When I was five years old, we had a dog for just a few weeks. Natasha—a young, ill-behaved collie mix who ripped curtains and generally wrought havoc during thunderstorms—needed space to run around, my dad explained. So he took her to a farm.
Every time we drove past a farm—frequently, since we lived in Pennsylvania—I would say, “Hi, Natasha!” over and over.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that my sister divulged with a sigh: “You know Dad didn’t take Natasha to a farm, right? He had her put to sleep. Everyone knows that’s what ‘taking the dog to a farm’ means.”
I knew the euphemism, of course, but I also knew my dad would not kill a young, healthy dog merely because she was inconvenient. And if he had, he probably would have told us.
My parents believed we could handle the truth about the world, and they never spared us the facts or cocooned them in euphemism. Grandma didn’t “pass away.” She died. Joan wasn’t Linda’s “roommate.” She was her girlfriend; they were lesbians. Babies weren’t made “when two married people love each other very much.” They were made via a process, described clinically to my sisters and me, that requires neither love nor marriage.
Getting forthright, accurate answers from one’s parents made me into something of an oracle among my adolescent peers.
Pleased with the outcome of such an upbringing, I wanted to raise my kids similarly. But, of course, it’s not so simple.
For instance, I had no qualms about telling my kids about the mechanics of procreation. But then, recently, my son asked me what a condom was. In order to explain that, I’d have to clue him in to the reality that the act of procreation isn’t always done to make babies.
Was he ready for a discussion about this? Is that even the question? Or is it: How will he benefit from my withholding facts on a subject that will undoubtedly consume his thoughts in a couple of years? Do I want him to learn the values part of this topic from me, or from a friend whose parents might have taught him abstinence is the only approach?
Knowing my past attempts to bob and weave only spurred his curiosity, I answered the question, and we had a good discussion.
“Just out of curiosity,” I finally asked, “Where did you hear about condoms?”
“From a sixth-grader at lunch,” he said. “He wouldn’t tell me what they are, but he said if I asked my mom, I was going to get in huge trouble.”
“Nope,” I said. “There is not a question on earth you could ask me that will get you in trouble. Ever. You can ask anything, anytime, and I’ll always tell the truth.”