Taboos vs. Trust: Answering the Uncomfortable Questions



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I grew up in a family where certain things just didn’t get talked about. My parents, like many of their generation, directly avoided discussing any topic that made them uncomfortable or which they assumed we were too young, or naive or immature to understand. In this way, taboos got established and deeply rooted in our family. It wasn’t that my questions didn’t get answered as a child. I was discouraged from ever asking them in the first place. I found out about Santa and sex the way a lot of young children do–on the school playground. I was deeply disappointed on both accounts.

As a teen, if we did have a conversation about alcohol or drugs, it was to strictly condemn experimentation of either. Subjects like discrimination, violence, racism and large-scale human atrocities were the responsibility of school, often as an unemotional sidebar to a history lesson. The human body and its functions (that miraculous, mysterious, magical vessel of inner workings) was reduced to a diagram poster in the science lab or school nurse’s office. Sexuality, puberty and the female cycle (with its intricate web of fragile teen emotions) were thankfully addressed within the cherished pages of Judy Blume books.

I don’t blame my parents for this. They were raised according to a lingering post-Victorian authoritative parenting style. And while the more child-centered writings of Dr. Spock had largely taken hold by the 1960s, old patterns and perceptions die hard. However, the result was that my questions usually got answered by the experimentation my parents were ultimately trying to avoid. By learning that uncomfortable subjects should be swept under the carpet, I in turn avoided asking myself hard questions as a young adult.

My husband and I made the conscious decision to break the pattern of silence and taboos and replace it with trust–in our children and in ourselves as parents. We would answer all of our children’s questions, in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable they made us. And we would do it without drama, shame or condescension. We would answer questions like ”how many stars are in the sky?” and “how are babies made?’ with equanimity.

Interestingly, once we were faced with those questions (and there have been lots of them), answering them wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking as we had anticipated. The questions got asked, the answers came fairly naturally and, if their curiosity had been satisfied, my children would move on to something else. If not, there was fresh material for conversation, or research to be done until we found the answers they were looking for.

Paying attention to and addressing our children’s curiosity has led to many rich conversations about things like reproduction and their own birth stories, war, humanitarianism, sexual and gender identity, physical and mental disabilities, religious and cultural differences. Critics might say that we’ve offered too much information given their ages (9 and 10). I would argue instead that if a child is informed enough to ask the question in the first place, they are ready to handle the answer. If we remove the stigma from the subject matter, we ultimately demystify the process of talking about what our society deems “taboo.” With time and acceptance, we may even contribute to the dissolution of the taboo itself.

Having their questions answered in a safe environment by people they trust gives children the foundation to explore the world with confidence and ultimately removes the desire or need for future rebellion. Answering tough questions also opens the two-way door to asking them. Children are much more willing to share important emotions and events in a relationship where communication, respect and trust has been established. This seems like such a simple concept and yet I am constantly warned by other parents about the difficulties that lie ahead for us as we approach the “tween” years.

I lived through those years too. I remember them well. And I didn’t confide much in my parents, not because I didn’t love them, but because the path to open communication had never been paved. It’s my hope that by answering our children’s questions, we’ve eliminated their need to put up barriers of communication in the first place. As for what’s ahead, I can’t know for sure. I do know that we can’t avoid the questions themselves. They are universal, human and essential. And when we answer them, we may even uncover a few unexplored questions of our own.

2 thoughts on “Taboos vs. Trust: Answering the Uncomfortable Questions

  1. I cannot begin to tell you – how similar you and I are on this stuff… (SO many similarities!!). My father flatly refused to discuss such matters (as though they didn’t exist)… the church we were raised in had many… MANY… taboos (and things that were NOT allowed to be discussed). School “health” lessons… well – bodies, periods, sex – were taboo there too.

    The most we got (in Primary school) was a visit from a representative of a company selling sanitary pads… giving a “special talk” to the girls in the school hall (which was more confusing than anything else). And – in high school – we had a visit from a nurse with a slide show… and enormous, blown-up images of genitals in various states of disease) – (their attempt to scare us off from the idea of ever having sex). My mother – to her credit – DID buy a book titled “How Babies are Made”… although it was a very conservative book… with doll-like pictures of a married couple lying shoulder-to-shoulder, under a blanket that reached up to their necks… in bed.

    Even after she had read me the book – I still had no idea what sex actually “required”… I didn’t know that a penis could get hard. I didn’t know about ejaculation. All of THAT was learned on the school playground – dodgy little bits of (often incorrect) information… passed amongst school friends.

    Like you – we don’t have taboo topics in our home. I don’t want to create that kind of stigma. I don’t want my kids to hesitate from speaking honestly to us (about anything and everything)… I want them to know that there is NOTHING that we can’t discuss. And like you – I also believe that if kids are old enough to ask a question – then they’re old enough to receive a considered and honest response.

    They’re all very blasé about it (possibly because there IS no stigma). When I first told Morgan the in’s and out’s of sex (no pun intended – har-har!)… she looked at me skeptically, and then marched straight to Nick (who was in another room) and asked: “Mommy said that you put her penis in her vagina to make me. Is that true?”. Nick said “Yes”. Morgan shrugged… and said: “Oh. Okay”. And that was it. She wandered off to climb a tree. No weird… “sinfulness” issues. No weird… “this-is-a-NAUGHTY-thing-to-discuss” issues. Just “Oh. So that’s how it works. Okay, on to the next thing”.

    And finally – I too relate to Judy Blume. I finally UNDERSTOOD the period-thing… thanks to Judy Blume!

    Thanks for sharing. As always – lots of resonating going on. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes Mamn, we are alike indeed and therefore, as you so beautifully wrote today, we are not alone! It is really comforting to know that we are not isolated looneys in our experiences and ways of thinking!

    Yeah, I think I purposely left out the role that church played in our family taboos. It took me so long to shake off and sort out the brainwashing (not to mention “soul washing”) that religion was responsible for. I think I’m finally at peace with it and would consider myself at this stage of my life a budding Buddhist of sorts.

    My kids have never made a big deal about sex except to complain about how often it gets shown in films! And so gratuitously too! It’s like a prerequisite for any action or mystery or even comedy movie these days. But they have made the distinction between love, sex and having babies and my son always says, “i don’t understand why their doing it, they obviously don’t love each other!” I love his innocent and committed viewpoint!

    I was laughing about the book your mom bought–at least she read it to you. My mom just ‘strewed’ one –left it on her desk where I could see it–but never actually said anything about it. Of course, I was so curious that I read it myself. It was all very clinical and sterile.

    Anyway, thanks for your support and kindred kindness!


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