When they were younger my kids would say, “Mom, you’re not wearing a bra.”

I’d say, “I know. Women can choose to wear bras or not wear bras. It’s my choice.”

When the boys got older they’d say, “Mom, you’re not wearing a bra. It’s gross.”

I’d say, “My body is not gross. And I do not need to wear certain clothing in order to not be gross.”

Then I got nervous that I am messing the kids up. So I put on a bra. And I started reading more about how to deal with kids and sex. Where is something in between wearing a burka and going topless? And how do other moms navigate this stuff?

I decided to always wear a bra while I’m figuring out how to handle things. Then the boys said, “Your nipples are showing.”

I said, “I’m wearing a bra. And it’s not appropriate for you to talk with me about my nipples.”

And then it ended. I refused to talk to the boys about my body. I think maybe I should have started with that. But I also think I wanted the chance to tell them about women not needing to cover up for men. But look. I’m covering.

I wonder if I am having this problem because I grew up in a sexually abusive home. Or if I’m having this problem because I have Aspergers. Or I’m having this problem because all moms of boys have this problem.

I am unsure of myself in this area, so I read a lot.  And now that I have a kid who is gay, I read even more. For example, some people think gay porn has real benefits – showing that wanting gay sex is ok and other people want it too.

Hm. Everything seems complicated to me. And I just don’t want to mess up. I spent so much time saying, “You absolutely cannot let the girl take responsibility for birth control. Until you want to have a baby and take care of it, you take care of making sure you don’t get pregnant. Condom every time.”

Then I found out a lot of moms take control of birth control for their daughters. They get an IUD or hand the girl a pill every morning. Or I don’t know what. It’s way more common than I realized. Or at least in the places where I have lived. I can understand that.

So I switched my tune a little. I focused on safe sex. If nothing else, that’s the way to get my gay son to use a condom. He said, “Don’t worry. I’m planning on serial monogamy.”

What the fuck? From my twelve year old. There is no way I have any hope of being useful in the sex ed department anymore. That was it for me. So I am looking around for sources now. For someone who is more useful to a generation of kids who is already way past my knowledge base.

Mark sent me this article in Philly Magazine about Al Vernacchio — a gay, Quaker sex education teacher at Friends’ Central, an elite pre-K-to-12 Quaker school. He knew he was gay at a young age and it was hard for him to tell his Roman Catholic parents.

This paragraph catches me:

He’s converted from Catholicism to Quakerism. He made the switch five years ago, he says, upon discovering that Quakerism and sex education are “speaking the same language: how to be your most authentic self, how to create authentic relationships, and how to leave the world better than you found it.”

Mark found a link to Vernacchio’s TED talk, but Mark points out that teaching this material in a curriculum format in a school setting would be difficult. Because students are at different stages of thinking about sex even though they’re the same age.

This is true of my own kids. The son who realized he was gay did lots of investigating to figure out what that meant. He is a lot more knowledgeable about sex than his older brother, who is not grappling with sexual identity and takes most sex at face value.

What I like about Mark’s observation is acknowledgement that sex ed has to be individualized to be relevant. What I like about the article is that it makes me feel like I’m not the only adult looking for ways to become educated about sex:

In 20 years at Friends’ Central, Vernacchio has become well known and highly regarded at the progressive, creative-minded private school. Laurie Novo, who’s worked at Friends’ Central (including as co-principal) for 25 years, says she’s never heard a single parent complain about Vernacchio’s classes. In fact, they’re so wildly popular — especially the 11th- and 12th-grade “Sexuality and Society” curriculum — that the school once had to hold a lottery for seats. Casey Cipriani, a 2001 graduate who took the course’s first iteration, says she recalls other students — and even her own mother — asking to read her homework.

I’m with Casey’s mom. I want to read the homework. I have no idea what I’m talking about. After 30 years of sex and two failed marriages I have no idea how to talk to kids about sex in a way that matters to them.

I hear myself defending my right to not wear a bra, and I feel like got all my sex education from 1970s feminists. And if the best sex ed is “be your authentic self” then maybe it was okay when I defended my right to wear a bra or not. And I told my kids I’m sick of talking about my body with them when, frankly, I was.

