A dad friend of mine, who’d read my recent piece on making sexual assault in the news a teachable moment for kids, forwarded me the following tweet from Andi Zeisler while I was in the middle of my 11-year-old’s birthday slumber party:
The 4th-grade boys coming to my kid’s slumber party tonight are really in for a treat bc in addition to pizza + cake + a movie they’re getting a lecture on the importance of bodily autonomy and consent
— andi zeisler (@andizeisler)
I wrote back to my friend, “So awesome! I may have to follow her lead tonight.”
I thought about it: Not only am I a parent, I’m a sex educator currently getting certification from the Institute for Sexuality Education with a captive audience of five kids at various stages of puberty who are in a trusted, safe space. Why wouldn’t I take this opportunity to encourage a little body positivity, boundary setting and information sharing?
Of course, I had to get the parents’ permission first. So while the kids were watching Jumanji, I texted the moms:
I have an idea, but I won’t do it unless every one of you is comfortable with it: I give the kids scraps of paper & pens and they can anonymously write down any questions they have about puberty or bodies, put them in a secret box, and then I could only answer the age-appropriate ones tomorrow without disclosing who said what (i.e. rephrasing & rewriting them so as not to give anyone away). What do you think? I imagine there’s a good chance they wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity even if I gave it to them. But if any of you think it’s a bad idea, I won’t do it. Write me back privately with your thoughts. Thx!
Fortunately, I’m good friends with all the parents of my kid’s friends. We share many of the same values. We talk about talking about sex with our kids. I recommend books to them, like Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue for them and Sex Is a Funny Word for their kids. They know and trust me. (One would certainly hope that’s the case when sleepovers are involved.) So they all immediately gave me the green light. One texted: “The more [my daughter] gets of that, in different settings and different ways, the better, I think.”
(Had I gotten even one “No,” I wouldn’t have done it. Though I probably would have tried to have a one-on-one with that person later, on our own time, to discover what they perceived any potential problems to be. So often our own adult discomfort with sex keeps us from having the important talks on the topic with our kids. But demystification is key, our own hang-ups be damned!)
When the kids were winding down for the night in their sleeping bags playing “Would You Rather” (with parent-approved fortune-cookie-style questions pulled out of a little fish bowl, such as “Would you rather discover a living dinosaur or an alien from outer space?”), I popped in with some scraps of paper, sharpened pencils and an emptied box of Kleenex.
“Hey guys, I’ve got another fun thing for you to do! I think most of you know I’m a health and sex ed writer. So you can secretly write down any question you want — about puberty or bodies or periods or whatever — any question at all! Fold it up, put it in this box, and then I’ll answer them in the morning.”
Their reactions were all over the map. My own daughter groaned “Oh, come on, Mom!” and buried her face in her pillow. Another said enthusiastically, “Oooooh, I’ve got a bunch of questions!”, grabbed a bunch of scraps of paper, and started scribbling furiously. One friend quietly followed her lead. Another proudly said she didn’t have any questions. Still another seemed pretty uncomfortable with the whole endeavor: “I don’t want to. I had ‘The Talk’ with my mom so I don’t need to do this.”
“That is so great you’ve talked to your mom,” I said gently, “but it’s also good to keep having ongoing conversations about this stuff because questions will keep popping up as you continue to grow up.” While the rest of the kids jotted down a question or two — including my daughter, who ultimately couldn’t resist participating — this one just got under her blanket and turned her back to the group, as if she were ready to go to sleep. I didn’t push her.
As the other girls stuffed their folded-up notes into the Kleenex box, I led them in a call and response:
Me: “Who’s the boss of your body?”
Kids: “I am!”
Me: “Who’s allowed to touch your body?”
Kids: variations on “Only me and those who get my permission!”
Me: “What do you do if someone ever makes you feel uncomfortable?”
Kids: “Tell an adult you trust/my parents/my mom!”
Me: “Girl power, woooo!”
My daughter: “Ok, can you please leave now?”
The questions turned out to be mostly (pretty hilarious) jokes with a few semi-serious ones sprinkled in. But I didn’t want to answer them in person over scrambled eggs and pancakes the next morning, for fear of causing the one kid further discomfort. Plus, I figured answering more than a question or two would feel too much like school to them when all they wanted to do was play Mario Kart.
