Teaching the Children Well and Navigating Crushes

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe, my boyfriend and I were talking the other day about having kids in the future, and what they’d look like, and all those trimmings. There’s one thing, though, that I’d really not look forward to. The Talk. Sure, it would be years off but I’m not from a family where parents ever talked about sex and I turned out okay. Why can’t they just learn everything from the Internet?

Allow me to answer your question with another question. Or three.

1) WHAT?

2) Have you LOOKED on the internet lately?

3) No, seriously. WHAT?

No, you cannot just let your kids roam the internet and get their sex education from that. Because learning about sex is like learning about everything else. It’s not one conversation, or lesson, or Talk. It’s a constant education. Which, luckily, means that how you teach your kids about sex is not just going to be shaped by how you tell them about intercourse. How you teach your kids about sex is going to be shaped by how you teach them about EVERYTHING.

So of course we’re not going to leave that up to the bloody internet.

If you’re at an age where you’re even talking about having kids, you did not grow up with the same internet or internet access that kids have today. If you’re like me, you were in college when Bebo became popular, and you spent your t(w)een years grabbing an hour or so on the family computer, where you’d go into chatrooms and have incredibly boring conversations with other lonely t(w)eens that would always begin with those three simple letters: a/s/l?

That’s not the internet today. The internet is laden with so much, too much, all the much information and misinformation, objectification and fear-mongering, bigotry and misogyny and shaming and agenda and porn, porn, dear god so much goddamn porn.

Your kids are going to have such easy access to it – all of it, including the hideous, incorrect, disturbing, shaming, dangerous corners of it. You’re not going to be able to stop that. But knowing that doesn’t mean you just tap out and hope for the best. It means you need to be there for your kids, teaching them how to talk and ask questions and use the internet as a tool like any other – a tool that should be used critically and mindfully, that requires scepticism and follow-up questions.

The internet is this giant, unexplored terrain of wonderful and terrifying things, and when it comes to your kids’ information about sex – like your kids’ information about anything – you have to be both ship and cartographer, grappling that mad landscape together and teaching them how to navigate, understand and contextualise their surroundings. You’re going to have to teach them the basics on land before you embark on any wild adventures, and by god you’re going to need to make sure they’re well-prepared before you let them embark on any solo voyages.

You have to teach them. You have to teach them how to carefully choose their information – because they will choose their information, like everyone on the internet does – and evaluate it. And for them to choose good, empowering information and not awful, ill-informed information that makes them hate their body or gender or sexuality or sex acts – or those of others – you’re going to have to lay the groundwork.

You’re going to have to start with the basics, and you’re going to have to start planting those positive seeds early. That stuff begins in the home, with your attitude about sex, with the content in your home, with the discourse you create – or the silence. By remaining silent you’d be teaching them not to talk about sex, not to ask questions, not to communicate about it. You’d be teaching them that your embarrassment is more important than their education and empowerment. You’d be teaching them that sex is uncomfortable, and that that discomfort trumps everything else, including their well-being.

It doesn’t. So, with the greatest of love: get over yourself. This isn’t about you.

You don’t have kids yet, which gives you the luxury of time. You have time to figure out how to parcel out the basics on body and gender and sexuality over time, and how you want to deal with those conversations. Note that I said “conversations”, plural.

There is no The Talk. There will be Constant Talks. These talks will evolve with their age, and intellect, and understanding, and growth, and experience. These talks will evolve with their questions. They will have them. Your job is to make sure that they ask them, and to answer them when you can, and provide them with the support and tools needed to find those answers together when you don’t.

It’s okay to defer somewhat to other sources of information, but make sure that you vet the sources. Pick out great, highly recommended, sex- and body-positive, but still age-appropriate, books and comics and movies – and make sure that that they offer diversity.

As a young kid, and later as a teen, representation is so goddamn important, and all too often the sex and body narrative that we hand out is one about pretty, skinny White straight cis boys and girls – and that may well not be your kids’ experiences.

Get books about gay, lesbian, queer and asexual kids. Gets books about trans kids. Get books that show bodies that are soft and curvy as well as long and skinny. Get books about kids who are confused, and happy, and kids who are just trying to figure it out.

From day one, teach them about consent. Teach them about consent. For parents of young men, TEACH THEM ABOUT CONSENT AS IF THEIR LIVES DEPEND ON IT, BECAUSE THE LIVES OF OTHER PEOPLE DO. Young men do not understand the power they will soon hold over women and the fear they will soon be able to inspire in women.

Teach them about consent. Teach them how to assert their own boundaries. Teach them how to recognise others’. Teach them to respect them. Teach them how to tell other people when and how they can be touched, and teach them to ask others. Teach them about consent.

Teach them that pornography, like any other media, needs to be viewed critically. Teach them about fantasy and reality, just like you would with their favourite action movie or sci-fi. Teach them about representation. Teach them about misogyny. Teach them about respect. Teach them about consumerism. Teach them about context. Teach them to ask questions of the information they get, and how to ask these questions. To themselves, to others, to you. Teach them that you will always try help them find answers.

