“Mom, what’s porn?”
It’s hard not to flinch with your fourth grader comes home with a new word like that one. I felt like he’d poked me with a sharp stick. In the heart.
I’ve always had an open door policy with regard to any questions – vocabulary or mechanics – of this kind. But he must have sensed my inner flinching, because he apologized immediately. “Sorry, Mom. I just heard it from some of the kids at school, and I wondered what it was.”
“Don’t be sorry, buddy. Whenever you hear a word you’re curious about, I’m happy to talk about it with you. I want you to know from a credible source what the words actually mean. So let’s talk about it.”
I told him there are two big categories for sex: there’s the beautiful kind, and there’s the ugly kind. There’s a kind that’s loving and honoring to women and their bodies, and there’s a kind that’s horrible and ugly and disrespectful to women and their bodies. I told him that porn is pictures and videos of the kind of sex that is ugly and disrespectful and dishonoring to the people involved.
(It’s hard to know how much to say about such things.)
On the second day, he came home with another new word. “Mom, what’s a perv? Pervert, I think? What is that?”
First of all, because I said I would answer, a pervert is an ugly word for somebody who likes and enjoys that ugly kind of sex that we talked about yesterday. But secondly, and so casually so I don’t scare away your honesty, by the way, who are these deviants who are walking home from school with you? Let’s get to the bottom of this situation, stat. I’m about to show up with my teacher voice.
Third Day: “Mom, what’s rape? Am I a rapist?”
Okay, stop right there. This word makes all of this a whole new ball game. I asked him to tell me where he heard this one. I needed context. After much conversation, including guaranteed immunity for knowing the words and the sources, I found out that, “Well, I was walking home with Cleveland and Houston and Ulysses, and Cleveland said he raped Houston’s mom.”
(Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but since much of this generation is named after a president or a city, these are relatively believable pseudonyms.)
I impressed myself with the even tone of my voice, the serious degree of calm. I said, “I’m so glad you told me, buddy, and you’re definitely not in trouble. I need to talk with Peter about this, because this is definitely a dad thing.”
(Translation: Alleged rapists in the fourth grade is above my pay grade. I’m gonna’ need to call in the big guns for this dialogue.)
I calmly walked into Peter’s office, gently closed the door, and then promptly lost my crap.
What is happening? What just happened?! Who is influencing my children? Who are the deviants walking them home from school, and is it too late to redeem my children from this path of degradation? Porn? Perverts? Rape?! I can’t. I can’t handle this in their vocabulary, in their minds, in my home. Peter, save us.
There was great gesticulating and wild gesturing. And then there was Peter’s deep breath, the calming presence before the outpouring of wisdom. He brought us all together for a family meeting. And he took everyone very, very seriously, perhaps in part to show that he grasped the magnitude, and also because this approach is hands-down the absolutely guaranteed path to my children’s hearts. Please, they beg with their little listening faces, take us seriously.
“And there are some new words, I hear?”
“I see. I have a few questions. First, I need to know, are there very many children having sex at your school?”
At which point I laughed out loud. So much for my plan to take this—and everything about this and everyone involved in this—seriously. The truth is, we can’t underestimate how young this exploration is happening. And we need to give voice to it, so they can tell us about it when it happens. But still. The way he said it, the whole question of “very many.”
My children were appalled by the idea. There was a flash of horror across their eyes, because sex is (quite thankfully) all things gross to them in this life stage, but then they get their expressions together.
“No, that is not happening.”
“Good. I’m very relieved to hear this. The next question is, are there very many children forcing other children to have sex with them at your school?”
(Again, I was laughing at the audacity of it. Because I can only keep it together in a handful of parenting situations, apparently.)
“No, this isn’t happening.” “Good. This is good to hear. Because I really would want to know if this is happening at your school.”
“No, it’s not. I promise.”
“Good. And finally, are there very many children forcing each other’s moms to have sex?”
You guys, it was the end of me. I was just picturing myself in the presence of these fourth grade boys, not a single one of whom is a sexual threat to anyone, least of all the mothers in the room. Again, I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, just that it felt so audacious and thereby so ridiculously unreal that we were having this conversation.
“What?! No! No, nobody’s forcing any of the moms. No, that’s not happening.”
Peter said, “I’m relieved, you guys. This is important to talk about. I’m thankful to know it’s not happening.”
And here’s where he rounded third base and headed straight home. (No pun intended.)
Peter said, “So, since none of those things are happening, what we have on our hands is not a situation of sexual predators in your classroom. What we have here is a case of some boys in your class talking about things they don’t know anything about. What we have here is an example of bad company corrupting good character.”
At which point I was no longer laughing. Instead I was getting schooled on how to not overreact and to identify the real heart of the problem.
He said, “Men, here’s what is true: the boys in your class are good kids talking about bad things. But kids who are experimenting with these things when they’re nine will be in serious trouble by the time they’re nineteen. Don’t be that guy.”
And then he finished with, “Men, how about I walk you home from school tomorrow?”
Dads do it differently. And brilliantly.