Instead, I wanted to type up all the questions so they were anonymous, write down my answers, print out five copies, put each in a sealed envelope, and place them in their goodie bags. I checked in with all the parents to make sure this was okay and asked if they wanted to review the document first (they didn’t.) So when each kid got picked up to go home, I quietly explained the Q&As were in the bag and, if they were interested, they could read them privately or share with their parents, in their own time. I also emailed the document to all the moms, requesting that they let their children take the lead on any discussions (and thus not break the sanctity of the sacred slumber party):
All the Sleepover Questions That Were Asked
Don’t periods go at the end of sentences?
Yes, if we’re talking about punctuation.
Will Zac Efron marry me?
Is [boys’ name redacted] cute?
Do pandas go through puberty?
All animals, from groundhogs to geckos, go through a transition period as they grow up and reach “sexual maturity,” a.k.a. the ability to reproduce. Nonhuman primates like monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas — all genetically very similar to humans — go through many of the same biological changes that humans do in puberty: for example, females begin having monthly periods. (FYI: some primates go through a change that humans do NOT go through: their butt color changes to red!) It seems the list of animals that actually menstruate is pretty short: humans, apes and monkeys (like those mentioned before), bats and elephant shrews. Pandas don’t have periods.
Doesn’t hair grow on your head?
Yes it does. It also grows on other parts of your body, including armpits and the genital area once you start going through puberty. It also grows, in varying degrees, all over your body: arms, legs, back, feet, face, chest, around the nipples, around the anus, etc. While men generally tend to be a little hairier than women, it is totally NORMAL for girls and women to have body hair, sometimes lots of it! Body hair is totally natural. Keep in mind, companies and corporations will sometimes make up a fake “problem” (e.g. “Females shouldn’t have body hair”) just so they can sell you a product (like razors) to “fix it” and make money. It’s totally up to you what you do with your body hair, wherever it grows — whether you want to style it, cut it, color it, or leave it alone and love it!
Why do people eat each other’s faces when they kiss?
Sometimes it may look like that — when it does, it usually means the people kissing are very passionate about each other. But there are lots of different ways to kiss.
Why do boobs get big?
Hormones that kick in during puberty make girls’ breasts get bigger — how much bigger depends on the person. Some people remain fairly flat-chested, others get very full breasts, others are somewhere in between. If a woman decides to get pregnant and deliver a baby, she may decide to breastfeed — the bodily changes that started happening at puberty along with the ones that kicked in during pregnancy make breastfeeding possible.
Why do people stick their penises in other people’s vaginas?
The term for this is intercourse. The most common reason people have intercourse is for physical pleasure and closeness with a trusted, romantic partner; another reason might be to try to get pregnant. There are many ways to enjoy physical pleasure and closeness with a trusted, romantic partner that do not include intercourse (for example, hand holding, kissing, touching). There are also other ways to have a baby that do not include intercourse (for example, a medical process known as In Vitro Fertilization [IVF] or adoption).
What is the meaning of life?
The meaning of life is 42. (Read the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for more info.)
If you have any more questions, please know you can always come to me — or any of your parents — for answers.
I followed up with the parents: some kids read the letter privately and kept the Q&As to themselves, others shared them enthusiastically with their parents. The one child who didn’t really enjoy the exercise did end up reviewing the answers with her mom, but she (the kid, not the mom) chose to skip the penis-vagina question. Her mother later told me, “I do force the issue as much as I can so that I know she has the information she needs, but it is not at all comfortable for her. I’m really glad you brought it up in a group setting so she could see that her friends will talk openly with a trusted adult.”
Another mom, whose daughter lost a tooth in the middle of the night during that sleepover, texted me: “I love that they’re at the age where they’re still losing teeth but also able to discuss issues of consent.”
The author of that tweet above about the boys’ slumber party got a lot of blowback, a lot of How dare yous. She ended up responding, “Calm your tits, it was a joke.” But it shouldn’t be. This is how we help give kids agency and autonomy over their bodies, how we teach them to respect themselves and others: we talk about anatomy and puberty and sex and consent, openly and honestly, probably earlier than you might think or want to, in public, with friends, and without shame.