An earnest article recently published in a reputable magazine advised, “Use the Socratic method when having the birds-and-bees chat with your child. Ask your child, ‘When do you think is a good time to have sex?’ ”
I paused after I read this line. I grew up in the kind of family where, if you did ask one of your offspring, “When do you think is a good time to have sex?” his answer would be something like “In the afternoon” or “After the second cocktail” because you’d be having this conversation with your kid when he was 27, after he’d been married for six years and had four children of his own.
I grew up in a cynical old-time Brooklyn household. The Socratic method, now that I think about it, was often employed in our family. The Socratic method was, I believe, instinctively passed down through our Sicilian family, although it was slightly altered from the original Greek give-and-take method of discourse.
It was used not as a way to illuminate or encourage discussion, however, but instead as a way to drive home the severity of a person’s error so they themselves could discover the depth of their transgression.
For example, you’d say to your sister, who’d just set the table and put the food out for dinner, “Try this soup.” You’d insist and she’d decline. Then you would say it again and again, insisting that she try the soup. Finally, she’d impatiently agree and ask, “Where’s the spoon?” and you’d go “AHA!” in triumph because that was the point you were making the whole time. There was no spoon. She had neglected to give you appropriate cutlery.
The fact that you could reach the drawer where the cutlery was kept and get yourself your own lousy spoon without actually rising from your chair was not the point. She didn’t set the table right. No spoon. She had to learn. It was Socratic method in action without being defined as such.
But nobody would have used it, or any other method, to discuss the birds-and-bees.
First of all, talking about sex was not something anybody did.
Second of all, if you were going to talk about sex, which nobody did, you would never use the phrase “the birds-and-bees.” What are you, a gardener?
But haven’t times changed? Does advice about having a straightforward talk with your kids about sex still need to peek out coyly from behind a modesty curtain hung between John James Audubon (artist and ornithologist) and Burt Shavitz (who owned Burt’s Bees before Clorox bought the company for $925 million a few years back)?
I attempted to pinpoint the first use of the phrase “birds-and-bees” as a euphemism for sex even before I finished reading the article. There are lots of theories: Some say it was a Cavalier poet; others claim it was Coleridge.
The most convincing argument is that the phrase was made widely popular through a publication put out by the Eugenics movement around the turn of the last century. The collection, titled “Safe Counsel,” was reproduced many times in a short period (thereby ironically undermining the basis of the Eugenic philosophy), and it included a description of a mamma bird protecting her eggs and a father figure as a busy bee with pollen sticking to his hairy legs as he disseminates himself against flowers.
If the Eugenics people wanted to keep folks out of the reproduction business, that description alone would do it.
Except that misinformation about sex is just about as pernicious as no information about sex. Both are worse than having lots of information about sex. The wised-up guys and girls never got into “trouble” because they knew what they were doing.
The poor souls whose families were too cowardly or whose schools were too constrained to teach them anything about sex were the ones most truly at risk.
It was my mother who told me about how children are conceived and how bodies worked. I’ve always been grateful to her, especially since nobody else in our family would have approved of her honesty.
When is a good time to have sex? After you both understand what kind of decision you’re making and fully accept the consequences.
And that’s the right answer at any age.