The phrase “teachable moments” is an overused education and parenting term that’s supposed to refer to those openings that happen every day for parents to impart information and values to their kids. As a sex educator and writer who sometimes concentrates on talking to your kids about sex, I must have written this phrase a couple hundred times in the last few years but to tell the truth I don’t really like it.
Somehow it doesn’t sound authentic—like it was made up by a committee of publicists or marketers. But more importantly, it sounds formal like something that parents have to look for, recognize, and act on immediately. I prefer the idea that as parents we just have conversations with our kids and maybe in the process they learn something from us.
In the last few months, I have spent a lot of time alone with my older daughter – who at five seems newly ready to take on more complicated concepts. While my little one is still in our great daycare center which is almost never closed, the older one skipped the last session of camp and now operates on a public school schedule which includes things like half-days for teacher conferences and two days off for the Jewish holidays. So we have had a lot of mommy-Charlie days and during them a lot of really interesting conversations.
Not surprisingly, many of them had at least a little bit to do with sexuality. Here’s a sample:
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Message: You have to really know someone before you decide you love them and want to marry them.
How it started: The 112th reading of a Disney Sleeping Beauty book.
The conversation: I know I have written about my issues with the princesses before. I just hate the messages they impart. They teach that being pretty (and maybe having a good singing voice) is the most important asset and that getting married is everything. The book versions are actually a little worse than the movies, maybe just because they are so poorly written. Still, I’ve read all of them many, many times and most of those times I kept my mouth shut in an admitted effort to get through it and get the kid to sleep as fast as possible. But one day this summer as I read about how Aurora’s parents pledged her hand in marriage when she was a baby to then-four-year-old Prince Phillip, I just had to point out how ridiculous it would be if Daddy and I had already decided who she was going to marry.
A few pages later, I asked her if she thought Aurora and Phillip could really be in love after just a few minutes. My question or at least my tone was probably a little leading and Charlie picked up on what I was trying to say. “No, they don’t even know each other,” she said. “Exactly,” I answered and added that you really have to make sure you know the person well or you could end up married to someone you don’t even really like. Since she’s still in a stage where she wants to be just like me (I know, I know it will end), I also pointed out that Daddy and I had known each other for seven years before we got married. She said that sounded right. “But mommy,” she added, “I’m going to marry my sister so I already know I like her.”
Message: Shunning someone for their sexual orientation is wrong. (And, there’s nothing you could do that would make Daddy and me stop loving you.)
How it started: An episode of Chopped in which one of the chefs said that her parents hadn’t spoken to her since she came out and she was hoping they would see her compete and be proud of her.
The conversation: I almost didn’t have this one. Charlie and I watch a lot of shows made for adults like cooking shows, home makeovers, and Project Runway. They’re so much better than anything on Disney or Nick Jr. but they are not entirely age-appropriate nor are the commercials that go with them. A lot of it still goes over her head and if she doesn’t ask about it, I often say nothing but this seemed like a good opportunity.
M: “Charlie, did you hear what she just said, that her parents won’t talk to her anymore because she loves girls instead of boys?”
M: “Isn’t that terrible? It shouldn’t matter who you love.”
M: “You know that Daddy and I don’t care who you decide to love or marry, it could be a girl or a boy. And you know what else? There is nothing you could do that would make me and Daddy stop speaking to you or stop loving you. Nothing.”
C: (Exasperated) “I know that already Mommy.”
I still remember when my mother said those words to me. I was ten and the daughter of a friend of hers (an older couple who had actually introduced my parents) was about to marry an African-American man. The couple had said they would disown her if she went through with it and my mother was horrified – I’m pretty sure she hasn’t spoken to them since. Almost thirty years later, I remember that moment and the security of unconditional love and I wanted to pass that, along with a message of acceptance, to my daughter.
The message: It’s important to eat healthy and exercise.
How it started: Weight Watchers opened across the street from our favorite Mexican place.
The conversation: I have tried really hard to keep my body image issues and my weight struggles from Charlie. I never talk about feeling fat or having gained weight in front of her even on those occasions when she’s in the room when I have trouble zipping pants that should fit. And, I always talk about whether food is healthy and good for me rather than if it’s fattening. But the other day, I noticed Jennifer Hudson’s picture staring at me through the window across the street as I shoveled chips and salsa into my mouth at Cactus Charly’s. It seemed like the universe sending me a personal message so I had to investigate it further on our way out even though she was with me. When Charlie asked what the place was about, I said it was a way to eat healthier and I was thinking about joining it again. She said it was a great idea because she wants me to be healthy and she has asked me a bunch of times in the weeks since if I’ve joined yet. (Tomorrow, I swear.)
The message: It’s more important to be smart than pretty.
How it started: A picture of a Toddlers in Tiaras star on a magazine cover.
The conversation: A few months ago a really interesting Huffington Post article made the rounds of my Facebook friends. In it the author, Lisa Bloom, argues that we have to change the way we talk to little girls so that we are far less focused on how they look. She writes about meeting a friend’s daughter and having to fight the urge to compliment her on her appearance, instead asking her what she was reading. She argues: “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23.”
