Note to The Knucklehead: Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a post addressed to you, and told other people not to bother (a lot of them didn’t follow instructions, by the way)? Well, YOU may want to skip this week’s post. Suffice it to say that some things, being read, can never be “unread.” You’ve been warned.
Somewhere in The Knucklehead’s middle school years, I faced one of the ethical dilemmas all parents face. Only the dilemma I thought was going to be difficult, turned out to be relatively easy, compared with the ethical choice I didn’t see coming. My dilemma?
To condom or not to condom The Knucklehead. That was the question.
People are going to fall on different sides of this issue, for all kinds of reasons, but the thing we can all agree on is that the question of whether or not to provide your kid with information on, much less the means of, birth control and/or STD prevention isn’t easy. But it is a necessary question to consider. Ideally, you don’t want your kid having sex while still a teen. But that’s proved irresistible to a lot of kids, across every social/ethnic/economic demographic we’ve got. If your kid’s going to make a mistake, you’d prefer them not to have to pay for it with their lives. Or to enter parenthood before they’re ready. But by providing them with protection from pregnancy or disease, aren’t we really telling them, “look, it’s OK, we know you’re going to do this anyway”? Whichever side you come down on, you have to admit that the other side has a point.
I think I discovered my inclinations back in my twenties. During the 1980’s, I spent most of my summers as a camp counselor, later administrator, and learned much of what I later practiced as a parent from that experience. Before we started our two weeks of counselor training, we’d invite any staff who wanted to come up and go through a water safety instructor course, taught by a representative from the PA Fish Commission. For a few years, we were gifted with Janet, a great instructor that took to us like… well, a fish commissioner takes to water. She truly enjoyed spending time with us, but you didn’t have to know her long to realize that boating safety was her alpha and omega. Particularly on the subject of lifejackets (or, Personal Flotation Devices, or PFDs). Don’t think you need a PFD? She was happy to throw all kinds of stats at you, her favorite being the composite drowning victim in PA was male, in his 20’s, and a strong swimmer. If you were on the water, you were wearing a PFD. Period.
Having already been through the course, I strolled down to the lake to say hi. She was standing on the beach with a dozen or so of our staff in the water, in and out of canoes.
“How’s it going?” I asked her.
“Great,” Janet replied. “We’re at the point where I’m supposed to teach them how to put on their PFDs if they’re already in the water. But I’m not going to do that. I never do that. It’s like telling them to just ignore what I tell them about never going out without wearing a PFD.”
“OK,” I replied. “By the way, do you have a daughter?”
“Do you think you might someday?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
“So, if you have a daughter someday, you’re not going to tell her about birth control.”
Janet opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She tried again. Still nothing. Then she blew the whistle around her neck and yelled out to her students, “OK, everybody get in here! We’re going to learn how to put PFDs on when you’re already in the water!”
She turned to me, glaring, and started jabbing me in the chest with her index finger. “I am. Not. Happy. About doing this.” Jab, jab. Jab.
“All I’m doing is drawing a parallel,” I explained.
“Shut up,” Janet advised.
So years later, when it came time for me to make the decision as a father whether or not to give parental blessing to condoms, it turned out I already had a good idea where I stood. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if my boy came down with an STD, and I could have prevented it. Also, if the kid becomes a dad, that makes me a grandfather, with all the responsibilities of grandfatherhood whether I want them or not. After all, it’s not like the potential baby will have any say in this. That particular human being will have needs whether anyone wants to address them or not. That’s a lot of power to entrust to an adolescent. And if you think your kid should have condoms – just in case, mind you – then it’s a small step to making sure he has them. OK, then, fine. I’m going to buy The Knucklehead some condoms, and let him know why I’m doing that. Easy-peasy. Next time I’m at the supermarket, I’ll buy condoms.
I had forgotten what it’s like to buy condoms.
In the movies you can just walk into a bar and say, “gimme a beer,” and they do, and that always makes me laugh. In real life you have to tell them which beer you want. The choices in condoms are infinitely more complex.
I somehow had gotten it into my head that I was simply going to purchase basic, generic condoms. If you had asked me for more specifics, I might have gone with the kind of safety-first, plain-wrapper, Soviet-era, purely functional “Venereal Disease, Personal Protection From” prophylactics they might have issued to GIs during WWII. Like my boy was parachuting into occupied France. But that’s not how they’re marketed. Oh, no. Everything is marketed toward the goal of “personal pleasure.” His, hers, the couple’s, it doesn’t matter. You cannot buy a condom without it telling you how goooooooood it’s going to feel.
Introducing Ethical Dilemma #2: The Main Event.
Do I buy condoms based on comfort? Or utility? And if so, what message am I now sending to my Knucklehead?
Of course I’m not going to buy him condoms that advertise the… “pleasure” part of the whole deal. THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M GOING FOR! This is exactly what people mean about encouraging sex. Reading the ad copy on the box, I could just envision The Knucklehead not being able to wait to try the damn things out. Hell, I was thinking of trying them out. The sex they promised was great! Fantastic! EPIC! No, no, no. The condoms I wanted to buy him were strictly utilitarian. Not fun at all! They pinched! They shrink-wrapped the Little Knucklehead in layer upon layer of Impenetrable Protective Shielding! Nothing would get through these soldiers. Particularly not pleasurable feeling! If he were having sex as a youth, it should be joyless! Fraught with discomfort and tension! That’ll teach him! That’ll teach him… not to use the condoms I got him.