Teach them about the history of religion and ideas of sin and marriage and feminism and gender roles and gender equality and reproductive rights and LGBT rights. Teach them how these ideas have changed and evolved over time, and why. Teach them about the bigotry and challenges and oppression people face because of their gender and sexuality and body and race, and why this is wrong. Teach them about bodies. Teach them how people are so much more than their bodies. Teach them about humanity.

And even if your kids turn out to have a hassle-free pubescence (ha, oxymoron) and turn out to be the Pleasantville ideal of the sexually inactive heterosexual who waits until marriage and even then just hugs their spouse and never menstruates or masturbates and so never needs to know anything about their own body or sexuality – even then, learning about a diversity of sexual and gender experience will teach them to understand and respect and empathise with others. You will have raised kids who were better educated and more enlightened than you were. That should always be the goal.

You say that you “turned out okay”. Turn out kids that are goddamn glorious.

***

Dear Roe, I’m a 34-year-old straight man and I’ve been married for three years. I’m insanely in love with my wife, and we’re really happy. But over the past year, I’ve developed this intense crush on a woman in my office. Nothing has happened, I don’t want anything to happen, and I will never do anything to jeopardise my relationship. This woman and I aren’t even flirty, just friendly, but we get on really well and she’s brilliantly smart and I love working with her. But lately I think about her all the time, and I’ve never felt like this about another woman since I’ve been married. I feel really guilty, and I don’t know what this means about my marriage. I don’t know if I should stop talking to her (as much as possible within work) or tell my wife, or how I should deal with this.

My darling, please relax. I can feel the worry coming through the screen, and it’s simultaneously adorable, unnecessary and somewhat self-destructive. Before I get into details, just take a deep breath and repeat after me:

There’s nothing wrong with having a crush.

There is NOTHING wrong with having a crush.

The thing about Happy-Ever-After and One-True-Love narratives is that they don’t allow for the fact that there are a lot of awful ridey people in the world, and these people neither cease to exist nor cease to be awful ridey even after you get with someone else, even when you’re crazily happy, even when you’re married.

But because you’ve got your Happy Ever After with your One True Love, you somehow believe that it’s wrong of you to notice all these awful ridey people all over place, and that somehow finding them awful ridey makes you a bad person, or means you’re devaluing how ridey your partner is, or means that you will inevitably end up trying to get the ride with this awful ride who’s not your lawfully wedded ride, so your entire Happy Ever After with your One True Love is a sham and a lie, because how could it really be a Happy Ever After with your One True Love, it could all fall apart just because the person in the cubicle next to you is, well, really very attractive.

You and your partner are going to spend your entire lives having crushes on other people. It is going to be what keeps you sane. When you and your partner are in a lull, or are feeling bored with life or each other (which is also going to happen), crushes on other people are going to be the things that bring you back to yourselves, and each other. Because crushes are goddamn wonderful.

Crushes are a sign that you’re engaged with the world, that you’re appreciating people and you’re enjoying feeling connected to them. Crushes are little electric shocks to your heart, or your brain-heart, or your junk-heart that jolt your responsible, adult self back into your body, that remind you that as well as being loving and faithful and bill-paying and recycling, you’re also flesh and bone and irrational feelings and feverish fluttering and something deliciously young and irrepressibly alive.

But in order to crush well, to crush constructively, to crush in a way that doesn’t evoke guilt and shame and fear and heartbreak, you’re going to have to crush mindfully. You’re going to have to pay attention. The trick with crushes is not to mistake this little arrhythmia for how your life should always be, but to use that little breath-catching heart skip to appreciate how steadily you usually beat.

Take notice of why you have this crush. Are you crushing on how this person engages you intellectually? Do they bring out a part of you that’s creative, or silly, or adventurous? How can you bring that to your relationship? Can you find a way to capture that feeling with your partner by yourselves, or can you just enjoy having your crush make you feel this way and then bring that sexy, flushed, renewed energy back to your relationship?

Or are they just ridey in a purely physical, “I spend a lot of time thinking about having sex with you” way? Because then, think about having sex with them. Get turned on. Then go have sex with your partner. Simple as.

Use your crush as a tool to improve your relationship, not a wedge to drive you from it. Enjoy the energy and what it gives you and bring it to your relationship. Use it to feel engaged and attractive and sexy and playful – and then go be with your partner. If you find this impossible to do, then start asking yourself the tough questions.

Do you feel inescapably guilty because you may actually cross a line? Or even just because you may like the drama of feeling bad, of regaining some of the romantic dramatics that you indulged in your single days? Are you trying to be a little bit destructive, and using your crush as an outlet?

I don’t think you are, my dear. I think you’re married, and crushing, and learning how to navigate that. Some lessons can be fun as hell though, if you let them.


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Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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