Seemingly out of the blue the other day, my 10 year-old daughter asked me the following string of questions, “Mom, you know those ads for Cialis? Why do they show older people in those ads? And what is erectile dysfunction? And why would anyone want to have an erection lasting longer than 4 hours?”

Wow, a lot of questions. And the opening up of a big discussion. I wasn’t surprised that she asked. Even though we don’t watch a lot of television in our house (we don’t have TiVo or any premium cable channels), we do watch enough sporting events for my children to get their fill of advertisements for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. You know the ads, the ones that show the older people dancing and smiling, knowing that they’re going to be getting it on later. Or the ones that show people in the woods and on the mountaintop in separate bathtubs. My questions about the ads are more along the lines of “Where does the water come from? Why aren’t there any towels near by?” But not my daughter’s.

She’s known the basics of human anatomy and reproduction for quite a few years. Sex education is taught in her elementary school and she and I have been talking about it for as many years as she’s wanted to. She’s always been very curious. And this curiosity about the human body has given her aspirations of being a physician. (For Hanukah last year, I gave her a stethoscope and a set of scrubs. She was thrilled.) Two years ago I gave her a book titled “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls”. And she sat right down and read it cover to cover. Then we read parts of the book together. And I love this about her: her curiosity, her lack of embarrassment and her trust in talking to me about it. Her brother, who is 13, is the opposite. He took health in 6th grade, where they learned in detail about sex, STDs and contraception. And he doesn’t care to discuss any of it with me. And that’s fine too. As long as he knows that he can. Different genders and different personalities.

Eight years ago, when I was navigating being newly divorced and starting to date, my sister-in-law recommended a book called “From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children From Infancy to Middle School” by Debra Haffner. There was a section in the book about divorce and dating that was helpful to me. But the most important advice that I got from the book was how to talk to your kids about all of these things. Primarily, tell them only as much as they need, or want, to know at that point in time. And start with the most simplistic explanation. You can give them more detail as they ask for it whether it’s in that same conversation or months later. And also as important, don’t lie to them because you don’t think they can handle the truth or because you can’t handle talking about it with them. (“You were born in a cabbage patch” is not an appropriate answer). By following this advice, my kids and I have built a foundation from which we can have more detailed conversations about sex, puberty etc. without it being a big deal. And this is how I handled our latest discussion about erectile dysfunction:
  • Older people are shown in the advertisements because erectile dysfunction generally affects men who are older, like a grandparent’s age, because their bodies are changing. Kind of like getting wrinkles but internally.
  • Erectile dysfunction is when a man’s penis doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. It doesn’t stay erect and therefore he can’t have intercourse. (Yes, she already knows what intercourse is.)
  • And nobody wants a four hour erection. At least nobody that I know. It’s a side effect from the medicine.

Then came my daughter’s clincher, “Why do old people want to have sex?” And I said for the same reason that younger people do. Because it is an act of intimacy and it makes the couple feel good and feel closer to each other. Her response was “Do Mammoo and Poppi (my 70 year-old mother and my 80 year-old stepfather) have sex?” “Yes, they do,” I replied. The look on her face was like someone had just told her that ice cream was made from spinach (she hates spinach). Eeww. And I told her yeah, I didn’t really like to think about them having sex either. And we both laughed. I was feeling pretty good about myself as a parent, having this frank conversation with my kid. And just when I was about to pat myself on the back, she looked at me and said “Do you and Fred (her stepfather) have sex?” “Yes,” I replied. And I got another one of those spinach looks and the same eeww. And for some odd reason, I was a little hurt. I’m not 70. But of course that isn’t really the right reaction to have so I just smiled and said, “Anything else you want to talk about?” “No,” she said and went in to her room to read her (age-appropriate) book.

But television isn’t the only place the kids see this kind of thing. And my daughter isn’t the only one affected. My son got a subscription to Popular Science magazine a few months ago. He is in 7th grade and is a bright and curious teen and we both thought he would enjoy reading it. The other day, out of the blue, he asked me not to renew it when the time comes next year. When I asked why, he showed me a few pages towards the end of the May 2010 edition. There were some small ads for companies selling Levitra, Cialis and other “FDA-approved lifestyle medications”. Not what I thought would be in there but not a big deal. Then I started looking through the whole magazine and came across a full page ad for American Spirit menthol cigarettes complete with a tear-out promotional coupon, an ad for Kahlua and one for Camel Snus, a chewing tobacco.

I was picking up the phone to call and cancel his subscription while still flipping through the magazine when I saw the ultimate deal breaker. It was a ¾ page ad for Dr. Bross Pro+ Plus pills, promising a permanently bigger penis size. Not just bigger but also “longer, thicker, firmer.” Dr. Bross also sells Sexciter For Women that “makes women beg you for sex.” It can be put in any liquid without detection but the ad says “you should get her permission.” WTF? In Popular Science magazine? It’s too bad because my son had been enjoying the articles.

I’m really glad that my son pointed out these ads to me because not only could we talk about it but I’ve learned from this experience. Next time I want to purchase a magazine subscription for my kids, for a magazine that is not specifically for kids, I’ll go to the library first and look at some previous copies to see what else is in them.

It’s been a couple of days since both of these conversations and I feel good about how I handled them. The reality is that my kids are exposed to all kinds of information that they shouldn’t be exposed to. And I think of my children as being sheltered compared to most of their peers. We don’t watch the news and there are only certain sections of our local newspaper, and even of the New York Times, that are left out for them to read. I’m strict about what movies they watch and what books they read. My daughter’s been after me to let her read the “Twilight” series and I keep saying no. I read it and I just don’t think it’s appropriate for her yet. My kid, my opinion. I don’t want them to grow up too fast but I’m also not going to home school them or disconnect our home from the world. I’m looking for the happy medium.

So I’ll keep the conversations going about what they are learning and about what they are seeing. And hopefully, this will reinforce the fact that they can talk to me about anything. And I guess this past week’s experiences have been good because the resulting conversations were good. I think I will pat myself on the back. And pat my kids on their backs too. So far so good.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of ordering Dr. Bross’ miracle pill for my husband. The ad says it’s an all natural, non-prescription herbal formula. I’m not complaining but I might like “longer, thicker, firmer”.  He doesn’t need the erectile dysfunction medications though. I don’t have an extra four hours in my day.