I was in fourth grade when my mother sat me down to explain the birds and the bees after I had just asked her why the hot-water bottle hanging in the closet had a long tube running from the fat part. I’m nearly positive all of my friends growing up in our working-class suburb just outside Detroit picked up the information—albeit, in crude and highly distorted form—from other kids on the playground instead of their parents.
My mom was cool like that. For instance, she never hid her books about sex, keeping them right there on the family bookshelves with the rest of the titles. In elementary school, my young-boy curiosity often led me to them when my parents weren’t around. Her soft-covered, sex-ed texts from the 1950s terrified me, with their graphic, mug-shot-like photos of people falling apart with syphilis or gonorrhea (if I touched my own pee pee would I get it too?). On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Sensuous Man (and, wanting to know the female perspective, The Sensuous Woman), filed just inches from my Hardy Boys collection. By sixth grade I was practicing some of the sex exercises I had learned in the books, including quickly turning a grape in a shot glass with my tongue (I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks on that one).
Was it too early to learn about “the facts of life,” as they were frequently called then? Looking back, I can’t say I was harmed in any way. Actually, I loved having the inside scoop at the time, feeling smug with the awareness—so I assumed—that I knew more about penises and vaginas than Ben, Brion, Larry, and the rest of my classmates.
Today, I’m a father of a second-grader. Until recently my wife Tricia and I had never overtly broached the topic of sexual intercourse with our son. And if he initiated a discussion about where babies come from, we would supply a euphemistic response such as, “Well, mamas and papas have a special hug that creates the baby seed in the mom’s tummy.” Needless to say, he became very interested in knowing what kind of magical hug that was.
Then a few months ago we thought it would be a good idea to provide Aron with some type of moral training by regularly attending a church we had discovered about 100 blocks away from our Manhattan apartment. (After all, the kid never listens to us when we bore him with lessons about love, forgiveness, and so on.) The congregation is exceedingly liberal—no Santa Claus in the sky, no evil monster below waiting to torture us for eternity for cheating on our taxes—and celebrates life in all its diversity (yes, that means—God forbid!—the GLBT community is thoroughly embraced).
One of the children’s classes it offers is age-appropriate sex education. In the last few weeks, Aron and his classmates have learned about the body, “good” touching and “bad” touching, gender fluidity, different kinds of families (involving single-parent, adoptive parents, gay and lesbian parents, and other configurations) and, yep, sexual intercourse. He now knows a mom doesn’t carry a baby around in her tummy but in her uterus, something I probably didn’t recognize until I was in college.
To reinforce the material and to ensure mothers and fathers are at the center of the process, each week the leader gives parents an assignment to go over with their children. After one Sunday session, I dutifully went online and ordered a copy of Robbie H. Harris’s It’s Not the Stork. Over the course of several nights, right before his bedtime, Aron and I explored the book’s vividly illustrated chapters. Rather than feeling awkward as I read to my son about the urethra and fallopian tubes, and glanced at pictures of a girl looking at her anus in the mirror and a pair of testicles that resemble grapes, I found myself swept up in the sheer joy of sharing with Aron nothing less than the mystery of life. What’s to hide? Turns out, he had already internalized much more than I realized.
“This is the difference between a circumcised penis and an un-circumcised one,” I pointed out in a picture.
“I already know that, papa,” he declared. “The circumcised one has a cap.”
When we got to the bedroom scene, any apprehension I had been feeling simply faded away. Here was a middle-aged, possibly chubby, cartoon guy with a receding hairline lying beneath his cartoon wife wearing a goofy grin, under a moon-and-stars patterned cartoon blanket, with a sprinkling of red cartoon hearts hovering above the bed. The innocuous display made me think of what Fred and Wilma might have looked like when they were making Pebbles.
“So that’s how it happens,” I said. “The man’s penis goes into the woman’s vagina and then one lucky sperm hopes it will find her egg.”
His eyes gleamed and his jaw dropped in amazement.
“But you don’t do this sort of thing until you’re a lot older,” I added, trying to break the spell.
“I’ll say,” he replied. “There’s no way I want to do that now.”
A few days after finishing the book, during his spring break, he and Tricia headed to the Philippines to visit his grandma and grandpa (lola and lolo, in Tagalog), his three aunts (titas), and his cousins (he calls them ate—pronounced “ah-teh”—for “big sister”). Tricia brought along a few copies of the stork book to pass out to her friends with young children, evoking a bit of a stir in a culture steeped in Catholicism and traditional values along the way.
“I’m not ready for that,” her friend Candy noted. No matter. Her precocious and very bright eight-year-old daughter soon discovered the book behind her mom’s back and read it anyway.
“You lied to me, mama,” she said, approaching her mother after completing the last page. “You said babies come from God.”
“Well . . .” Candy groped. “Babies do come from God. It’s just that he gives parents the things they need to finish the job.”
Tricia told me when she arrived home that, throughout the trip, Aron kept bringing up private body parts and how babies are made to show off his knowledge. I smiled as I remembered how I had felt after secretly devouring The Sensuous Man and The Sensuous Woman as a child. Like father, like son, I guess.
 Name changed to protect privacy