I Thought You'd Never Ask!
Sooner or later, your child will pose a question that you, the know-it-all parent, can’t possibly answer. But you’ll try.
Many Fantasies About Parenthood are destroyed by actually having children, but few are as hard to relinquish as the vision of oneself transmitting knowledge, wisdom, and the much-acclaimed benefits of experience. True, we should know better, based on our relationship with our own parents, but it’s impossible to resist the idea that all of our own mistakes will not have been in vain.

Everything is fine when it’s still about learning to walk, talk, and not throw your food at the wall. Trouble starts the day you are instructing (i.e., lecturing) your child about something or other and you suddenly notice he or she is essentially waiting for it to be over. That’s when the noble dream of intergenerational transmission devolves into the painful reality of Impossible Conversations.

Soon, you and your child will each privately acknowledge that you cannot answer his or her questions, that you are capable of grievous omission, distortion, and downright mendacity, and, in a word, that you are quite often wrong. If you know what you’re talking about, the subject is age-appropriate, and your child is paying attention (a convergence about as frequent as the transit of Venus), so that you actually produce a satisfactory answer to a challenging question, the odds are good that your child will transform your sage message into an unrecognizable pretzel shape.

Every parent I’ve talked to finds certain conversations painful or exhausting. Some would rather not talk about second (third, fourth) marriages, drug use, schizophrenia in the family, or the special effects of Kill Bill. My own personal downfall is anything requiring advanced math and science: “What is pi?” “How does solar energy work?” “What is latex?” (Okay, maybe not even that advanced. In my own defense, I want to say I do fine in the humanities.) It’s very important for a parent to be able to say, “I don’t know”—but how many times can you get away with that in a day? To say nothing of having enough peppy wherewithal to announce repeatedly: “Let’s look it up!” Seems foolish? But there’s another parental fantasy: Your child will stay safe provided you know everything and can do anything. Unfortunately, omniscience decreases as a child’s age increases. It’s sort of cute when a 2-year-old indignantly insists she has a penis, but a 12-year-old’s comprehensive understanding of male genitalia may be more than you can abide without announcing that you’re about to experience clusters of heart attacks. Here are some of the other questions that cause the parents I know to go into fight-or-flight mode:
• Money: “Are we rich (or poor)?” “Who makes more, Daddy or you?” “What do you mean we’re low on funds—can’t you get money for free from the ATM?”
• Mental health: “Why are you crying?” “Why do other kids hate me?”
• Social issues: “Why are people living on the street?” “Why do married people fight all the time?” “Aren’t cars just for boys?” “Will there be another terrorist attack?”
• Double standards: “Why can’t I have more dessert? You just had an extra one.” “Why do I need to exercise—you never do!” “You’ve had plastic surgery—why can’t I?”
• Anything that makes you nervous: “How do you know the plane is safe?” “Why do they hate Jews?” “How did you get that scar?” “Am I fat?”
• Standbys: “Why do we die?” “Are you going to die before I do?” “Why do people have sex? And by the way, what is sex?”

Innumerable problems are caused by the deplorable interference of Outside Influences. There are the old classics (“Grandma says you’re mean to her”), as well as the new classics (“On the TV news it says there’s a serial killer!”—or, if your child is younger, “There’s a cereal killer!”).

Of course, every good-enough parent knows not to let children watch the news until they’re in their twenties, but accidents happen. A couple of years ago, I allowed my son, Luc, then 8 years old, to take a nap on my bed. (Already a mistake, unless you want your night-table drawers ransacked.) I then left the room, intending to accomplish four or five hours’ worth of straightening up during his twenty-minute nap. However, he soon emerged: I had left the radio set to a public station, and Luc had listened to a program on the problems of adolescents.

“What’s a condom?” Luc asked.

(Dammit, I thought to myself.) “I’ll tell you in a while,” I said. “How about resting another fifteen minutes?”

Nothing doing. So I decided the time had come. The experts are always saying to start safe-sex talk early. I gathered my narrative energy and explained that a condom was a sheath made out of the same stuff as a balloon that went on the man’s penis to make love, to prevent special illnesses and also sometimes babies. Luc didn’t ask about babies, since he had already carefully studied a book I’d given him a couple of years earlier, and didn’t want to admit he had forgotten it in its entirety.

He nodded wisely. “What kind of illnesses?” he asked. I provided some of the highlights. “But anyway,” I said, lurching toward closure. “You know that making love really isn’t about all these things. It’s about love between people and so on.” I felt better. Because it’s not the subject of sex—the sweet, hilariously prurient, and giggly incarnation of sex in a little kid’s mind—that makes this an Impossible Conversation. It’s the relationship of sex to love and hope, and avoiding giving a child the impression that sex, illness, and distrust always go together. Still, I felt compelled to add: “A condom is something to keep in mind eventually, but nothing to worry about now. There’s plenty of time to have sex.”

“How long?” asked Luc.

“A long time. When you’re much older.”

“Like your age?”

I wanted to say, “That’s right!” but instead ad-libbed, “Oh, at least college.” Afterward, I felt that had been wrong. It wasn’t truthful, heaven knows, and I’d missed a chance to say, “Exactly! Wait until your forties or fifties to even consider sex” (which I somehow knew in my heart would be unprotected).

I should have done better, but that’s the thing: When your child invokes one of these loaded issues, however unprepared and inadequate you feel, you must leap beyond your own perplexity and inhibition and engage the subject. Then at least the words will have been said out loud, the issues aired, and the Impossible made Possible—that is, real—however messy, erroneous, and exasperating real dialogue may turn out to be.

Frankly, that’s how I consoled myself the day Luc and I had the conversation about the condom. I may not have managed it all that well, but at least we’d talked about condoms, and my son was now slightly more Prepared for Life.

A couple of months later, however, we were going home from school with Luc’s friend Jason. I trailed behind the boys and heard only fragments of their conversation—the usual fare: video games, home runs, condoms . . .

“Condoms?” reiterated Jason, like an echo in my mind.

“Yes,” said Luc, confidently.

“What are condoms?” inquired Jason.

“A piece of plastic you put on your weenie when you’re with a girl so you don’t get cancer.” Oh, great, I thought.

“You’re kidding!” said Jason.

“No,” said Luc. “I’m not.”

Of course, I was tempted to let it go. However, duty called. “About condoms, I need to clarify a few details,” I began. I noticed that Jason was avoiding eye contact and Luc was carefully nonchalant. I forged ahead. “To begin with, a condom is a piece of latex . . . ”

Luc and Jason interrupted at that point, in perfect sync with each other. “What is latex?” they asked.

Marcelle Clements’s latest novel, Midsummer, recently came out in paperback.

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide