Between the Groundwork and Soft Foreshadows


“A boy in my grade was kicked out of school today,” said my 8-year-old son. He was bundled in a coat much too warm for the moment and carrying a thick binder with a thick strap over his thin left shoulder. He wore a backpack for overflow on the other.

Normally I have to pry the occurrences of the day from him, piecing together a timeline from the promising lips of a potential politician already adapt in avoidance and plausible deniability. A typical walk to the park goes something like this:

“What did you do today?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you go to the computer lab?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Should we stop for some ice cream?”


All the while his 6-year-old little brother provides the color commentary in the pauses between, bouncing around us like a cartoon version of himself drawn slightly off scale:

“What did you do today?”

“I don’t know.”

“He played dodgeball! I saw his class on the playground. They always play dodgeball!”

“Did you go to the computer lab?”

“I can’t remember.”

“He had library today! I had computer lab! He always has library on the days that I have computer lab! I saw his class in the hall!”

“Should we stop for some ice cream?”



This time was different. There was dirt, and dirt requires the shoveling of it. I stood there waiting like the proverbial pail. He had the strangest gleam in his eyes. It was distant and heavy and missing some pieces—holes in the blues where he used to blink innocence.

“What do you mean a boy was kicked out of school?” I asked, letting my mind wander down a list of ignoble infractions pulled from headlines and a personal history of assorted shenanigans.

“He told another student that he had…” he looked around to make sure that we were alone. His brother was chasing butterflies, bored with our conversation. “He told another student that he had s-e-x in the shower.”

I actually hadn’t expected that one.

“Oh,” I said. We watched as the youngest, his head in the sky, felt the sidewalk turn to grass beneath his feet. He launched his staggered skips into a swirling sprint and the butterflies teased him into the comfort of the park. I looked at my oldest boy with the holes in his eyes, and said, “Oh.”

“He said he had s-e-x with a girl in the class. He said he had s-e-x in the shower.”

“What did the other student do when the kid told him?” I asked.

“He told the teacher,” he replied. “And then the boy was kicked out.”

“The other student did the right thing,” I told him. We had been spending a lot of time trying to define the lines between reporting bad behavior and being a tattletale. Sometimes things are a little bit blurry, but this was not one of them. “That is something you should tell a teacher right away,” I said.

We talked more about it. We talked about the little girl and how it must have made her feel to hear someone say such things. We talked about how it was that he had come to hear the sordid details and what the playground consensus was on the matter. We talked about the things people do for attention.

We talked about everything until I couldn’t avoid the question any longer.

“Do you know what s-e-x is?” I asked.

He looked around, leaned close, and whispered, “Sex.”

“Yes. It’s okay to say it. It’s not a bad word. Do you know what sex is?”

“No,” he admitted. “But you have to be naked.”

“Sex is something for grown-ups,” I said. “Grown-ups that care about each other. It’s not a bad word and it is not a bad thing, but it is not for kids. It is for grown-ups. Grown-ups that care about each other. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” he said.

“There is going to come a time when we sit down and talk about this more, about sex, and that time is going to be a lot sooner than I care to admit, but you are 8-years-old, and frankly, I’m not ready to have that conversation yet… unless you are.”

His eyes were filling with tears. That is something that he gets from me. He leaned into my arms and got lost in a hug.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to be a grown-up yet.”

“Okay,” I whispered, “but if you have any questions I want you to come to me. Don’t ever be afraid to come to me. You know that, right?”


He was quiet for a moment, sitting awkward against a cement bench that offered rest in lieu of comfort, and watching nothing in particular.

“What did you learn?” I asked him, unsure of what I’d taught—unsure if I had taught anything.

“S-e-x is for grown-ups that care about each other. It’s not bad, but it’s not for kids.”

He looked me in the eyes. Mine were tired and heavy, his were blue and sparkling against fading wetness. His tears had fallen like a soft spring rain, and I could see fresh innocence growing in the corners.

“And I can tell you anything,” he said.

I couldn’t see the butterflies. The distance had grown too great. But I could see the space between small feet and cool grass. The sun was brightest there.

“Should we stop for some ice cream?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then go and get your brother.”


Image by Ben Workman, used with permission

This post first appeared on DadCentric and was recently honored as a BlogHer 2013 Voices of the Year selection.

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