Reader Protective Mommy writes,
I feel like 90 percent of the children I know are exposed to many things that take away from just being a kid. My children are 8 and 6 and they know nothing of sex, where babies come from (they know how they are made in the women's body), drugs, or alcohol. Well, I went back to bartending for a short while after the divorce for extra money so they know alcohol is bad for kids and that its only for adults but don't know much more.
Also, they have never even seen their father, my ex-husband, and me fight. We get along very well and choose their happiness above all and have the same views on raising them so its never been a problem. They have seen others that fight but we have never had those yelling, cursing fights.
On the other hand, I don't want them to be too naive and not know what they should because that could be just as harmful. I just don't know what kind of answers to give on sex and drugs at their age, I grew up way too fast with parents who were on drugs -- very bad -- and I did drugs when I was a teenager. Now I feel like some kids look at situations and know way more than they should. I just want my kids to be worry free children while they can.
It's admirable that you're trying so hard to be a great mom given that you did not have the best role models as parents. Hopefully, your kids will appreciate your efforts one day, especially if they later learn about your own childhood and how hard you tried to give them the stable home life that you never had. You're right that protecting your kids from seeing angry, out-of-control fights is a positive thing; as I discuss here, these are toxic for kids to witness. You're also right to protect your kids from seeing adults who are drunk or using drugs.
However, as you mention, there are some down sides to sheltering your kids excessively (read about them in depth in Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) or The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed).
For example, there are many positive life lessons that kids learn from seeing parents fight and make up, as long as the fighting is not scary or violent. They learn that conflict resolution is possible, that people can compromise to maintain a relationship, and that people can argue and still love each other. Your kids may not have been traumatized by seeing loud drunken fights between parents, but one day they may struggle with working through conflict in their own relationships, as they never saw it happen.
In terms of sex, it is dangerous for kids to know too little about what's appropriate and what's not. Your kids need to know the correct names for their body parts in case an adult or another child touches them inappropriately and they need to tell you. They also need to know that sometimes people, including adults, do touch kids inappropriately, and to tell a trusted adult, like you or a teacher, if this occurs. But beyond this basic level of self-protection, a child who is 8 is only a couple of years away from parties with Spin-the-Bottle or whatever today's equivalent is. And by the age of 15, 16% of kids have had intercourse. Your children certainly need to know how babies are made by the time they go through puberty, and for girls, the age of puberty is dropping. And at the same parties with kissing games, kids may be sneaking alcohol out of their parents' stash. If your child doesn't know what alcohol or drugs are, how can she make a decision about what to try and what to steer away from?
I think it would be valuable to explore why you think that knowing how babies are made, for example, shortens your kids' childhoods. Your own childhood issues, and the trauma of growing up with addicted parents, has likely caused you to think about these things in a very black and white way. Either your kids are protected from anything remotely un-childlike, or they will be plunged into a scary and inappropriate world like the one that you lived in. I understand why you feel this way, but thankfully it isn't the case.
It's very possible to tell an 8 year old child what drugs and alcohol are, and where they are likely to be offered or encountered, and your honest thoughts about them, at an age appropriate level. I did this with my 5 year old. I said, "You know the beer that Daddy drinks? That's called alcohol, and wine is alcohol too. When you're a teenager or an adult, a lot of people like to drink alcohol because it makes you feel silly and funny. But, if you have too much of it, you throw up and feel really sick. Also, people should never ever drive when they just drank alcohol, because it makes you tired and you can get into a bad accident." She didn't say much, but then weeks later, she said, "That's alcohol!" when we saw beer. So, the foundation has been laid for later discussions, and I don't think her innocence has been compromised.
You can make this more detailed for an older child, like: "Remember when I was bartending and I told you alcohol was only for adults? Well, as you get older, at parties and at other people's houses, other kids may want to drink some alcohol or give you some, because at first, drinking alcohol makes you feel like everything is funny. But after a little while, especially if you're a kid, alcohol does weird things to your brain and your body. You can feel really sick and you can throw up or even have to go to the hospital. Also, people can do really embarrassing things in front of people without realizing they look silly. So, until you're older, it would be best not to drink any alcohol. If someone offers you alcohol at a party, you can always tell me, and you would not get in trouble. And if you drink alcohol and you want to tell me, you won't get in trouble for that either. I am here to help you figure things out and keep yourself safe."
Sex is different. While you may be against your kids having any alcohol ever, it's unlikely you're against them having any sex ever. If you want your children to have a positive and healthy view about their sexuality, it's never too early to start talking openly and casually about sex, as with this 2-year-old who humps her stuffed animals. In addition to the correct terminology for private parts, you can also directly answer questions about how babies are made. "Babies are made by the man's sperm and the woman's egg joining together in the woman's body. Sperm comes out of the man's penis and eggs are inside the woman's body. The sperm gets into the woman's body when the man's penis goes into the woman's vagina. Sex is something that adults do when they love each other. Also, we don't tell other kids about how babies are made because everyone else's parents like to decide when to tell them, like how I decided you're old enough to know now." (Regarding the "love each other" thing, I included it in the example because it's a popular viewpoint. Personally, I believe it's kind of forcing your agenda on your kids. My own words are, "Sex feels good and people do it when they are older and they find someone that they like and want to have sex with.") If you act like sex doesn't exist or is dangerous and bad, you risk your child developing shame and fear around sex.
Don't view education and knowledge as dangerous or harmful. As your child gets older, the amount he or she knows about the world should increase linearly. A 9-year-old should know more about sex than a five year old, who should know at least something, even if it's only body part names and that people shouldn't touch you there except Mommy and Daddy. And a 12-year-old should know quite a bit about sex, drugs, and alcohol, so imagine how much of a shock that stuff will all be if it's the first he's hearing about it. Also, remember that peers give your kids loads of misinformation all the time about these topics, so you want to open up the lines of communication so that if your child does hear something disconcerting or interesting, he will come and ask you for clarification or explanation.
Good luck, and thanks for writing in. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Also Tell Them That Sex Is Often Improved By Judicious Use of Alcohol. Just Kidding.