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The Birds And The Bees
Mrs. Dad grits her teeth for "The Talk"

By Karen Karbo

My step-son is ten and already has two girl friends. Because he's only in the 4th grade, his father and I assume that Bryn and Hannah (not their real names) are friends who also happen to be girls, a crucial distinction. Last week Hannah came over for what is still, weirdly, called a playdate. Hannah is 11, wears hip huggers and perfume only a fruit fly could love. She lead my step-son into his own room and shut the door. Two seconds later, I opened the door, poked my head in and shouted, "What's going on, guys!" Five seconds later I tracked down my husband, playing a game on the computer. I said "I think maybe it's time for the Talk."

He got the same look on his face he gets when the toilet needs to be plunged.

Twenty-five years ago or so, when my husband got the Talk, the world was a different place. Girls were expected to be reactive instead of proactive in the face of their various doomed crushes. They didn't call boys, didn't invite them anywhere. Virginity was something to be furtively lost, not a topic fit for the OpEd page. Britney Spears was not yet a gleam in Mr. Spears's eye.

Back then, the theme that elevated all the embarrassing biological business about what goes where, how it gets there, and what comes out (which is still good information to have, as evidenced by the number of grown-ups who still suppose a woman can get pregnant by sleeping on the wet spot) was Responsibility. The boy had a Responsibility not to get the girl pregnant, and not to offend the girl with his "urges". This emphasis on responsibility also side-stepped the darker questions about sex, the ones we spend our entire lives asking. For starters: If it's supposed to be an expression of love, why are there times you want to get it on with someone you don't really
like? And conversely, why are there times you love someone deeply, and for
that very reason, you refrain?

The by-product of the sexual revolution, as far as I can tell, is not more sex for every consenting adult, or a freer attitude toward sex, but an overabundance of idiotic sexual innuendo in second rate movies, and a shocking amount of commercials for feminine hygiene products in prime time. The Talk, it seems, has not been updated or revised. It's still the 1975 edition, with no new Foreword by the author.

Then as now, mothers seem to have an easier time giving their daughters The Talk than fathers do their sons. There are several reasons. With girls, biology forces the issue. With boys, puberty doesn't trumpet itself in a manner that requires regular trips to what used to be called Foundations at the local department store. The issue is murkier. The real threat of an unwanted pregnancy doesn't hang over the head of a 14-year-old boy the way it does a 14-year-old girl (although it should).

It was Hannah's closing the door that set off the alarm, a gesture as old as Eve eating the apple, and the subsequent realization that she and Adam were naked. Hannah was ahead of Kenny; she knew there were things girls and boys did together that required the closing of a door. Or was I reading too much into it? Was I responding to her come hither hip huggers and cloying scent, and forgetting there was still just an 11-year-old girl in there? Maybe at her house, everyone always closed doors behind them. Maybe she closed the door to do her homework, or play with her Barbies. Who knew?

For the rest of the afternoon -- his door flung wide open -- Kenny entertained Hannah with his Legos and Pokemon cards. They played a snowboarding game on his Playstation, and he took his water dragon, Godzilla, out of his terrarium and placed him on her open hands. To her credit, and our relief, she didn't squeal. She was still, at that moment, a 4th grade girl who could admit an interest in reptiles.

Thus, The Talk was postponed for another time in the not too distant future. This episode did, however, give us a chance to sit down and discuss what, exactly, needed to be covered when the day came. We made a provisional plan: hit the biological highlights then open the floor for questions. But what if there were no questions? What if the whole egg-and-sperm thing seem too far-fetched to be believed, or grossed him out more than any kissing scene in "The Mummy", and thus left him aghast?

We couldn't hit on the right approach. Then we realized that maybe there is no right approach. Part of the frustration is this: the information parents are compelled to convey, the so- called "facts" of life, comprise only a small percentage of the shenanigans we call sex. The glory, the agony, the confusion, the mysteries must all be learned first hand. Maybe the point is just to start talking about it, to open the door.

Karen Karbo, our Mrs. Dad columnist, is the author of Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me (Bloomsbury)

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