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
• 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
“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,
“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.