I’ve given thanks every day this summer that I am unemployed. Rather than trudging off to my stressful old newspaper job every day, I instead get to be witness to the summer in which my son, Will, happily transitions to the “double digits,” as he calls them.
Today, my little boy turns 10.
Will at 4 months, posing for his first Christmas card photo.
But this birthday and this summer is about so much more than double digits. My heart knows it’s the beginning of the end of an era; this is the last summer my son will be an innocent little boy. He’s taller and mostly wiser, ready it seems to leap past this point of no return. In the fall he’ll be in the fifth grade, his last year in elementary school and the first in which he’ll get a basic sex ed class.
That’s not to say my son is clueless about the ways of the birds and bees. He possesses a rudimentary knowledge of childbirth, and he asks questions — lots and lots of questions. My husband and I answer as honestly and as simply as we can. Will knows babies grow in the mother’s tummy, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t yet know that a penis is involved in the process.
Shortly before I lost my job, I asked my fellow editors — all of them men and good family guys with older kids — when the right time was to have the big “sex talk.”
The advice was to not give more information than the kid really wants. “Kids don’t need all the details,” one man said. “They just want their questions answered honestly.”
So that’s the path we’ve been following. Maybe we’re rotten parents, but I don’t think so. There’s so much time in life to know everything; there are only a few years to be blessedly ignorant of sex and all that it means. Sometimes, at least for little kids, ignorance really can be bliss.
It’s too bad not all kids are lucky enough to live that bliss. It was nearly two years ago that two students at my son’s elementary school were charged with forcing a 7-year-old to perform oral sex on them on the bus ride home. The boys charged in the assault were 9 and 11.
It was a heartbreaking case that attracted widespread media attention; it also tore at the community. In the end, the two boys took a deal and pleaded no contest in juvenile court to charges of gross indecency between males. The deal meant that the far more serious criminal sexual conduct charges were dropped, a move that kept the boys’ names off the Michigan sex offender registry. Pleading no contest isn’t considered an admission of guilt, but it’s treated as such at sentencing.
It was a difficult time to be the managing editor of the local newspaper, as well as a parent. That boys so young possessed such knowledge and inclination was heartbreaking. Since then I keep an even closer eye on my son, and we routinely talk about appropriate behavior and staying safe.
So far, it seems my well-intentioned hyper-vigilance either paid off big time or has been completely unnecessary, depending on how you look at it. So far, my kid is actually something of an innocent prude.
I was checking e-mail on my laptop while Will and I watched the “American Idol” finale together. When “Bikini Girl,” the Idol wannabe who achieved her 15 minutes of fame by auditioning for the talent show wearing only a skimpy bikini and high heels, hit the stage for the finale, Will was aghast.
“Oh, my GAWD,” he said. “Mom! I can see her PRIVATES.”
He sounded alarmed and repulsed, as if Bikini Girl had showed up stark naked and spewed green slime from her nostrils. Will turned from the television set, shielding his eyes with one hand as if he would be struck blind if he kept looking.
“Her privates?” I looked up from my computer, expecting a wardrobe malfunction. Instead, I saw Bikini Girl in a bikini, plodding through a ballad badly.
Will nodded, keeping his eyes shielded with one hand and waving the other over his chest. “I can see almost EVERYTHING,” he said in the same horrified tone.
I stifled a laugh. “Just don't look,” I told him, “and you might not feel so grossed out in a couple years.”
This summer, though, Will is happily lazing his way through the warm days with his neighborhood pals. The other night, a plan for a backyard sleepover took quick shape; four kids were going to spend the night in Will’s best friend’s old camper, right across the street from my yard. Of the four kids sleeping out that night, my son was the only boy, a fact that fazed him not. His contribution to the evening was going to be a bag of potato chips.
We ran some errands before the sleepover, and stopped at a market to get the chips. As we left, I felt compelled to have a shortened version of the “talk” we’ve had every so often since the school bus sex assault incident.
“We need to talk,” I said.
Will eyed me warily. The biggest social event of his summer thus far — a SLEEPOVER, for chrissake — was just minutes away, and now I wanted to TALK?
“Am I in trouble?” he said. “Do I have to stay home?”
“No, but we need to talk about something before you go,” I said. “I know we’ve talked about it before, but I want to go over with you again about your privates.”
“My PRIVATES?” Will shrieked as if Bikini Girl had suddenly jumped in front of my car.
“You know how we’ve talked about appropriate behavior, about keeping our privates private,” I said, but he cut me off.
“I can’t BELIEVE you’re talking to me about this NOW,” he said, sounding absolutely mortified. “Why do you think I don’t know that?”
“It’s not that I think you don’t know it,” I said. “I just wanted to go over it again.”
“I know about my privates,” he said. “I know where to keep them. What makes you think anyone would want to see them ANYWAY?”
“Just in case,” I said. “Look, I’m your mother and it’s my job to keep you safe.”
“I can’t believe you think I don’t know all that,” he said.
We drove home in silence.
Will jumped out of the car and headed off to his sleepover, bag of chips in hand. “I love you mom,” he said, “and don’t worry. I know all that stuff.”
Later, I watched from across the street as the kids chased each other up and down the sidewalk on scooters and then around the yard on foot. They were laughing and squealing and having a great time. I had to smile.
When I went to bed that night, I poked my head into Will’s room, like I always do, except Will wasn’t there to tuck in and kiss good night. I sat on his bed for a bit instead.
His room felt so comforting. Over the window is his nightlight of choice: a lighted model of the moon. The ceiling is covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets that his dad and I put up shortly before his birth; on the walls are posters of Harry Potter and Spiderman; his bed is littered with the stuffed animals that keep him company as he goes to sleep. On the floor next to his bed is a teetering pile of books he loves reading over and over again, as well as a couple pencil sketches and a pair of dirty socks.
This is the room of a little boy — double digits be damned — a child well-loved by many, a lucky little guy around whom his parents revolve.
It's also the room of the child I worry will grow up way too fast. That he gets grossed out by Bikini Girl and insulted when I talk with him about his privates is just fine with me. He has a lifetime to be wise, to know a lot of stuff, but just a short while left of innocently ignorant bliss.
Once, a few years ago, in one of those moments when you suddenly realize how big your kid has become, Will’s dad remarked to him that he was growing up so fast.
“Don’t worry, daddy,” Will said. “I’m going to go as slow as I can.”
But time waits for no one.
Happy birthday, sweet Will.