As a sex educator and the mom of a six-year-old boy, I do my best to practice what I preach. What I preach is comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education starting at birth. Of course, as my child grows, so is my firsthand knowledge about what those words actually mean.
Case in point: Before I had my son, I would have said that a six-year-old doesn’t need to know about condoms. Now, although I still believe that it’s much more important for a pre-teen or teen to learn about condoms, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling a younger child in an age-appropriate way.
Here's how it happened in our house. One day I was getting ready to teach a sex education workshop, and I had some condoms in colorful wrappers on sticks that looked like lollipops. They sure looked like candy, so my son was drawn to them and wanted to know what they were. I hesitated for a moment, thinking of course this isn't something he needs to know at this point. But the last thing I want to do as a parent is lie to him about sex - or about anything important for that matter.
"These are condoms," I said. "People use them when they want to have sex and not make a baby."
That answer satisfied his curiosity. He already knew how a penis and a vagina can make a baby, so I didn’t have to explain that part.
Later, he asked for more specifics.
"How does it keep from making a baby?" he wanted to know.
"The condom goes on the penis and then the sperm get blocked and stuck in the condom and can’t swim in the vagina," I told him.
And again, he was satisfied with that simple, yet truthful, answer.
A couple of months later, I was staffing a table at our local LGBT pride event. We had some condoms on our table, along with some snacks and gifts to give out. My son was with me and I had put him in charge of giving snacks out to any kids who came by. Then, I heard him talking to a boy who looked a bit older than him.
"These are condoms," he was saying. "You use them when you don’t want to make a baby."
The older boy was playing it cool.
"I knew that," he said. Although I wasn’t so sure he did. I started to wonder about the possible consequences of being so open with my child about things that other parents might not want their kids to know about quite yet - if at all.
On the other hand, there was a part of me that was proud of my child. There he was, giving his first sex ed lesson! Still, I wondered what might happen if that kid wandered back over to his parents and told them he knew what condoms were for. Maybe they weren’t ready for him to know that. Even at an LGBT event I couldn’t assume we all shared the same values when it comes to sex education for our kids.
As a sex educator who works with parents, I acknowledge the importance of personal beliefs and values about sex and sexuality. I feel strongly about raising my child in a sex positive environment and providing him with all of the knowledge he needs to have a healthy and pleasurable sex life some day. I want him to know everything he needs to feel good about his body and his sexuality throughout his life. Even so, I have to remember that there are parents who feel just as strongly about teaching different values to their own kids.
I don’t ever regret giving my own son a truthful answer to his questions about condoms though. What’s the alternative? Leaving him ignorant? I'm just not willing to go there. There's virtually no other area in life where parents prefer that their children remain ignorant (or "innocent" as some might put it). We want our children to be smart, knowledgeable and prepared for life - except, it seems, when it comes to sex. Many people see withholding knowledge here as a form of protection. The reality is that comprehensive sex education is the best way we can protect our kids from sexual abuse, humiliation, and unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationships in their future.
What I’ve learned from my son is that age appropriate sex ed is not just about what subjects to cover at different ages, but about how we cover those subjects. I didn't use a banana to show him how to put on a condom, or how to pinch the reservoir tip. I didn't show him how to remove and dispose of one. I just answered a simple question. Because knowing that one of the purposes of a condom is to prevent unwanted pregnancy will serve him well when he is older and ready for more advanced condom education. When the time comes, it won’t be such a big deal. Our conversations will simply evolve as he does. (Check out another mom's awesome - but awkward - sex talk here.)