TALKING TO KIDS ABOUT SEX
In a recent lesson from "Come Follow Me," we discussed "lust" and its potentially damaging influence, particularly with regard to pornography. We also talked about how sex between a married couple who love each other is a beautiful thing. We encouraged my two stepsons to come to us if they had questions about sex, rather than going to friends who probably don't really know anything or to pornography, which does not give an accurate picture.
Well, this morning, my 11 year-old stepson came to me and asked, "have you guys ever had sex?" I said, "me and your mom?" He replied, "yeah." I said, "yes, we have it often, usually about two or three times a week." He asked, "Is it only when we aren't here?" (They are at their dad's half of the time.) I replied, "We keep it private, but it is sometimes when you guys are here."
I tried not to chuckle at these sincere questions. But I am glad he came to me instead of asking school friends or finding heaven knows what on the internet.
The truth is, I WANT him to know that his mom and I have a sexual relationship and that we enjoy our sexual relationship. I want him to know that his mom is a whole person and not just a provider of services for him. I want him to know that Barney Stinson and Jerry Seinfeld are not having all the fun. He doesn't need to know the details of our sex life course. We wouldn't expose him to that in any way. He wouldn't be allowed to ask every day whether something happened the night before. Those details are more private. But I don't want the kids growing up thinking there is something shameful about lovemaking between married people who love each other deeply or believing that this is a dangerous or evil part of their natures. I want them to understand that sex is a bonding experience and an important and even a sacred sacrament of the marital relationship.
Friends, especially you who are single parents, you have a sacred responsibility to teach this subject. Many of us, in an effort to discourage our kids from getting involved in sex too early, unwittingly teach them that it is dangerous and evil, and it causes problems in a lot of marriages later on because people are taught to think of it as carnal, sensual, and devilish. Compared to that point of view, Jerry Seinfeld's TV personality seems to be a lot more fun. Single parents who are trying to live the law of chastity are limited in how much they can model the fruits of a satisfying and exclusive sexual relationship. However, you can teach and be an example of someone who keeps the law of chastity, while longing for that kind of love that you can only give and receive in marriage.
There are literally millions of voices talking about sex to our kids everyday. They are exposed to a variety of different beliefs and ideas from casual sex on TV sitcoms to violent pornography. The exposure of latter-day Saint children to pornography before the age of 18, is 100%. So they need a perspective from you that is uplifting and grounded in creating a future marriage that is united and loving. They need to know that dating and sex is not a competitive sport. It is a way of expressing feelings so powerful that words are not enough. It is also an important way of smoothing out some of the rough spots in marriage. Our children are not going to get these positive messages from the world. They are not going to get them on the Internet, on television, or in movies. If they are to get them, it has to come from you. Please, let it come from you.
"About a Boy" is a popular 2002 film starring Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult. It begins with a self-centered mid-single man named Will (Grant) who lives off of the royalties of a Christmas jingle his father wrote. So he has no job and doesn't need one. He insists that he is an "island" and doesn't need anyone in his life. He spends his day playing pool, getting haircuts, watching TV, buying things, and figuring out ways to date lots of different girls. A couple of his married friends offered to make him godfather to their daughter Imogene. Will's response was, "I can't think of a worse godfather for Imogene." He said that he likely wouldn't do anything to help her until her 18th birthday, when he would take her out, get her drunk and, "let's face it, probably try and shag her." The mother says, "I can't really believe you're that shallow." Will boastfully responds, "No, you've always had that wrong. I really am that shallow."
Will develops an elaborate scheme to date "single mums" by attending a support group and pretending he has a two year-old child named "Ned." It actually works and he begins dating a woman from the support group he is attending. They end up on a Saturday outing to a park. The woman informs Will on their way out the door that they are taking her friend's geeky teenage son "Marcus" (Hoult) on the outing with them because his mother (Toni Collette) is not feeling well. His mother is something of a hippie and gives him a loaf of bread to take on the picnic. It is hard as a rock and won't break when Marcus tries to feed the ducks with it. In desperation, he finally throws the entire loaf into the pond and kills a duck with it. Forever after that he calls that day "the dead duck day."
When Will and his date take Marcus home, they find his mother lying unconscious, having attempted suicide. They call an ambulance and rush her to the hospital, where she receives life saving treatment and lives.
Marcus is very disconcerted by his mother's suicide attempt. He is bullied at school and doesn't have any friends. He is such a target for bullies that even the other geeky kids don't feel safe hanging around him. He also realizes that the only person he really has in the world is his mother, and she is unstable. He says to himself that one person is not enough. "You need backup." So Marcus turns to Will, the "island" man, and starts dropping by his apartment after school. At first Will is resistant, but eventually takes a liking to Marcus.