Now it’s starting to dawn on me. What do I really want to teach The Knucklehead about sex? Do I want him to be celibate until he’s married? That’s what we’re supposed to teach them. But is that really what I want for him? No. Not really. Not if I’m being honest with myself. As an adult, I want him to have a rich and fulfilling intellectual, social, and physical life. I don’t personally believe that sex before marriage is wrong, not by definition. So why wouldn’t I want him to have a rich and fulfilling love life, both emotionally and physically? Do I really want him to someday enter marriage as a virgin? No. No, I don’t. Better for he and his partner, I think, to have that experience out of the way before committing a lifetime together. The shelf life of love and intimacy is a lot longer than the shelf life of hot, youthful passion, and do I really not want him to discover that until after pledging his life to another person?
(And I hear what some of you are saying. “It would be different if you had a daughter.” Maybe you’re right. Maybe I would feel differently. But I hope you’re wrong. I hope that I would allow a daughter the same respect for her life and choices that I encourage for my son. I hope that I would find raising my girl as someone I can trust as necessary as I find raising my boy so that his judgment can be trusted. But I also think, that if I had a daughter, she’d help me with this. I like to think that she’d take me by the arm and escort me around any innate sexist landmines. Whether I liked it or not.)
But he’s so young. And while I want all that for him someday, I don’t want it for him today. I don’t want him trying to make those kind of decisions until he’s a lot more mature than he is today. It’s bad enough that sex carries with it the danger of pregnancy and disease. It also carries with it, if one is not aware and attuned and intentional the very real danger of bringing harm and heartache to another human being. Do I want him to look back on his life, decades from now, and think, “Wow. I really used that person. I wish I could take that back.”? Do I want to be even partially responsible for him being careless with another human being’s life? Do I want someone else being careless with him? Why is it only disease and unwanted pregnancy that we think of as the dangers of having sex too soon?
It occurs to me that I’ve been standing in front of the condom display for way too long.
So I push my cart around the store, buying myself a little time. I’m thinking about a lot of things I didn’t come to the supermarket to think about. Now, I’m trying hard to NOT THINK about situations in which my Knucklehead might need the condoms, which of course is MAKING ME ENVISION SCENARIOS AGAINST MY WILL of The Knucklehead needing condoms. And I thought I never wanted to think about my parents having sex.
And if you want to add another layer to the lasagna, I have a fair amount of LGBT friends, and almost every one of them has a horror story about coming out to parents (one told me a parent’s response was, “How could you do this to me?!”). I figured that part of the reason for the horror stories is that most parents don’t even imagine the possibility of their knucklehead being LGBT until the kid presents it as a done deal, and I didn’t want if my Knucklehead was actually gay to have that moment be the first time I entertained the possibility. So at times in my life I’ve deliberately considered, “Well, what if he isn’t into women? Does that really change anything?” No. Of course it doesn’t. Except right now when I’m tooling around the Giant with my melting ice cream trying desperately not to envision my precious Knucklehead enmeshed with a Freddy Mercury look-alike. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just not now. Not as a boy. And not in the Chun-King aisle.
There’s a lot they don’t prepare you for before you’re a dad.
I returned to the condom display, and somehow made a choice. Let me tell you, if you feel self-conscious as a young man standing in front of the condom display, at least be aware that you don’t look out of place. Not like the middle-aged dude that I’m pretty sure store security is this close to dropping a dime on. Although, who knows, maybe the Parade of Dad Condom Shoppers is a familiar sight among retailers. And remember, I live in a small town. There’s a very real possibility that one of the other soccer parents is going to spot me standing in front of the condom display like it’s a Redbox. At least today we’re blessed with self-checkout.
The Talk itself was anticlimactic. The Knucklehead was more in a hurry to get it over with than I was, which was oddly empowering. Knowing there’s someone more embarrassed than you are (mortified would be the better way to describe it, right down to his knuckleheaded toes) lends you a mysterious calm at such moments. That was an unexpected benefit parenthood hands you at the times you need it the most.
I think what makes dealing with issues like sex so hard is that we tend to parent for the short-term. We don’t tend to think of our knuckleheads as pre-adults, just as what they happen to be at the time: children. If your parenting is only designed to keep them out of trouble while they’re children, then “just say no” (if it works) is all you need. But then you haven’t given them anything to build on as adults, and they’re left to either throw out everything you told them and start from scratch, or feel guilty because they’re trying to lead an adult life based on a child’s rules. That’s why the real sex-ed talk didn’t happen when I handed Knucks the condoms. It was ongoing, and it started when he was a wee little tyke, and it started out like this:
“Be good to people. They have feelings just like you, so treat them the way you want to be treated. And if you’re doing something and they tell you to stop, then stop, whether you think it’s fun or not. Because if they say it, they mean it.”
It’s a lesson plan you can build on without having to worry about them outgrowing. And it’s one size fits all, no matter how your knucklehead blossoms.