we had a talk about relationships. The mom of the pierce-bellied friend had heard her daughter mention open marriage and was freaking out as to where her angel could have heard such a term. Knowing Jenny Block’s Open and Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up reside in my bedroom, I had a good idea where that might have come from.
Personally, I don’t think a fourteen year old needs to know her mom and dad sleep with other people, but I don’t think it’s harmful, in fact I think it’s beneficial for her to know that there are other types of relationships and as long as the parties involved are happy, it’s no one else’s business what the terms of their relationship are. In a nutshell, I told her that her dad and I don’t have the same relationship many married couples have, but that we love each other and while we aren’t always happy with the way our marriage is, we are committed to each other and to her and work hard to make it better. Again, she’s an accepting kind of child when things are explained to her in a non-condescending way. And she hasn’t ever brought it up again.
Time passes, I wait for teaching moments, and after she had been dating her boyfriend for about six months, I knew the time for the talk had come. Now, at fifteen, with a steady boyfriend, and one who buys her pricey jewelry at that, the question wasn’t will they have sex but when will they have sex.
After a few months of her dating him, I had told her I didn’t think she was ready for sex but that also didn’t sit very well with me. A talk with a very wise woman, a sex therapist herself, clarified where I had gone wrong.
“You made a judgment call by telling her you don’t think she’s ready,” she said. “So if she wanted to do it, it’s already more difficult for her to talk to you knowing you don’t think she’s ready. And really, how would you know if she’s ready or not? She’s the only person who can make that call.”
Contrite once again, I approached her. “Awhile ago, I told you I didn’t think you were ready for sex, and I realize that I was wrong. You’re the only person who should decide that. I don’t know if you’ve had sex or not, if you ever want to talk to me about it, I’m here to listen, but I do know that if you haven’t yet, you will soon, and my concern is about how you want to protect yourself.”
“Well,” she said, “Tina is on the pill and it really cleared up her skin, so I think I’d like to do that.”
“Okay, I’ll make you an appointment with the doctor as long as you promise that even on the pill you will use condoms. I always have condoms in my nightstand and you can just take them anytime if needed.”
I may be a strict parent in some senses, but I am a realistic parent. I know all the wishing and denying in the world isn't going to kill the budding sexuality of a teenager and I'd rather deal with it openly and honestly. The things I've heard other parents say make my head hurt. "My daughter is afraid of me," intones one delusional father,"so I know she won't do that," springs immediately to mind. Just seeing my daughter roll her eyes and snicker when I ask if she thinks that is actually preventing this girl from engaging in sexual exploration is enough for me.
I know I've got it right. Arming our children with knowledge is the best way, the only way, to help them make good choices and better decisions.