Skip to main content

Oregon Family Magazine

Explain Babies, but Downplay Dad

06/03/2014 ● By Sandy Kauten
On Father’s Day, go ahead and celebrate fatherhood. But if you really want to do Daddy a big favor, here’s how: Don’t implicate him in the story of Where Babies Come From. At least not right away. I’ll tell you why.

“How did that baby get in there?” 3-year-old Sally asked her mother one morning.

My wife, Betsy, who was seven months pregnant, said, “It grew from a little egg.”

“How did the egg get there?”  

“It was always there,” said Betsy.

That satisfied the tot and she staggered off to pester her big sister. “Hey,” I told Betsy, “Thanks for leaving me out of the explanation.”

“No problem,” she said.

Our three daughters are much older now, and we’ve been through the facts of life Q&A with each one of them. Although I know much more about talking to daughters than to sons, I’m ready to share my findings.

Here’s the good news: The conversation can be about babies and not about sex for several years. And that’s good because explaining sex to a child is like explaining whimsy to a cop. You won’t be understood.

Remember: Small children are curious about babies – not sex. (They are like Christopher Columbus who was curious about India. He never DREAMED of America. He was wandering around on that intervening land and happily poking Spanish flags into it, never realizing it was America. The full truth would have only upset him).  

Just as long as you can portray Daddy as an innocent bystander to the baby-making process, you can keep sex questions off the agenda. A preschooler doesn’t need to have an iron-clad grasp on every aspect of human physiology.

When I was a little kid, my mom explained the facts of life to me in an accurate but undetailed way. I got the impression that conception involved some kind of medical procedure. It didn’t occur to me that my parents would ever try it at home without special equipment and qualified personnel. A few follow-up questions would’ve squared things away. But I shrank back, fearing embarrassment. I knew that when healthcare professionals get involved, even something simple like getting your temperature taken can be humiliating and icky. So imagine what conception might entail! 

Besides, I hardly understood ANYTHING, so I just tossed this particular mystery up onto a towering heap along with: How does a TV set work? Where is Heaven? Why are photographic negatives orange? How come money is valuable? and Can French cats communicate with American cats?       

Listen, Daddy, around age 6 a child will start to wonder whether you have a more vital function in family life than just opening jars. Be clinical, be vague, but for the next few years the child will be relentlessly on your trail. (“Fertilize? What does that mean?”) By age 8 or so a child will have sweated the word “sperm” out of her parents and draws near to her quarry. When our daughter Marie was about 9, my wife pretty much told her the entire story, leaving out only the wine and mood music. Of course, the sperm wasn’t the problem; the problem was the delivery system. When Betsy it explained to her, Marie exclaimed, “That’s disgusting!” and stared at me. “Daddy, is it true?”

There were so many things I wanted to say.

“I don’t remember.”

“She MADE me do it!”

“Look, when people want to be conceived, SOMEBODY has to do the heavy lifting.”

“Yes, I did it. And I’d do it again if I had to!”

“I won’t even dignify these allegations with a reply.”

“C’mon Marie, you’ve known me nine years. Does THAT sound like something I’d do?”

“It’s a lie, and your mother is a sick, sick person.”

What I actually said was, “Yep,” and shrugged a shoulder. Lying only makes a scandal worse. Just tell the truth and act nonchalant. Over the years, that scene was played out for each horrified daughter.

Face it. A child whose parents have taught her to wear clothes and eat with a fork is going to be shocked by a clear explanation of the mechanics of procreation. There is no way you are going to casually pass off this kind of thing as normal behavior.

So, stay calm, be honest, and tell the child only as much she wants to know. When her eyes grow to the size of dinner plates and she starts backing away, she’s probably heard enough. And above all, protect Daddy as if he were at the center of a network of spies. Once you give him up to your interrogator, you are talking about sex and neither you nor your 5-year-old wants that conversation.  

Rick can be reached at [email protected]