The other night, as my oldest daughter, who just started seventh grade, was packing up her backpack with shiny new pencils and binders, she showed me her schedule and said brightly, “Oh look, tomorrow I get to learn about sex!”
Well, OK! I’ll admit, my first reaction was to be secretly pleased that my daughter — who both in looks and bookwormishness resembles Hermione Granger — feels comfortable enough to say the word “sex” in front of me. After all, I’m almost 46 and I still would rather die than talk about sex in front of my mom (which made things somewhat awkward when I spotted "50 Shades of Grey" on her coffee table last year). My second thought: How odd that her school saves the puberty talk for after most of the kids have gone through it. My third thought: Thank God for Judy Blume.
Because, while my daughter is having a sophisticated urban childhood vastly different from my sheltered suburban one, some things never change. She’s learning about sex the same way I did: about 10 percent from a nervous teacher standing in front of posters about anorexia and the reproductive system, and 90 percent from Judy Blume, summer camp and one or two much more worldly friends.
About three years ago, I gave my daughter a paperback of Blume’s "Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret." with instructions to read it and then ask me anything she was still curious about. Her response? “Thanks, but I’m good.” Decades after I read it, that book is still the go-to primer for info on getting your period and wearing a bra (the publisher has wisely updated the 1970 book so Margaret doesn’t have to buy a plastic belt to hold on her pads anymore).
For the 411 on kissing, “the bases” and other things 12-year-olds are curious about, well, there’s "The Wonder Years" on Netflix, of course, and then there’s that esteemed group of sex educators: her summer camp friends. I vividly remember lying in my sleeping bag in a dank cabin at 4-H camp out on Long Island listening to a particularly advanced 10-year-old talk about untying her bikini top so she could show her (nonexistent) boobs to her boyfriend. People DO that? I thought.
It was only the first of my completely stunned reactions to stories about what boys and girls did together. I imagine the late-night talks at my daughter’s camp are much the same. Some of the girls — those with older sisters or who live in racier suburbs — will try to impress with stories of sneaking off with boys, while others (like my proudly geeky girl) will listen quietly, calculating what percentage of those stories are actually true.
In a year or two, of course, she will read Judy Blume’s losing-your-virginity classic "Forever," which has taught generations of teenage girls that sex has something to do with a bearded guy strumming a guitar and an appendage named Ralph. I remember reading it and then sitting on the sofa in my faux-wood paneled den, asking my far more sophisticated friend Diane to explain what all those strange words really meant. Every girl should have a friend like Diane. My daughter has a friend whose mom has been getting calls about her kissing boys in the schoolyard since kindergarten, and I suspect she will be my daughter's Diane.
The only thing that changes, I guess, is this: While I read "Forever" in a dog-eared paperback, passed surreptitiously from locker to locker, my daughter can simply download it on her Nook. But I still hope she’ll tell me about it, even if I’m no Diane.