It turns out that I was a pretty good father

My daughter is 32 now but at least she now remembers Father’s Day. She remembers Mother’s Day now too, perhaps because it’s on her Google Calendar by default. For years she ignored these Hallmark holidays (as my wife calls them). I didn’t give her a hard time about it. It’s nice though that after all these years she’s picked up the habit.

She usually sends me a note on Discord on Father’s Day because that’s what her generation does. They don’t enrich Hallmark. They just send a chat message asynchronously. Discord is convenient. For me, its main purpose is to let me know she’s alive. I look for the little green dot next to her name in the app. Discord goes with her everywhere so it’s the easiest way to get a hold of her. Use the telephone? So 20th century!

And that’s fine by me. When she first went to college, there was no Discord and she didn’t even have a phone so there was no way to really know if she was alive. It drove me crazy, even though she was 20 at the time. (She went to two years of community college.) After a week of not hearing from her I called her roommate. That’s how I found out she hadn’t been mugged in some back alley in Richmond, Virginia, where she went to school. She seemed a little miffed, like I didn’t trust her. Okay, I confess to having some boundary issues. It’s always hard to let go. I had been steering her life for two decades.

Now she’s hardly ever offline. I’d have to look up her cellphone number because we never call it. And I’ve stopped worrying if she’s dead or alive. We chat formally once a month on Discord in a video call, and informally during the month. She may be 32, but she still relies on me for ad hoc advice. She’s thinking of a big career move, basically taking a job similar to what she does now in Portland, Maine. (She’s lives in the DC suburbs.) She got dueling job offers from two counties. I helpfully examined the proposals and placed my analysis in a spreadsheet. It made sense to me. A spreadsheet made it easy to compare offers. She appreciated my help but found my using a spreadsheet humorous. Apparently, it’s a very Dad thing to do.

We won’t have to worry about babysitting any grandchild. She eventually figured out that she is asexual. This means she is not drawn to either sex. The idea of having a baby appalls her. She does have a cat, which is not surprising as she grew up with cats. That’s as close as she is likely to be to having a child. We call her cat Mimi our grand kitty. The two kitties we have are sort of like aunts to our grand kitty. It’s unlikely they will ever meet.

While she is unlikely to call us out for special kudos on these holidays, at least she remembers them. It’s also nice to know that we didn’t suck as parents. She does see a therapist and maybe that’s due to being an only child. Or perhaps it’s related to being a 911 operator. It can be a very stressful job at times and the counseling is a free perk.

But occasionally ad-hoc complements arrive. A couple of years back I got one when she remembered I got her vaccinated for the Human Papilloma virus. The vaccine was new at the time and she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, but when I took her for her physical I asked her pediatrician to give her the shot. Actually it was two shots. The virus is generally transmitted sexually, so that’s unlikely to happen to her, but you never know. She could be raped, which happens to many women. While it would definitely be a traumatic episode, she probably wouldn’t have to worry about getting the virus from her rapist. Anyhow, when she remembered talking with her physician, it triggered the thought, “Gosh, Dad was certainly thinking ahead. He really loves me!”

It wasn’t a hard decision for me. She was likely to be sexually active during her life. The shot was a way of preventing her from ever getting the virus, which is a small but hardly minute risk for women, as it can cause cervical cancer among other things. I also remember getting her a Hepatitis B vaccine, also delivered in a couple of doses, something not required but it seemed like a good thing to do. She’d likely have to do some foreign travel to get it, but it can be acquired within the United States.

One of the most important things I did as her parent was to get her a real sex education. No, not the stuff you might get in school, which is superficial and required parental consent even for that. That wasn’t good enough. I remember the laughable one-day sex education “course” I got from a priest at our parochial school. My parents tried to talk about it once and utterly failed. What I learned about sex academically came mainly from reading books at the public library. The information was definitely useful, but not enough. Equally important is the emotional aspects of having sex. There I got zero help and like most Americans had to stumble through it.

Her mother didn’t believe in church, but I wanted her to experience it, so we started attending a local Unitarian Universalist church. There she went to Sunday school while I attended services. After a couple of years, I learned about their Our Whole Lives course. I enrolled her in it. (You can too. You don’t have to be a UU to enroll your kid in the class. Just call your local UU church’s director of religious education. It’s likely free too. Also, it’s not just for kids. How we are as sexual creatures changes with age. So at any age, it’s useful.) It’s the kind of sex education I never got. I didn’t want her to be ignorant and I wanted it to be realistic and grounded. The UU church’s OWL course is likely one of just a handful of courses you can get in the United States that teaches actually useful and comprehensive sex education, including contraception, and sex’s invariable emotional aspects. She is grateful that I enrolled her. She met a friend there that remains perhaps her best friend to this day.

In truth, I didn’t mind being her father. I quite enjoyed it, overall. Certainly there were great highs and great lows too, but not many of them. My childhood was rife with physical and emotional violence meted out by my mom. I made sure none of that happened in her life.