One day when Will sees Marcus getting bullied, he takes him out and buys him some cool new shoes. Of course, soon thereafter, the bullies steal the shoes and he has to walk home in the rain in his stocking feet. As he explains the situation to his mother, he is forced to tell her who bought him the new shoes, and she goes to a restaurant and confronts Will about "these little after school tea parties." Will gets upset, tells her off for being a bad mother and not knowing what her son needs, and vows to "not open my door to Marcus again, adding "I'll be grateful to be rid of the pair of you frankly." The mother then seems to shift her position by saying, "so that's it then, you're out of his life?" She asks him if, by some miracle, he is right about what Marcus needs and she is wrong, what he is going to do about it. At first he claims that Marcus is none of his business, but continues to allow him around his apartment, gives him socially relevant Christmas presents, and coaches him through his first crush. He observes that, "When you let one person in, all sorts of other people come in too." I think, perhaps, that is the most important idea in the movie. Marcus helps Will to realize that being an island isn't enough. There are "Island chains." Will realizes that he needs people in his life.
After he lets Marcus in, Will takes a fancy to another beautiful "single mum" named "Rachel" (Rachel Weisz) and wants her to be his girlfriend. He wishes that he was "in any way interesting" to make him more appealing to her. He interjects a comment about Marcus in a conversation she is having with someone else, and she assumes that Marcus is Will's son. Not having learned his lesson yet, Will allows her to go on believing that, even when he brings Marcus over to her house for a Saturday afternoon. During that little event, Marcus is forced to associate with Rachel's son Ali (Augustus Prew), who is one of the kids bullying Marcus at school. When he threatens to cut Marcus into little pieces if he doesn't stop his "father" from dating Rachel, Marcus goes running from the house, and Rachel is forced to do some advanced single parenting.
Will ultimately decides that he has to tell Rachel that Marcus is not his son, but he blames her for choosing to believe it. She gets upset that he has been lying to her about having a son and breaks up with him.
Will, fresh from this stinging rejection, blames Marcus for messing up his relationship and says he can't help him with "real things" like his mother's depression. Marcus gets upset and decides the only way to make his mother happy is to sing "Killing Me Softly" in front of his entire school at a talent show, playing a tambourine that his mother gave him for Christmas.
After Marcus deserts Will and stops coming around his house, Will misses him and realizes that his perfect little life doesn't mean anything. He realizes that the only thing that means anything to him is Marcus. So he goes to Marcus's mother and pleads with her not to try to kill herself again. In the course of this conversation, he learns about Marcus's plan to perform at the talent show and knows immediately that it is going to get him bullied even worse at school. Will and Marcus's mother rush off to put a stop to Marcus's plan.
When they get there, Will pleads with Marcus not to perform and tells him that he cannot make his mother happy, and she has to do that for herself. Marcus disagrees and goes out on stage. He begins a timid performance and is about to be laughed off stage when Will shows up on stage with an electric guitar and gives a humorous (but a little more "hip") performance--for which he takes an apple to the head from a heckling student in the crowd. His performance saves the day for Marcus. Rachel is in the crowd and is impressed by Will's willingness to make a fool out of himself to get Marcus through his moment of humiliation. She gets back together with him and Marcus develops some sort of relationship with the first crush. The closing scene of the film is where they are all celebrating Christmas together as a hodgepodge of misfit people.
I love this movie for a few reasons. First and foremost, I think it explores the fact that letting one person into your life and your heart can open the floodgates to a whole lot more love. Marcus's persistence softens Will's heart, and he realizes that it feels good to love and be loved. Once he let Marcus in, he could let Rachel in and have more than a superficial relationship.
I also love that this movie is full of single parents who are finding their own ways through life, and a confirmed bachelor who develops a parental kind of love for a young kid. They are figuring out parenting mostly on their own. When I was a mid-single, I often said, "We are the Island of misfit toys." I think it helps for mid-singles to be together and give each other support. It is tempting to draw a little bubble around ourselves and our children and stay isolated. Having been through significant traumas, it feels safer to close people out. But letting more people in is important. Letting love in is essential.
The important message of "About a Boy" is that life doesn't mean much if you are an island. It means more when you share it with others. If you want a funny, heartwarming movie, find this one, pop some popcorn and enjoy. If you are a mid-single, I think it will speak to your heart.
A FEW THOUGHTS ON STEP-PARENTING AND SINGLE PARENTING
We just celebrated Mother's Day and I know it is a bittersweet holiday for many in our community. For some of my mid single friends, the years when they could become mothers by bearing children have already passed them by. For others, they face the task of parenting alone. Still others face the task of parenting someone else's children, for whom another "mother" will always have that singular honor. Some have more than one of these factors going on. For some men in this community, the experience with their own mothers or former wives has not lived up to the hype that is so often associated with the holiday.