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11 replies
  1. Dk
    Dk says:

    Ok well I am female and hated when either parent walked in their underwear so the braless disdain is typical my parents are embarrassing me stuff. At your kids ages you should expect sex knowledge and or fascination but sounds like they were exposed to ALOT early on I’m sorry but they didn’t learn about oral sex from animals! You’re a free spirit and it rubbed off. Clearly you allowed a lot of tv and spoke about sex. It won’t make them sex maniacs. My only concern about early sex exposure in terms of info is that it places a certain pressure. Kids today don’t seem mature enough to me to be having sex. Yes they do anyway but the girls are often deeply unhappy and the boys learn to view sex transactionally. I don’t think your younger son and let me assure you he’s young (you adultify him because he’s so good at cello) is thinking about sex as much as identity. He’s going to encounter discrimination and rejection. But this is a very very accepting set of times and I wouldn’t stereotype who is and isn’t accepting of homosexuality. People can all be jerks. Your older son seems shy and will likely be a late bloomer. They don’t need your sex Ed. Unless you see them with actual girls or a girlfriend why bother? They’re not idiots. I think you chose the best thing in the world to say. About pregnancy. Do NOT rely on the girl. I have four kids and I never talk about sex unless asked but I did have the birth control talk for the 16+ crowd. Don’t forget to mention diseases. May not be issue in high school but I’m telling you was huge issue in college. Condoms stink but they’re necessary unless you are in a ltr and are certain about birth control and fidelity. You read too much about parenting and I’m telling you it’s NOT improving your parenting. Your instincts are all good and they’re YOU. you not an expert of this or that are raising the boys. Be confident and like yourself. The reading causes you more anxiety than it molds you. People don’t change easily. It’s one thing to read about mastery in cello or a subject but parenting books seem to me for all good intention make moms a wreck.

  2. sarah
    sarah says:

    I read an article in which a man asked his grandma how she managed to be married for 75 years. She said, “I dated a lot of men.” Which, in my community is counter cultural, but I think relative. She went on to argue, by the time she met her husband, she knew what she liked, and wanted. She never dated a guy twice until her husband. When she wanted a second date, she knew.

    I tell my kids, go, date, have fun, break up, get your heart broken.

    I lecture how birth control is their responsibility.

    I tell them, you have to decide how far you want to go with making out, and when to have sex. I give them a list of pros and cons. Once you set those boundaries for yourself – it’s not as big of an issue, compared to parents doing something forbidden. The hard part, I think, is trusting your kid to self govern.

    I wear a tight shirt under my shirt to keep my nipples from showing. It’s a personal preference. When the kids comment about my boobs, I remind them, those are mine.

    • Caro
      Caro says:

      I always wear a bra but am working on weaning my boobie-obsessed 3 year old and tell him the same thing. It’s my body, it’s my choice.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m glad you liked the Philly Mag article enough to write a post that included it. The same paragraph in the article that caught your attention about Al Vernacchio also caught me. He was raised in a Roman Catholic Italian-American family and fairly recently decided to convert to Quakerism. He comes across to me as very thoughtful and I can only imagine it was no small conversion for him after reading this – “Vernacchio graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 1986, the only theology major in his class, and later earned a master’s degree in human sexuality education at the University of Pennsylvania while teaching English and religious studies (which included sex ed) at St. Joe’s Prep.” And the part about “Quakerism and sex education are “speaking the same language: how to be your most authentic self, how to create authentic relationships” is something I can see as interesting to you as you’ve written about authenticity a few times. One of those posts on authenticity which I really liked is here – http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2013/12/16/the-new-authenticity-is-more-than-just-transparency/ .
    You say – “Everything seems complicated to me.” I find that’s the way it works for most things while sifting through all the research and asking yourself and other people questions about things that aren’t readily apparent. Eventually, the pieces of the puzzle come together after much searching. A lot of stuff gets sorted out and tossed aside in the process. And the final product of all that work is something that in the end looks simple because it’s not messy. It’s elegant.

  4. Karelys Beltran
    Karelys Beltran says:

    I remember my mother’s c-section scar and pubic hair from taking showers tower. I was under 6 years old.
    I remember it warmly.
    Sometimes she complained about her body but never when we were showering together because those moments of naked bodies wasn’t about aesthetic and beauty for power. It was practical. It was tiredness. It was clay dust from the unpaved streets in Mexico having to be washed off.

    I remember her never apologetic for her stretched out tummy. It pushed out at the bottom because she was so thin and carried twins after carrying me.

    I asked about the scar.
    I never really asked about the hair.
    I sort of just knew it’d show up when I were a grown up.
    When I were strong enough like her to curl my hair in the morning, drink super hot black coffee, put on lipstick and go to work as if the world wasn’t on my shoulders.
    Some days I saw her cry, because the world on her shoulders was too heavy.
    And then we’d shower again and sleep in the same bed while my dad was illegally picking apples over in El Norte.

    And so I grew.
    I became afraid of my body.
    I covered it.
    Under all the covering I developed a horrid eating disorder that was killing me.
    I recovered.
    Carried three babies in my body.
    One of them died and I almost died too, from grief.

