Last week I infiltrated a group of mothers in full-blown discussion. The topic du jour was the expansive vocabulary among our current fourth graders, particularly vocabulary concerning the body and things that bodies do together. Let’s talk about sex, baby; at the lunch table, in the hallways, behind the covers of the math book. I didn’t think too much of it. Then today I got an articulate and nicely worded email from the fourth grade teaching team letting us know that they knew that we knew that they knew the kids were up to something new. The students, apparently, have been using dictionaries in a creative way. (Read: thumbing to the dirty words). My first thought was: “Thank God they are still teaching kids how to use dictionaries!”.
The fact that the school actually took note of the issue and didn’t simply applaud the children for their creative use of the dictionary leads me to believe that it wasn’t just a couple of boys looking up ‘boobs’ on Google or passing notes of a badly drawn phallus. Bear in mind, we live in an exceedingly open society here in Copenhagen. In fact, when you are confronted with some ancient, elderly scrotum dipping* in the frigid waters of the Oresund Sound, one could be forgiven for thinking that Danes can be a bit too open. These are fourth graders who attend an international school; most of them have been around the grade school block a few times. Many have older siblings, a few of them watch movies that would make me blush. When they swim at the local pool they are required to shower, sans swimsuit, fulfilling their recommended daily allowance of nudity. This is a generation of kids who are inundated with sexuality and sexual imagery from an early age, from sexualized dolls to hoochie mama clothing and butt crack bearing jeans to Top 40 songs with sexually explicit lyrics. Above and beyond any of that is the fact that these kids are at an age where it is totally natural to start to question the sexuality that surrounds them like mist, to start to break through the innuendo that blankets their lives. Yet their enterprising vocabulary inquiries are surprising? Mountains out of mole hills, tempests in teapots, a tale of a fourth grade nothing.
When I was in fourth grade, I had a dreamy boyfriend and we made out under his porch. I objected when he tried to slip his fifth grade tongue into my fourth grade mouth–no second base for me–but we were slobbering all over each other on a regular basis. I didn’t think of my pre-breasted, slim-hipped, tom-boyish self as promiscuous back then, nor do I now. By fifth grade students were watching the film about periods and pubic hair. By seventh grade, Flowers in the Attic and Forever were being passed around with paper bag covers. I’m pretty sure fourth grade is when I found out what 69 meant, via a much crumpled and uncrumpled piece of note paper that got passed around. In fifth grade, the boys had a vote and ranked the prettiest girls in Mrs. Mohan’s class (a surprising third place finish for me). The point being, this is not new stuff.
Frankly, the fact that a handful of nine and ten year-olds are discovering that intercourse is more than social is far less surprising to me than the fact that anyone would find this surprising. I am more freaked out by the idea of my son playing Call of the Duty Assassin Ops 9 or whatever it is than I am about him using a dictionary (a dictionary!) to find out what sex means. Just because the boys are Googling or researching or whispering or guessing doesn’t mean that they are going to go out and grab the nearest fourth grade girl and drag her back to the classroom by the hair. Just because the girls are experimenting with makeup and wearing short skirts and thrusting their pre-pubescent boobs in the boy’s direction doesn’t mean they’re going to end up on Teen Mom 6. So no, the fact that my son’s classmates are giggling and looking up dirty words isn’t freaking me out. Yet.
I say yet because talking about sex, the mechanics of it, is the easy part. My son knows the rudiments and the logistics. He is thoroughly and appropriately disgusted by what goes where and who does what to whom. He is up to date with what the next few years are going to bring, not only for himself, but for his female peers. He’s been chased by a gaggle of girls at a school dance and had to spend some time under a chair and is just now starting to tweak what that means for him down the line. He is still more interested in doing the robot at the school dance than he is brooding over Janie in the corner, though that may change by the end of the year. But the basics–what sex is, how do you do it, why your armpits smell, those things are just the first chapter. Now comes the hard part. The next phase, the untangling of emotions, the gentle suggestions of advice, the subtle art of guidance, that is the hard stuff.
Next comes the constant reinforcement of degrees of respect; because with the knowledge of what sex is has to come the knowledge of where and with who, and most importantly, when to and when not to. There will have to be conversations about sexualized words that are used to insult and oppress. There will have to be conversations about how it is never ok to hurl slang words at each other, even if and especially if, you know what they mean. Now the conversations will shift to why it is never okay to call a girl a bitch or a boy a dick, and just stop to think about what ‘motherfucker’ really means, won’t you? I’m not naive enough to believe that my kids are never going to taste the power of those words on their tongue; and they are powerful, which is why they are so attractive, especially to tweens and teens. It is our job as parents to make sure that our kids know the power behind using sex terms as insults, that they understand that pressuring someone into something they are not comfortable with is wrong, that accepting or trading sexual favors, despite assurances, is demeaning. (And if you think fourth graders looking up dirty words is shocking, talk to the moms of some teens I know, whose sons are regularly offered oral sex, offers that are often accompanied by nude selfies.) It will now move into more tricky territory, these conversations. From ‘what is?’ to ‘what if?’, from ‘what’s that?’ to ‘think long and hard before you pass go and collect your $200’.
My son is only nine, only a fourth grader. Tonight he will go off to his disco. He will do funky, robot moves with his best friend out there on the dance floor. He’ll probably have to fend off a girl or two. Perhaps he won’t fend them off this time; perhaps the first flutterings of attraction will beat tonight in that sweaty cafeteria, in harmony with What Does the Fox Say? When he comes home, exhausted and sweaty, perhaps he will have his own tale to tell me.
A tale of a fourth grade something.
*dipping is the Danish custom of immersing one’s self in the sea year round, usually nude
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is a book by Judy Blume, a favorite of my generation
For more about my thoughts on kids and sex, you can check out these posts: