I was a straight-A student, a varsity tennis player, and an award-winning Academic Decathlete with a secret — I was boy crazy. I hate that phrase! No one ever says “girl crazy” — is that because boys are supposed to think about girls all the time? Well, I never knew if my thoughts were normal or not because teen romance was a taboo topic in my house.
Whenever I mentioned a boy, even just a friend, my parents made sure to remind me that I was not allowed to date until age 25. A voracious reader, I sometimes stumbled upon books with adult content, like “The Joy of Sex.” When my parents noticed my discovery, the book would immediately disappear. If we were watching a movie together and a sex scene started, my mom would fast-forward while standing in front of the TV to block inappropriate content from my view. If I positioned myself just right, I could watch the sped-up scenes in the armoire mirror which reflected the TV screen without her noticing.
Young for my grade, I started high school at age 13. It did not escape my notice that there were 2,000 students in the building each day, approximately half of them male. A friend from the tennis team set me up with her brother’s friend, A., who was 16 and in possession of a car. I could not have been more excited to date an older boy who could show me the ropes since my previous experience was limited to a single kiss akin to being swallowed whole by a drooly alien. A. picked me up from the friend’s house where I told my parents I would be for a date at the ice rink. While we were gone, my mom called my friend (pre-cell phone era) looking for me and she struggled to explain why I was “in the bathroom” for so long. Being grounded only made me want to see A. more. However, soon the relationship fizzled when I realized that he was just as inexperienced as I was and unable to find the ropes let alone show them to me.
The summer I was 14, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. I still don’t know how my parents agreed to send me, except that it was a tennis camp and they really wanted me to improve my game, and a friend came along. Of course, I immediately fell hard for one of the counselors, C., who was lanky and brown from playing tennis all day and had the most adorable blond curls. He was 17 and I’m pretty sure he liked me, too. I hadn’t thought about him until I saw the news the other day about the Wyoming State Senator who impregnated a girl when he was 18 and she was 14. That could have been me if C. hadn’t understood that a 14-year-old is a child and exercised some self control.
When I was 16 or 17, I met G., who was nearly my age, but a grade below me. We clicked. Aware that our relationship wouldn’t last past high school, we made the most of the time we had. On school vacations, I would tell my parents that I was going to the library, but he and I were actually “hanging out” at his house while his single mom worked. She left him a box of condoms and told him if they ran out, she would buy more, no questions asked. When he told me that, my mouth hung open for a good five minutes from shock. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of conversation with my parents. I don’t even remember them explaining the basics of birth control.
Now, as a parent, I wonder if I would have been as “boy crazy” and willing to put myself in dangerous situations (getting in a car alone with a 16-year-old driver at age 13!) if the whole topic of dating and sex hadn’t been so off-limits. Even at age 40, if you tell me not to do something, I want to do it 1,000 times more. This is why I eat more junk food than I should and stay up past my bedtime!
I’m trying a different approach with my kids — openness and honesty and de-mystifying something that is a natural part of the human experience. A close friend recently experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Even though my children are young, I took the opportunity to explain the potential consequences of sex to them, including a baby that you may not be emotionally or financially ready for, in an age-appropriate way. My younger son was under the mistaken impression that pregnancy is only the woman’s problem until I adamantly set him straight. He’s only 7. I promise I will not unleash him on the world until he is 100% clear on this point.
As my kids enter their teens and inevitably have more complex questions about dating and sex, I want them to continue to come to me, not another child or, terrifyingly, an adult trying to take advantage of them. I am laying the groundwork for these conversations now by explaining the mechanics and layering on the emotional subtleties as the kids become ready. No matter what they ask, I try not to act embarrassed, upset, or amused, no matter how I feel, so that they feel safe. I have to believe this will work better than hiding books and standing in front of the TV. Only time will tell.