Simon came in the door calling “Moooooooomm….Moooooommmm!!” It didn’t sound like the “someone is bleeding to death” call or the “Isaiah said my hat looked funny and I beaned him one with a rock and he had the temerity to hit me back and it hurt…” cry, each which has a certain urgency too it. Nor was it even the much more relaxed “by the way, I haven’t seen my littlest brother for a long time, like since before lunch, and you told me not to let him fall in the creek, but I really wasn’t paying attention” one.
No this was a “Mom, I’ve got something cool to tell you” call. What, I wondered, could it be? It could, in fact be anything – we get this call when the kids find the first garter snake of the year, or when they read something cool in their animal encyclopedias (they are currently obsessed with wild creatures of all kinds, especially, for some reason, sloths). It could be that they have invented a new game involving the hurling of mud balls at poultry for points, built a tree fort, or it could be that they rediscovered armpit music making. You just never know.
Today’s exciting revelation is just the sort of thing a proud mother is thrilled that her eight year old can tell her. Simon says excitedly “i just thought you’d want to know that Frodo bred Selene – it looked like he got her pregnant – I saw his penis and the sperm come out.” To be fair, this is a useful observation – Selene was our herd queen until she came down with a meningeal parasite. She’s recovered, but has some lingering neurological damage, mostly weakness in her hind legs that makes it hard for her to have goat sex, which involves the male goat (more than twice her weight) getting up on his hind legs and resting considerable weight on her. I was worried she wouldn’t be able to be bred, because she couldn’t support his weight, and since heat had come upon her, and she clearly found the large, slightly stinky male goat attractive, I’m pleased for her.
I’m not displeased that my six, eight and four year olds know what animal intercourse looks like, but I sometimes wish they would constrain their habit of informing the children of guests exactly what the poultry are doing – we’ve provided inadvertant sex ed several times now. Our friends have been pretty gracious about this, and most of them share our sense that kids need good information, but I do hate the post-playdate conversations that begins “by the way, we may have taught your children how babies are made along with eating cookies and playing red rover with my kids.”
On the other hand, some things do require some explanation – poultry sex is pretty unpleasant by all human standards, as Darren Nash at Tetrapod Zoology observes. When he was not-quite four, Simon came racing into the house using the something-is-wrong phrasing of “Mooommmmmyyyyy” – when I came running to see where blood was coming from, instead I was told “Dusky” (now defunct rooster) was being MEAN to the hens and hurting them. So we sat down for a little “where baby chickens come from” conversation, to augment the ones we’d already been having about his impending little brother.
Isaiah, at six, is my most attentive farm child, and a natural with animals. He can capture and pick up any animal in the farmyard that he can lift – they run from the rest of us, but somehow, they know that Isaiah is a friend. He’s sufficiently attentive that he now gives us the daily update on which goat has come into heat, how long the setting hens have been setting and other things that I can’t remember, but Isaiah just does. But there is something vaguely weird about your six year old informing you that Mina has a little vaginal discharge and thus is coming into heat. But that’s life on the farm.
My parents were pretty explicit with us for the 1970s – we had the book _Where Did I Come From_ at an extremely young age, and both of my parents, raised in families where sex was not much talked about, compensated by being extremely open on the subject. It didn’t always work perfectly – my father, for example, elected to have “the talk” with my step-siblings and closest-in-age sister all at once. Beth, my step-sister was probably 15, and in the “OMG I’m going to die of embarassment stage.” Bill, my step-brother at 13 was firmly in the eye-rolling stage. And my sister Rachael and I were both in the “young enough that conversations that would be of any use to Bill and Beth were just plain gross to us.” I remember the whole discussion as deeply, deeply unproductive for everyone.
Despite my parents’ comparative openness, I still harbored a large number of the usual misconceptions. The funniest one was that because I was a terrifically precocious reader, by 10, I had read literally everything in the children’s section of our library and had moved on to the young adult section, where some of the books were well past my age level. I still remember acutely reading one with a scene in it that involved a young couple and the use of a rubber. I understood that they were having sex. I understood roughly the mechanics involved, although since no one had ever explained erections to me, I had a vision that the male member stretched rather like Mr. Fantastic’s body in the Fantastic Four, but I roughly got it. The part I didn’t understand, and mulled over for literally years afterwards was where you put the boot, and how it was utilized.
In college and graduate school, I taught AIDS education and was a fierce advocate for good, clear sexual knowledge being passed along. I was even presumptuous enough to once write a set of guidelines for what parents needed to tell their kids about sex and masturbation. So I have to say, I never worried about that part of parenting – I assumed that when it came time to talk about sex, I would have calm, clear, unembarrassed and rational conversations. And mostly we have. I’m mostly pleased with what my kids know and how the information has been presented to them.
But I admit, I wasn’t mentally prepared that the conversations would be had so often in the presence of copulating animals. “Wow, what’s that stuff dripping down her back….” or for the sheer biological enthusiasm of my kids. I knew intellectually that farm kids grow up with few illusions about birds, bees and mammals, and I think that’s largely a good thing. And I’m definitely pleased that my children have such a deep curiosity about things – they already understand the concepts of inbreeding and outbreeding, and can talk about expressed and unexpressed traits, dominance and recessiveness. I’m delighted by that stuff. But even I was a little startled when Simon turned to me and asked, watching Frodo do his thing “Is that how you and Dad made me?” I admit, I reddened a little, and laughed a little, and admitted, well, yes, more or less. I noted that humans have more elaborate courtship rituals than goats, and that Daddy smells better than a buck goat, but we were in the right ballpark.
Simon said “Oh, I know about courtship rituals…you mean like a mating dance like the birds do.” I laughed again, and observed that again, there were some clear resemblances, and he laughed too and went off to throw dirt. We’ve already talked about the morality of sex, and how it is something for adults, about what we believe about when baby making is appropriate and how men and women should treat each other. We’ve already had conversations about respect and love and how they come together, so I felt like this was enough. And I love the way this biological awareness comes together with a deep, endearing and age-appropriate innocence in my sons.
During the coldest part of the winter, our main source of heat is our large wood stove, and we keep all the doors open to circulate heat around the house. But if you shut off the part of the house with the heating stove, the room rises to a toasty 80 degrees, even after you stop feeding the stove. Often at night in the winter, Eric and I would bank the stove, close the doors, drag a futon mattress down to the living room and lay it in front of the stove and enjoy ourselves. One night, too tired to put the mattress back we left it downstairs, and the children were delighted by having a living room bed and something to jump on.
I overheard them discussing the reason for the mattress. Asher speculated “maybe the dog brought it in.” Simon said that maybe we’d had an overnight guest that they hadn’t known about. But Isaiah’s reason trumped them all – “Mommy and Daddy brought the mattress down so that the cats would have a soft place to sleep at night.” This put discussion to rest – of course, that must be it, our profound concern for the comfort of our cats.
I find this reassuring – that my children know so much, and yet still retain their childishness – in the best sense of the word. Watching them gently put the pieces of the biological and social puzzle that is sex together is as great a delight as watching them pull together their understanding of the rest of the world.