Ask my almost-10-year-old son, and he will vouch that my timing has always been terrible.
Take, for instance, that time I decided to read him and his younger brother, 6, a book about puberty while they were having breakfast. Flipping through It’s Perfectly Normal, Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s classic text on growing up and sexual health, I read aloud bullet points on how their bodies change as they become young men.
“Body sweats more,” I intoned seriously.
“Eww,” said the almost-10-year- old, his spoonful of Coco Pops in mid-air.
“Hair grows in the armpits,” I went on, undeterred. He rolled his eyes.
“Hair grows on chest,” I finished, triumphantly.
“Mummy!” he protested. Next to him, his younger brother’s shoulders shook with silent giggles at the idea of a hirsute chest figuring in his future. The Supportive Spouse told me to wind it up or they’d be late for school.
“Okay,” I said. “But don’t forget to ask your father any questions you’d rather not ask me.”
FACTS OF LIFE
While some may think that I am nuts for talking to my children about puberty and sex so early, I believe in preparing them ahead, in appropriate increments, for the so-called facts of life.
One wouldn’t dream of dumping six years’ worth of maths syllabus on children when they turn 11 or 12, so why wait until then to educate them about something as fundamental and important as their bodies and sexual identity?
In the old days, it was pretty straightforward. Parents either declined to speak to their kids about sexual matters entirely, leaving their offspring to seek the knowledge from friends or other, more dubious, channels; or they very unsubtly left copies of sex-ed texts around the house.
I still have my copy of Dr Nalla Tan‘s You Need To Know, with its dark pink cover. My mother gave it to me when I turned 10 and told me to read it. I did, and it was certainly useful.
These days, however, sexuality has morphed into more gnarly terrain to navigate. Online sexual predators, sexual grooming and abuse are just a few of the digital age’s threats against our children.
In 2014, then British Education Minister David Laws said that age-appropriate sex education should be taught in schools to seven-year-olds and up.
Writing shortly after to argue the case for this in The Independent in London, columnist Chloe Hamilton pointed out that sex education is as much to do with teaching children about their bodies as it is to do with foreplay and sexually-transmitted diseases: “Now, more than ever, it is important that children are taught from a young age to recognise inappropriate sexual behaviour and to beware the dangers that lurk in the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet.”
Indeed, I’m not leaving it to chance that my 6-year-old knows which parts of the body are private and what kinds of touching are inappropriate. But more than as a safety precaution, I aim to inform my kids early about human biology, so as not to make it taboo.
Your body – its strange lumps and humps, and embarrassing noises and smells – is nothing to be ashamed about, I want to tell them. It behaves the way nature intends.
In adolescence, your body leads your mind where it should know better not to go. How much less confusing it would be, if my sons have the scientific explanations for why such things are happening.
If they know that they are not the only ones having to deal with these age-old phenomena, the living organism’s valiant struggle not to fall extinct, they might be better equipped to understand themselves and others.
Hopefully, they will know that such things are, as the book puts it, “perfectly normal”.
Related: How to talk to your child about sex
WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME?
The idea is to build on discussions of sex gradually, instead of giving that one-off, awkward lecture about “the birds and the bees” to a fidgeting teen who is already tuning you out. But wait too long to broach the subject and the whole exercise might become excruciating for both parent and child.
Already, my tween son hazards a few impatient eye-rolls when I initiate conversation about things he deems uncool. In a couple of years, I think, the chance of him wanting to discuss his male bits with me would be zero.
In 2012, a Health Promotion Board-sponsored poll – of 1,169 Singapore households with children aged 10 to 17 – found that less than 50 per cent of parents actually talk to their children about sex. This, despite 80 per cent responding that it is crucial to address issues such as premarital sex and contraception.
Currently, the Ministry of Education has a Growing Years programme for Primary 5 and 6 pupils that deals with, among other things, the harmfulness of pornography, identifying healthy friendships, physical changes and coping with infatuation.
Individuals develop at a different pace and I wonder if P5 might be too late for my old soul of a 10-year-old. Better to lay the foundation of frank discussion at home, in a way that I can control and calibrate.
In contrast, Debra Hauser, president of American non-profit organisation Advocates for Youth, wrote in 2013 in The New York Times that “quality sex education should start in kindergarten”.
Similarly, Canadian non-profit paediatric healthcare website AboutKidsHealth offers a rough guide to what children should learn about sex at what age. It suggests that from ages two to five, children should be taught the very basics of human reproduction and from ages five to eight, they should continue that understanding. This may include telling them about the role of sexual intercourse.
I try, as far as possible, to explain everything clinically and accurately to my children – excising a few advanced details here and there. Admittedly, this approach can backfire.
Last year, when my six-year-old asked me where babies came from, I told him that the mother produces an egg and the father provides the sperm. The meeting of sperm and egg creates an embryo, which grows into a baby. My boy nodded, quietly absorbing the information.
The next day, displaying timing almost as bad as mine (or perhaps impeccable), he turned to me as we were walking to school and asked, in a voice loud enough to carry up several floors of the neighbouring blocks: “Does Papa have sperm now?”
I almost died.
Then again: To be curious? It’s perfectly normal.