When my son was 4 years old, he asked how babies were made. I told him that “sperm,” which comes from a man, and “an egg” inside a woman come together to make a new life: a baby. When he asked how the baby got out, I told him that usually the baby came through the vagina, but in his case—I pointed to my scar—it was a surgery. These initial conversations left me with the sense that talking to a child about sex is easy. So it caught me off guard when a couple of years later he was ready for an information upgrade as I was trying to navigate rush-hour traffic. He asked from the back seat, “How do the sperm and egg meet, like, where?”
When talking to my 6-year-old about sex I wanted to be age-appropriate, but what is age-appropriate? I wanted to be honest, but not to freak him out. And what is socially acceptable? If I did tell my son the how and the where, fine, but I did not want him running all over kindergarten explaining penetration to the other children. This is not, after all, the Netherlands.
One classic approach for teaching children about sex is “the talk,” a one-time, awkward mini-lecture about sex, staged in a private space like the child’s bedroom. This staging might be an effort to create an appropriate setting but may inadvertently suggest that this subject is tinged with shame, as might the parent’s discomfort. Another classic way to approach the subject of sex is with a book. But the children’s books about sex I found were coy, evasive, and often ugly. Many did not even actually answer my son’s question (how, where) but used creepy metaphors or euphemisms. (In What Makes a Baby, the egg and sperm “swirl together in a special kind of dance.”) If only there were a sex-ed equivalent of Everybody Poops by Taro Gomi, a good-looking picture book that would explain sex in the same matter-of-fact tone we use to explain that food becomes poop and that all animals do it.
Animals! I thought.
Isn’t this the way kids on farms have learned about sex all along? Couldn’t I explain sexual reproduction, including the fact of penetration, not in human nature but in nature nature? By addressing the mechanics of sex using animals as the objects, I could plant the conversation in the realm of science and zoological facts. Animals do this and, oh yeah, people too.
Birds and bees, and also hedgehogs and humans.
I drew some pictures of animals mating, an unforeseen application of my MFA in painting. While my son was at school, I Googled “animals mating.” The animal kingdom is really humpy. While there was nothing wrong with a few humping animals, I was cautious about being position-specific. I Googled “animals mating missionary style.” Curious about the term missionary style, I found that according to Wikipedia, “the French refer to it as the ‘classical’ position. Tuscans refer to the position as the Angelic position while some Arabic-speaking groups call it the manner of serpents.” I drew serpents, seahorses, snails, and primates face to face. Turtles were good because the female partner did not seem to be getting squished. In the end, I used a mix of video and images as sources for the drawings, not wanting to copy directly. Meanwhile, I wondered if the algorithms were just going to conclude that I had a cross-species fetish.
They were simple line drawings in ink, resembling the deadpan illustrations in old-timey dictionaries, not too graphic, not cute, but straightforward. I wanted the tone of the pictures to help establish the tone of our talk. Turtles, lovebugs, bears, seahorses.
I left the drawings on the coffee table in the living room. When my son came home from school, he immediately noticed them. Looking with mild curiosity, he asked, “Did you draw these?” “Yes.” I said. “I’m making some drawings about reproduction. Do you know what that is?” He shook his head. “It’s how animals make babies. The female has an egg inside of her, and the male has something called ‘sperm’ inside of him. Sperm goes through the male’s penis into the female’s vagina to join the egg. That’s called fertilization. And from fertilization, a baby grows.” There was a pause as he examined the drawings more closely. “You mean their parts touch?” “Yes, exactly,” I said. “I’m glad people don’t do that,” he said, and looked at me in a way that suggested he already suspected what I was about to say. “Humans, like most animals, do this, but only adult animals reproduce. You already know about instincts. When animals get older, instincts tell them more about how reproduction works.” Pause. “Oh. OK.” he said, and he went off to play. The earth is round. Trees are alive. And reproduction is a thing. Done.
But not really. And that was the best part. My son believed he had started the conversation, and so he would pick it up again when he needed it. After that, when he saw two snails joined on our steps or two turtles stacked in the park, he casually said, “They’re mating.”
Human sexuality is complicated by issues of sexual ethics, sexual politics, sexual health, and more. I am not advising we avoid talking about the complexities of human sexuality forever. But early questions like my son’s are usually about the mechanics of sex. If you answer these questions in a way that is honest, open, and comfortable, the conversation will continue.
Animals offer a familiar and neutral focal point. You need not impose on a child the disturbing image of his parents engaged in sex by saying, “When your dad and I … ” You need not cause anxiety in the child by saying, “When you grow up … ” Finally, if you are speaking about animals, you will avoid the pitfalls of saying things like “When a couple wants to have a baby … ” or “When a man and a woman are in love … ” or “When two people are married … ” Not every conception, after all, is the decision of a married man and woman who want to have a baby.
My son is now 10. We have talked about how not all sex is procreative. We have talked about same-sex attraction, love, what being transgender means, and teenage pregnancy. We have touched on the thorny topics of consent, harassment, and how some jokes are not funny. When he asks a particularly difficult question, I go back to those drawings, to nature, and then trace our way toward humans. Beginning with animals helps ground the conversation in our shared knowledge and keep the tone frank. For example, when my son asked if a teenager could have a baby, I explained that though a teenager’s body may be ready to reproduce, a teenager in our culture and moment is not mentally or economically ready to be a parent. While animals operate solely on instinct, humans make decisions based on their values—respect for others, respect for ourselves, being responsible, and seeking meaningful connections with other people—and those values need time to develop.
When I left those drawings out for my son to find, I wanted to answer his question about how and where the egg gets fertilized. In fact, I unintentionally answered a more important but unspoken question. “Can we talk about this?” Absolutely.