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They say it is perfectly normal for kids of certain age to start asking some uncomfortable questions that generally go under the rubric "about birds and bees." I know it is not only to irritate us or to rub our noses in our parental malfunctioning or incompetence; I know it is more urgent than this. It is probably the first critical point in the communication between parents and children; the earlier, more innocent exchanges of cute name-substitutes for various children's organs at bath time do not count anymore. Oh, those glorious days when parents will bask in the eyes of their babies, speaking sweetly to the smiling or frowning or, in the worst case scenario, crying bundles of joy, never expecting an answer, or a question for that matter, but a content gurgle. Then, the inevitable growth turns the bundle into a sizable body and mind, and this mind wants to know – because: the rest of the kids talk about it, because there is a profusion of bodies doing things on television and screen and one wonders what and why; because some older boys and girls in school are strangely holding hands yet they are not playing "Ring-a, ring-a roses…"; because after a spell of rather noisy nights in early spring the neighbor's cat gives birth to several cute kittens; because our cousin Mary's stomach looks as if it's going to burst any moment, yet she is not afraid but very happy and fanatically painting a room in light blue and cream.
And then naturally follows the issue of who talks to whom: in an ideal world boys get the information from their fathers, the latter probably caught unaware while resting with a newspaper on a sofa or tackling some (manly) house chore; the same goes to an extent for the girls, shyly approaching their loving mothers who might be in the midst of a splendid bake or a creative outburst in the garden. Alas, the times have changed severely; it is not just a change in the stereotypically described scenario above, but shrinkage in time that catches parents quite unprepared for the curiosity that accompanies the mental development of their growing little geniuses. While it seems that we have been preparing all our lives to be "proper" parents and to answer all questions of our kids better than our own parents had answered us, a strange glitch sometimes in the communication appears, awkwardly veiled by a cough or a remark like "Hm, that is an interesting question. Why do you ask?" Why? because…
As the dust jacket of It's Perfectly Normal: A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley points out, "more than one million copies sold" and "15 years in print" are serious recommendations for any parent to get the book and carefully browse. The information is hardly going to surprise us, yet I believe we will learn from the tone used to discuss the sensitive issues of human sexuality. Written in a very approachable, humorous manner, the book introduces these sensitive issues to a very tricky audience, those who are ten and up. It is divided in several parts, with chapters covering the questions of what sex is, the body, changes in puberty, families and babies, decision-making, responsibility, and staying healthy. A new updated version, "updated for the 21st century," the book touches in an appropriate manner the thorny problems of sexual abuse and protection from sexually-transmitted diseases. Obviously an authority in sex education, Harris skillfully maneuvers the minefield of questions that require urgent and honest answers. Humor and seriousness mingle in her voice, and probably that will help both parties – parents and children – to stomach what seems embarrassing on the surface.
The wonderful illustrations in the book are by Michael Emberley who digresses from the factologically accurate picture into the child-friendly image. There is a running cartoon story, with the proverbial "Bird" and "Bee," to entertain yet to catch the attention of such a demanding audience. Here is a winning package, then: simple, honest words, clear, colorful images, and the voices of children and parents. It is a dialogue which might or might not happen in reality, but the book strongly encourages both sides to talk and discuss anything from love and sexual desire to AIDS and gender roles.
After reading the book, there was only one question lingering in me, a personal one, no doubt. If these are the kids "of certain age," what is "certain age" nowadays, because, honestly I am at a loss: if you happen to be a parent of a five-year old like me, a book for ten-year olds and up is all too welcomed right now. I enjoyed leafing through, of course by myself, thinking about my most recent conversations with my daughter who surely could benefit from an abridged version of It's Perfectly Normal even now. Harris and Emberley, thankfully, have teamed on another two projects, It's Not the Stork (for age four and up) and It's So Amazing (for age seven and up) which theoretically have to fill in the blanks up to the teens. Yet judging by the ill-placed, good-intentioned urgency of my own daughter's questions, I need to brace up and synthesize so much information (here education and intellect are helpful but not that much). I also keep asking myself "What has happened in the last 25-30 years? Who told us about the birds and the bees, and how did it happen that we are in the said uncomfortable position to explain to our curious offspring about those birds and bees we ourselves hated to bring to the attention of our parents?"
© 2010 Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis
Dr Rossitsa Terzieva-Artemis is an Assistant Professor in the Languages Department at the University of Nicosia, Cyprus, specializing in modern British and American literatures, psychoanalysis, and continental philosophy.