Two years ago, when Emmy was 6, she spent the day with her aunt and cousin. When I came to pick her up, she had her nose deep in a book. Emmy has always loved to read, and I can’t count how many times she’s discovered a book at a friend’s house that she then asked me to buy for her so she could finish the story.
“She’s been reading that book all day,” said Emmy’s aunt. “I hope it’s OK.”
I took a closer look at what Emmy was reading. It was a book about puberty and sexual development. I was a bit taken aback. It wasn’t a simple animated, gloss-over-the-big-stuff book. This was a book about ovaries, fallopian tubes, penises, uteruses and fertilized eggs.
I decided that if the book had captured Emmy’s attention, it was a sign that we needed to talk about it. The book was heavy. I wanted to make sure that I could alleviate any concerns she had or answer any questions.
Before then, I’d only gone over the very basics of womanhood with Emmy. I made sure that she knew the right terminology for all of her body parts. (Back in the day, I was shocked when I realized that some of my teenage friends didn’t know the difference between their urethra and vagina and the functions of each.)
I bought the book for Emmy, and when it arrived, we read some of it together. In the back of my mind, I thought about what others would say. Should a 6-year-old know the real way babies are made? Is it necessary? How young is too young? In previous generations, talking about sex with your parents was often awkward—or nonexistent. And if there were conversations about “the birds and the bees,” they often came near puberty, when many of us had already figured it all out on our own—or thought we had.
I knew that I wouldn’t wait until puberty to talk to Emmy. If a 6-year-old is voraciously reading a book about puberty, it’s probably time to have the talk. And I’m glad I did talk to Emmy. Because there was one part of the menstruation process that she was clearly confused about.
After I explained exactly what happens during a menstrual cycle, Emmy asked if it hurt.
“It can be uncomfortable,” I said.
“So when is this going to happen?” she asked.
“It’s hard to say exactly. A few more years, at least.”
Emmy sighed heavily. “Well, I guess I’ll be able to handle it.”
“Of course you will!” I said. “Look at me—I handle it all the time.”
“Wait,” said Emmy. “I thought you said it happened at puberty?”
“It does,” I said. “The first time. And then it happens every month.”
Emmy’s mouth dropped in horror: “It happens every single month? For how long?”
When I explained that it would happen throughout adulthood until menopause, Emmy almost passed out. I revived her and we talked more about what it would mean and how she would handle it each month. As I look back, it makes me chuckle when I remember Emmy freaking out because she thought she would get her period only once in her life.
But that anecdote supports my approach to discussing sexuality with her. What if she had continued believing that for several more years? Clearly, even reading descriptive books is not the same as going over the information in a real conversation.
Eight-year-old Emmy is now pretty well versed in puberty and sexual growth. But I continue to revisit the subject to see if she has questions or concerns. I’ve noticed that the older she gets, the more eye rolls I get when I tell her we can talk about anything she doesn’t understand. (“I know, Mom,” is a constant refrain.) But I also know that because I opened up the conversation early on, she’ll always know that she can ask me anything and get the naked truth.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.