Imagine this scene. The kids have gone to bed, and Mommy and Daddy are having a little ‘adult’ time on the living room sofa. You’re both buck naked, and Daddy is kneeling on the floor with his head in his wife’s – lap, shall we say – practicing his Latin. Suddenly she gasps, not the kind of gasp that tells him he’s doing things right, the kind of gasp that is followed by “What are you doing out of bed?” You look up to see your 6 year-old son standing not three feet away, staring at you. I’m not sure if the blood drains from Daddy’s face, but I’m quite certain it drains instantly from another part of his anatomy.
I, unfortunately, don’t have to imagine this scenario – I can just remember it. Which isn’t hard, since it was just last week. So there’s a moment of indecision, a split-second contemplation of the immediate course of action as your son stares and your Wee Willie Wonka rapidly deflates. What do you do?
Until well into the 19th century, children were regarded more or less as miniature adults. It was the Victorians who ushered in our modern romantic notion of childhood (while, ironically, also ushering in the relatively short-lived but devastating era of child labor), and many of our current attitudes stem from that time. People lived as extended families often in cramped quarters, and kids were frequently exposed to bawdy language, drunkenness, sexual shenanigans – all the mischief that adults get up to. This was considered natural and normal. In many cultures, children are still brought up with intimate access to the adult world, and certainly don’t seem scarred because of it. But for Americans, who seem bent on shielding kids from, well, everything, it’s a different issue.
Many people find it inappropriate for their young children to see them naked. We don’t belong to that camp. I bathed every night with our older son until he was about three, and both my wife and I towel off after a shower or get dressed with the boys in the room. One of my two year old’s occasional games is to tweak the end of my penis, which, I admit, makes me mildly uncomfortable (not to mention the fact that it is mildly painful), but I don’t stop him because I really don’t see the harm (except, of course, to the end of my penis). We certainly don’t want them to grow up with a sense of shame about their bodies, but we’re not on any kind of crusade, either. It’s just that we don’t make a big deal of it. We answer their questions honestly, and don’t use twee euphemisms – a penis not a wee-wee or a tiddly-twink or a winkle, it’s a penis; a vagina is just that, not Mommy’s fluffy, or who-who, or coochie or whatever. Penis and vagina are the correct terms for parts of the body. No one feels obliged to call the index finger the pointy-wointy, after all, even though fingers pick noses and wipe bums and pull triggers and get up to all sorts of dodge.
Of course, a lot of this devil-may-care full-frontal nudity depends on the child’s age. Will we stop letting it all hang out when the kids get older? Probably. But primarily because we don’t want to embarrass them or make them uncomfortable, not because it’s ‘traumatizing’ or in any way immoral.
When my son was three he asked me, and I quote, “Daddy, how do humans mate?” (He’s into nature documentaries, hence the term ‘mate’.) Well, I did what any responsible parent would do: I dimmed the lights, put a soft pornosonic groove from the ‘70s on the stereo, and began, “Well son, there are a lot of ways people can…” No, of course not. I gave some vague, nebulous answer like, “Well, you’ve seen how animals mate, right? It’s like that.” It’s not that I was embarrassed to tell him, it’s just that I didn’t know exactly how to put it into terms that a three year-old could grasp. I needed some lead time. I hadn’t expected the question so soon. It had come out of the blue, while we were on the terrace picking cherry tomatoes, for goodness sake. How do you segue from cherry tomatoes to human sexuality and reproduction?
Well, that was three years ago, and now our son is standing in front of us and we’ve been caught in flagrante delicto. Although wait, that isn’t quite right. That term is for criminals caught in the act of committing an offense. Sex with your spouse is no offense; it is, in fact, a sign of a healthy, happy relationship. Moreover, we weren’t exactly humping away like lunatic gibbons, there were no power tools involved, no handcuffs, latex or leather. Daddy was just giving Mommy a special kiss. Down there. To her fluffy.
So what do you do? What I did was get up, ask my son gently what was wrong, and on being told that he couldn’t sleep, giving him a glass of water and putting him back to bed. What I didn’t do was freak out, act like he’d seen something shameful, or get in the least bit angry. He’s six, so probably had little notion of what was actually going on, but I was ready to answer any questions he may have had. But I didn’t prod or force the issue, and he didn’t ask.
I think it’s wonderful if children see their parents kissing and being affectionate with each other (although less wonderful if they see them actually doing squat jumps in the cucumber patch), since it gives them a sense of security and teaches them to be loving and affectionate themselves. Although I believe the days of thinking that it is going to somehow traumatize them are pretty much over, you still just really don’t want your kids to see you having sex. But it happens. How they’re going to react to it is directly correlative to how you do so. Remain calm, and don’t, needless to say, get angry at them. If they want to talk about it, then you should, honestly but not graphically, and of course age-appropriately. If they are too young to understand it or just want to let it lie, then leave it alone.
So in the end he went back to bed and we went to our own bedroom, gave each other that rueful, Oh man! kind of look, giggled a bit, and got back to business. After locking the door.
Been busted by your kids doing the horizontal bop? Please share – we love stories of other folks’ marital mischief and mayhem.