I lost my virginity at nineteen. By modern standards that’s disturbingly puritanical. It’s even more alarming when one considers that my sexual education was a fifteen-minute film during the 7th grade featuring animated penises and a cartoon vagina. This speedy entrance is nothing I’m overly ashamed of though I don’t shout it from the church rafters; but unlike many parents, if my kids ever ask, I wouldn’t lie by offering up some Leave it to Beaver fantasy that gives the impression I was a chaste saint until I met their mom. It’s through acknowledging our mistakes that we can have the most profound impact on our children.
The recent Plan B controversy has compelled me to think more seriously on the issue of children and sexuality. For those unaware, a New York Federal judge ruled the morning after pill be made available to women – and girls – of all ages, without parental consent. Just the fact that he believes my eleven-year-old daughter has the right to walk into any CVS and buy a BlowPop and emergency contraception without my knowledge is proof positive we’ve lost our minds.
I’m not too naive to think that my children will remain sexually pure until marriage, though I’ll passionately encourage they do. We live in a world that views sex as a childhood rite of passage, like bar mitzvahs and Sweet 16 parties and we do more, as a nation, to deter them from smoking cigarettes than having intercourse. And I’m also not ignorant of my hypocrisy in preaching abstinence when I was so far from it. But I don’t believe a friction in virtue should keep me from doing what I can to divert their attention away from the brass ring of casual sex or the tarnish it brings.
One of the greatest weapons parents have in their arsenal is that of personal experience, and particularly those experiences that leave the most penetrating life lessons, which, by the way, are courtesy of screw-ups. How else can I guide my children away from pitfalls of unhealthy and destructive behavior without the roadmap of my own mistakes?
The media has made the ‘hook up culture’ out to be a campus only pandemic; they’ve obviously never hung around the divorced crowd. The Thursday night bar scene in most suburban cities makes the typical college campus look like an Episcopal Church fish fry. After my divorce I had no idea what I was about to get into. Internet dating was emerging from the underground and every divorced person in America was coming to the party; the fish and barrel analogy was a drastic understatement.
For those first few years I indulged my Bacchanalian desires with reckless abandon. I set aside any remnants of my moral self and became hell bent on making up for the prior ten years of fidelity. It would take crashing into a wall and walking away emotionally and spiritually broken before I came to understand – and what I now hope to impress on my children – is the black emptiness of meaningless sex.
Our children are spoon-fed the notion that casual sex is the embodiment of freedom, that to own their sexuality - by sleeping with whomever whenever – is empowering. As their dad, it’s my responsibility to show them a better way, but how can I do that without leveraging my own struggles, the same ones that left me empty and numb? Besides my own story, how can I tell my kids that igniting the dry torch of evil passion and setting their sexuality aflame for anyone’s warmth will consume their souls and burn their self worth to ash? Without the testimony of my own pain how can I convince them that casual sex’s perceived offer of liberation, from the handcuffs of traditionalism, will be in exchange for shackles of despair?
There’s a gooey tension with being overly transparent to our children. It’s a fine line, that overstepped, puts us in no man’s land, that space in the child/parent relationship where a smattering of parental mystery helps reinforce our authority and respectability. But once we cross that boundary we risk becoming our child’s ‘friend’ instead of their ‘parent’ Yet swinging the parenting pendulum too far in the other direction is none the better. If we’re too proud, or ashamed, to share those parts of our life – the ones that aren’t pleasing – with our children, how can we effectively lead them down nobler paths? If I can’t explain to my kids, at the proper time, why they should think differently than society’s view of meaningless sex, by using my own story, how could they view me as anything other than a ‘because I said so’ parent?
While I mourn many parts of my past – something we all have in common – I’m thankful for their lessons and the person they’ve helped mold. And I want to remember them since they remind me of my imperfections – another thing we all share. So why should I make myself out to be something I’m not instead of using the mistakes of my past for the good of their future?