A Toddler's Guide to Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
Originally published in Rappler - June 13, 2016
You can talk to your kids about anything.
I’m a very firm believer that there is always a way to explain things to kids, no matter their age, that doesn’t involve lying, or sugarcoating, or The Stork. Our job as parents is just to figure out how to do the explaining — so they can navigate life instead of get blindsided by it.
I work at a nonprofit, NoBox Philippines. We deal with issues relating to drugs and drug policy, including drug education. Aside from the work, I’m also my mom’s daughter.
Mom has been in the harm reduction + drugs field for a solid two decades, which means that when ten-year-old-me asked her what marijuana was and what it did, her answer was, “I have a book on that. Here you go.”
Now it’s my turn.
I have a son who just turned five, and I promised myself that, as his mother, I would not go The Way of the Stork.
He was four years old when NoBox brought Dr. Andrew Tatarsky to the Philippines. My son got scared — “He’s a doctor, will he give me a checkup?” — but I assured him that no, he’s just here to talk about drugs.
Which, of course, led to:
“Mommy, what’s ‘drugs’?”
To answer that, here are some things I’ve found that worked, whether it’s drugs, or sex, or rock and roll:
As a parent, I want my kid to be able to talk to me about anything. As somebody’s kid myself, I’m not coming up to anyone if I know they’re just going to freak out.
Getting a little panicky is completely natural, but it’s also something kids pick up on very, very easily. It takes a bit of practice to not get flustered, but it’s worth it. I want to encourage questions from him, and acting like it’s A Bad Thing might only end up punishing his curiosity.
I find that framing answers to questions this way helps with a number of things:
1) It makes the conversation less awkward - Sometimes I get flustered, but I realized it’s only awkward if I make it awkward. But science just says, here: it is what it is. Framing it this way allows for a bit of detachment that doesn’t leave room for my embarrassment, or worse, his secondhand embarrassment.
2) It usually answers what the kids are curious about in the first place- There’s no malice, I believe, until and unless we adults put it in. So when I clarify my son’s questions, they’re mostly just “what is this, and how does it work?” which a science-framed explanation answers.
3) It’s neutral - i.e. without value judgment, which I so strongly feel is extremely important. Wanting to know how something works doesn’t mean wanting to run out the door and do it now. But if the first reaction to a question is “Bad ‘yan!” guess who’s going to get their information elsewhere?
I think kids deserve a little more credit. Giving him this information allows him to make his own decisions for himself, guilt- and stigma-free. I told him coffee keeps people awake, and now when I jokingly offer, he says no thank you, he’d like to be able to sleep early tonight!
I’d like this vibe to carry on whether I’m talking about coffee or marijuana, and more importantly, when he talks to other people about the same things.
I don’t know + Let’s find out
Sometimes being truthful means having to say “I don’t know,” and this is exponentially more responsible than making something up. But I never let the phrase stand on its own. With us at home, it’s always, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
I feel like the key to the “you can talk to kids about anything” part is translating the science into something a preschooler can understand, instead of creating a whole new (and ultimately confusing) euphemism because they’re “too young to get it.”
… Which also means it’s my responsibility to really, really know what I’m talking about.
The advantage of talking to my kid about such fundamental concepts early on in life is that it’s easy to build up on them as the concepts get more and more complex.
We started talking about sperm cells and egg cells when he saw them in a book, which led us to watching videos on fertilization, which led him to asking how the sperm gets anywhere near the egg in the first place, which led to us talking about how putting the penis in the vagina is one way of getting the cells to meet, and that penis-in-vagina is one example of what people call sex.
So when he asked me what porn was one day because he overheard someone say it, it was easy to say, “Usually videos or pictures of people having sex.”
It’s not a one-off “The Talk.” It’s multiple conversations, every day and any day.
When he has more questions, I encourage him to ask. When I learn something new, I call His Eagerness over. It’s a pretty nice arrangement that’s been working extremely well for us so far.
And I don’t think his innocence — or childlike view of the world — has disappeared. In fact, I can only feel it infecting me!
Talking about anything
The principles carry over to almost any topic, and not just drugs or sex.
Like when we were watching TV, and he asked me whether Green Arrow, a vigilante, was a bad guy or good guy. That day we learned not all bad guys look like bad guys, not all good guys look like good guys, and for some people, it’s hard to tell whether they’re bad guys or good guys, but “what do you think?”
Or when he learned a few curse words, or words, I said, that make other people feel uncomfortable (I was careful not to say “bad words”). We talked about when and where it is appropriate to say them (“If you’re just with me or we’re at home”) and when it isn’t (“But probably not with other kids or adults, and not if it will hurt someone”).
I want to be realistic: I don’t want to and cannot shield him from the world. What I can try to do, though, is equip him with the tools he needs so he can get through life in a way that is smart, and healthy, and kind.
So what’s ‘drugs’?
Here’s what I ended up saying to my four-year-old:
“Drugs are things you take into your body that change how you’re feeling. Sometimes it changes your mood, sometimes it affects your body.”
“Like, for example, coffee makes people feel awake, that’s why I drink it in the morning when I’m sleepy, but not at night when it’s bedtime. Or like alcohol: a little bit makes people feel kind of dizzy, and some people like that while some people don’t. But when you drink too much and the body can’t handle it, sometimes people throw up! Medicine is also a drug, and when you’re sick, it helps your body feel better, but only if you take the amount that the doctor says to take.”
… To which he replied, “Oh cool!” then promptly went back to playing.
When I talk about staying calm, I know it's not as easy as just saying "stay calm." If you want to learn more about how I turned not-panicking into muscle memory, check out The Birds and The Babies!
For a few more quick tips and tricks, here's a cheat sheet!