Owning and managing our own emotions and expectations about Mother's Day is important. Regardless of her failings, your mother gave you something important. Obviously, she gave you life. Additionally, there are other things to learn. Tony Robbins has often said that he appreciates his abusive mother and that he would not have become the man he is without having her to contend with, and without the desperation of the circumstances he grew up with. We can look with envy at the mothers some other people had and wish it could have been the same in our own lives. But consider that God knew what He was doing when he assigned you to the mother he did. If you did not have the warmth and love you craved, learn from that and create it for yourself, your children, your grandchildren, or your nieces and nephews.
Deseret Book President Sheri Dew has not yet married and never had children of her own. She is 67 years old and beyond the years when becoming a mother is a realistic possibility in this life. She has become a favorite aunt to her nieces and nephews, having them for overnight slumber parties and taking them on trips with her. While I'm sure it has been a painful thing to go through life without a companion and missing out on becoming a mother, she has had a major role in the lives of her nieces and nephews.
For those who find themselves single parenting, whether through death or divorce, remember that joy remains available. It's not only about the bills. It's also about the memories. My grown sons remember our many road trips to cheap vacation destinations like national parks. They remember video parties, making tacos on Friday night, and bedtime. For many single moms, I know it is similar. Even if resources are tight, you can find ways to create a sense of family. Rituals, traditions, and moments working together can help.
For step parents, it is important to relax into the role. I am aware of some stepparent situations in very traditional families where Dad brings home a new wife and effectively says, "This is your new mother and you will call her 'mom'." Not a wise move. The kids need time to adjust. Once in awhile my step-kids slip and call me "dad" and it always makes me smile. But I know they have a dad and I choose to honor that.
At first, most of the discipline should be done by the natural parent, allowing the stepparent to behave more like a friend at first. (There are always exceptions where a step-parent needs to step in, such as when the natural parent isn't present or if the misbehavior is directed at the parent. I step in to correct if my step kids are speaking rudely to their mother.)
I take each of my step-sons on a one-on-one "outing" every few months where I buy him dinner or do an activity he wants to do. (One of them really likes the Lego store.) It is also a chance to talk with them about some of the deeper things. It isn't an interview. I want it to be a lot more informal than that. You don't get the real information in an interview. But when I am out one-on-one with one of the kids, they naturally open up to me a lot more than they would in the family setting or if I pulled one of them aside to talk in their room. I used to do outings with my biological children when they were growing up too. They look forward to it and I think it helps to create a separate bond with each of them. I think step kids need to know that you care about them individually and not just their parent. Step parents run into trouble when they try to make a marriage with the parent and sort of ignore the kids.
If you don't have kids of your own but you marry someone with kids, it may be tempting to be over eager about your chance to be a parent. I know I have a meaningful role in the lives of my step kids. But I wasn't there until they were ages 7 and 11. So I've had to earn it. My youngest stepchild had a hard time at first because he felt replaced by me in the life of his mother. I know there were times when he kind of resented me. Patience and persistence pays off. He has definitely come around and he loves me now. But you need to expect those adjustments to take time and be patient with it. Trying to force a relationship generally has the opposite effect to the one you intend. If you are a step-mom who's only chance to be a mother is with your step kids, a little patience will pay big dividends.
When you have two sets of kids that were partially raised in different households with different rules and customs, it takes a while to integrate those systems and it is complicated. Both parents will tend to prefer the way they did things before. Kids will have certain expectations based on past history. It takes a certain amount of flexibility on the part of everyone involved to make it work. I don't think it is inherently bad for kids. Eventually, they are going to marry and merge their life with someone who grew up in a different system. If they learn to adjust and be flexible as children, that will be good for them even if it makes them a little uncomfortable. And chances are good it will make them a lot uncomfortable. Your own kids will expect you to side with them in disputes with their step brothers or sisters, and you may be naturally inclined to do just that. Being even handed may tug at your heartstrings a little bit. Trying to understand and navigate these complicated emotions will be a growing experience for all of you.
In a larger sense, every family has its issues. Sometimes the idea that things got really complicated because we have a blended family is just a story we are telling ourselves. All families are complicated and have their issues. A blended family requires us to be more intentional about how we do things. It requires us to be flexible and communicate more clearly with our spouses, children, and stepchildren. It requires an intentional effort to create family rituals and customs that provide an identity to our family as a cohesive unit where everyone feels included. But it is worth it!
Remember, however you became a mother, the real important principles are the same. Whether you are a mother, stepmother, or favorite auntie, the underlying principle is love. Love takes time but it is the thing in life that gives meaning to all the rest.