I really took this to heart because Charlie gets a lot of comments on her looks. She’s a pretty kid who likes to wear funky outfits (today’s includes a plaid skirt over flowered leggings) and has a head of bright blond curly hair that gets bigger as we get further away from our weekly de-tangling ritual. Like Bloom warns, every time we go out someone mentions her hair and tells her how pretty it is but no one ever bothers to tell her she’s smart (in fairness how would the lady behind us in the checkout line know that). My husband adopted a policy when she was under two of never saying pretty without saying smart but I’m not that careful, I call her beautiful all the time.
So when she saw the ridiculously made-up and overly sparkly four-year-old on the cover of People Magazine, I saw it as an opportunity. She asked why she was wearing that dress and make-up, and I explained the concept of a beauty pageant. I said flat out that I thought beauty pageants were a stupid idea because all they do is judge girls on how pretty they are. “What’s more important than being pretty?” I asked, in another leading question. “Being smart,” she answered without missing a beat. I guess our indoctrination is working.
The message: Girls can do anything boys can do.
How it started: An episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in which a older man initially refuses to teach the art of water-bending to a girl.
The Conversation: When I was growing up my father, a philosopher by training, had a consulting firm that specialized in corporate ethics. One of the papers they were hired to write was about comparable worth. For months during it there was this cartoon on our refrigerator in which a boy and a girl were both looking into each other’s diapers. The caption read: “Oh, so that’s why I make so much less than you.” This idea that women were equal to men was early dinner table conversation in our house and I wanted to make sure that Charlie felt it too (especially in light of the recent J.C. Penney tee-shirts that said differently).
We’ve watched the Nickelodeon television series, Avatar, at least three times from start to finish. It’s a great show and one of the things we like about it is that girls are portrayed as just as talented and strong as the boys. So it was pretty easy to be indignant when Master Paku said girls couldn’t be trained as water-benders (think of it like a form of martial arts that uses the water around you). We just pointed out how silly that was and how Kitara was clearly one of the best water-benders around and Charlie agreed. Then we asked if there was anything that a boy could do that she couldn’t do and she couldn’t think of any. Message received.
The Message: There are ways to not get pregnant if you don’t want a baby.
How it started: A woman at a restaurant told us she had five kids at home.
The Conversation: So this is the big one. The conversation many parents dread having. The one in which you really have to talk about sex including the part about intercourse. This isn’t the first conversation we’ve had about where babies come from; we had a lot of those when I was pregnant with her little sister. We covered sperm and eggs and the role of uteruses, and we even talked a little bit about how the sperm get in there. (I think I’ve written about this before but I confess that the first time I mentioned that the penis goes into the vagina, I giggled.) This one was more detailed though.
Forgive me if I get the sequence or specifics of this conversation wrong but we covered a lot of ground as we were walking to the car and driving home from town, and I’m not sure exactly what we said but here is a good paraphrase:
C: She had five babies?
C: That’s too many.
M: Yeah, I agree.
C: You promised you wouldn’t have any more babies.
M: That’s true; I’m not going to have any more babies.
C: Mommy, does that mean that she had five eggs?
M: She probably had more than that. Most women have lots and lots of eggs but only some of them get used to make a baby.
C: How come not all of them?
M: Well there are ways that you can make sure you don’t get pregnant if don’t want more babies.
C: Like what?
M: Oh there’s just different things you can do.
C: Tell me.
M: Okay. You remember what I said about how a sperm from the daddy and an egg from the mommy make a baby? (Pause for her nod.) And how grown-ups have sex so that the sperm gets into the mommy?
M: If you don’t want to get pregnant, you can just not have sex or you can take a kind of medicine that means you don’t get pregnant, or you can use something called a condom which goes on a man’s penis and keeps the sperm away from the egg.
C: What does it look like?
M: Kind of like a balloon before you blow it up.
C: And it goes on a man’s penis?
C: And the penis goes in the vagina?
C: Does it feel icky?
M: No. Some grown-ups actually think it feels good but it’s only something that grown-ups do.
C: I know that. I’m not going to do that until I’m 29.
M: Sounds good. (I didn’t bother saying that I guessed it would be closer to 17 than 29.)
Don’t get the wrong idea; we don’t only talk about sex. During our Mommy-Charlie days I also explained more about religion and why we weren’t really celebrating Rosh Hashanah, pleaded with her never to start smoking, and tried to explain how flu shots work.
I’m not sharing these stories because I think I handled them exactly right or because these are the exact messages I think everyone should give to their kids. I’m sharing them because as Charlie grows up and becomes one of my favorite people to talk to, I’m realizing just how many natural opportunities I have to shape what she knows and her opinions of the world.
While I refuse to refer to these as teachable moments, I think they’re pretty damn cool and I hope other parents are taking advantage of similar opportunities.