    And then….
    one day….
    Murphy asked “Mommy, why do you have scars in your tummy?”
    And I told him, they are called stretch marks.

    And never once have they see me afraid of my body.

    They’ve seen me cry when the world on my shoulders gets too heavy.

    They still cuddle my tummy and watch me run around in all stages of the clothing process.

    They listen attentively when I say “your body is yours and no one may touch you without your permission. If it never feels okay, if you feel like you freeze, if you feel like you are done, even if you said it was okay before, no one can touch you. Listen to your body talk even when your mouth doesn’t have words to say it.”

    I don’t know yet what sex ed will look like. Murphy is 5 and Emilia is 3.

    But here is my start:
    1. Your body is sacred and worth celebrating. It is to be approached with reverence, by you and others.
    2. If it feels good listen to it.
    3. If it doesn’t feel good, listen to it.
    4. If it feels good but your mind is at conflict, stop. Voice it out.
    5. People get to change their minds.

    I think this is the core of consent for themselves and their future partners.
    I think this is the core of respecting and celebrating their bodies and others’ bodies.

    I don’t know what we’ll need to add in the future.
    But right now I can take care of the core before the world installs a different message.

    • Denise
      Denise says:

      ABSOLUTELY, BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN… Poetic, visual, and excellent advice. Thank you for sharing such personal, vivid memories.

  5. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    It’s easy to think that you’ll have the talk when the kids are ready, but they are picking up way more information from their peers at a very early age, and from porn way before puberty.

    In Britain parents are too embarrassed to talk to their kids about sex and can withdraw kids from Sex Ed. They believe that talking about sex early leads to early sex, when the evidence is actually the opposite.

    In the Netherlands,”Dutch youth have the lowest teen pregnancy rates in Europe. Dutch kids receive sex education earlier and choose to have sex later than other European teens. In fact, the average age for their first sexual intercourse is 17, a year older than in Britain. What’s more, teen sexual encounters in the Netherlands are generally viewed as positive/wanted and enjoyable, whereas in the United States, nearly 2/3 of sexually-active teens surveyed said they wished they had waited longer to have sex. Research also shows that the majority of young people in the Netherlands use some form of protection when having sex and have relatively low rates of HIV infection and sexually-transmitted diseases.”

    Detailed information here: https://amsterdam-mamas.nl/articles/sex-education-netherlands

    • Gerard
      Gerard says:

      There are several points to be made about sex education in the Netherlands.
      The Dutch adopted their progressive sex education model in the 1970s when the government became alarmed by the spiralling rates of teenage pregnancies. The important point being that the Dutch were able to turn around the problem by enlightened policies.
      Conservatives who oppose state sex education complain that schools only teach the mechanics of sex but do not teach the emotional intelligence a young person needs before embarking on a sexual life. I have seen first hand how the Dutch explain to children the complex emotions involved and the need for responsibility. I will give you a simple example. I saw an instructor ask a group of 12 year old boys how they would feel, if they approached a girl they liked, but she said that she did not want to be their friend. The boys thought about this and all agreed they would probably feel hurt. The instructor then asked the boys, what if another boy approached them , and said he liked them, how do you think that boy would feel if they told that boy they did not want to be his friend. The boys knew that the instructor was alluding to the boy being homosexual because they had just covered this topic in their sex education class. The boys fell silent as they thought about this scenario. They were able to identify with the difficulties a gay boy might face. They were not dismissive but genuinely concerned.
      Whilst the Dutch emphasise responsibility, they also stress the joy of sex. For example, there was a wonderful book in the school library which was entitled ” how to be a good kisser” This was a favourite amongst the 12 year olds.
      It was relatively easy for the government to introduce progressive sex education. This was because Holland is really a monocultural society. Whilst there is a small Muslim minority, the vast majority are protestants and catholics who on matters of social policy, are largely in agreement. Compare this to the USA where the contents of sex education programmes in schools is still hotly debated and a vocal minority is opposed to any sex education being taught at all.
      One point that may be of interest to conservatives. Holland is famous for its welfare net and has extensive programmes for assisting people. But there is no government welfare available to teenage girls who fall pregnant. They are on their own. Every teenage girl I spoke to was aware of this fact. Perhaps this factor also explains the low rate of teenage pregnancies in Holland.

  6. Ceka
    Ceka says:

    Scarleteen has a new series for parents and caregivers. They’ve been working directly with youth on sexuality issues for decades, and they really know their stuff. LGBTQ, relationship models, safer sex, birth control options, consent, recovery from sexual abuse – they have grappled with it all.

    Now they are helping parents who want to be better at talking about all of those things with their kids. Here’s a link explaining the parent series:


    And a link to the Big 5 Principles on parenting around sex and sexuality:

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