Maybe it would have been helpful for her to have a sibling. One child though was plenty for my wife and me. But overall she was an interesting child from the start. Both of us parents were grounded and pretty intellectual. We did our best to expose her to the complexity of the real world and to fill her life with an appreciation for reading, culture and the arts. We took her to many a Broadway show. We tried not to sugar coat life, while also not making it look too bleak. I think we succeeded.

Parenting is an awesome responsibility, but it needn’t be taken too seriously. You can try to enjoy it. We were plentiful with the hugs and complements. We were protective but not smothering. A few times where she veered too off course we intervened and moved her toward the center. At 32, she remains interesting, grounded and a fun person to know not just our daughter.

So thanks dear for your Father’s Day best wishes. But really, I enjoyed being your father. It was perhaps the greatest privilege in my life. I’m glad to know I didn’t suck and it sounds like I did a pretty good job.

If you love your kids, give them a real sex education

Four years ago, I wrote about the folly of teaching substandard or abstinence-only sex education. Now we have proof, or at least a darn convincing clinical study.

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge,” but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

For most teenagers taking a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage is an exercise in satisfying their parents’ anxieties rather than a sincere conviction. It is hard to know just how sincere teenagers were when they took the pledge. In many cases, they make pledges like this long before they have the maturity to do so. Whether sincere or not, the lure of Mother Nature seems to trump Mom and Dad’s counsel. All that abstinence sex education, sermons in church and lectures from Mom and Dad seem to have no effect on whether and when you decide to have premarital sex. The study started tracking teenagers who took the pledge in 1995. Curiously:

By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises …

Apparently, if you take the virginity pledge and become sexually active, you are also more reticent to take precautions. Did taking the pledge at least delay the onset of sexual activity? Apparently not:

… and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

So there was no benefit for taking an abstinence pledge except falsely assuaging Mom and Dad’s anxieties. However, by taking the abstinence pledge when your child does decide to have sex they are more likely to get pregnant or pick up a disease. They could even pick up AIDS, which is currently incurable and will eventually kill them. This could be the price you and your child pay for trying to assuage your anxieties about premarital sex.

How about trying something different? How about insisting that your children get a comprehensive sexual education rather than one that leaves them woefully ignorant on vital information they need to know? If you are pro-abstinence, it is perfectly correct to point out that, unless your child is raped, it is the only way to guarantee they will not become a parent or pick up a social disease. Of course, abstaining until marriage is no guarantee that they will never pick up a social disease. They may marry a philanderer for a spouse. I know you think your wonderful son or daughter would never do this, but just in case they do, wouldn’t you want your son or daughter to at least be aware of what might await them?

Ignorance is always stupid. To some extent, when it comes to sex education the inclination toward ignorance is understandable, since it is typically an uncomfortable topic for both parent and child. Yet, this inclination must be resisted. If you love your son or daughter you have to make sure they have a comprehensive sex education and that they are prepared to handle the emotional and physical consequences of their choice. For it will be their choice. Even if they do “just say no”, this does not really help them resolve the difficult transition from sexually inactive child to sexually active adult. You can preach as much virtue as you want, but statistically by the time your son or daughter is 21 they will have had on average three sexual partners. Since people are marrying at later ages, they are almost certain to have premarital sex. It is better to get them prepared for that reality.

You can do it by insisting that your school system provide complete and unbiased sex education and by making sure your child takes the course. Abstinence can certainly be mentioned, but it needs to point out that for most teenagers it will be ineffective. Mother Nature fills them with hormones and sexual curiosity. The need to be sexually active is not unlike a hatchling needing to learn how to fly. It is innate and entirely natural. Since most of our precious children are going to be sexually active before marriage, if you really love your children, you must arm them with the information needed to succeed in this transition.

If your school district, like most of them, gives sex education short shrift, there are alternatives. You likely are not a Unitarian Universalist, but you can inquire with a local church to find out when their program, Our Whole Lives, will next be taught. It is one of the few programs out there that is unbiased and covers not only the physical aspects of sexuality but the emotional aspects too. Most UU churches do not require you or your child become a member of the church to take the course.

There is also a lot of online information, with the most reputable information on the Planned Parenthood or the SIECUS web sites. In my humble opinion, these are a poor substitute for classroom teaching but it is better than nothing. If your children are not too squeamish, they probably would be helped hearing your experiences, how you dealt with them and how you felt about each sexual relationship.

Your child must absolutely know how to protect themselves from premature parenthood and social diseases. You must step up to the plate. You could bring home a sample of over the counter birth control products. You can show your son or daughter what a condom looks like and feels like and how it is used, using your fingers as an example.

If you have an excellent relationship with your child, they may even feel free enough to come to you when they feel close to being sexually active. If you have a daughter, you can take her to a gynecologist. Planned Parenthood clinics are in most communities of a certain size. You could show them where the local clinic is and make sure they know that they can get birth control products and STD information confidentially, cheaply and safely.

You may be aghast at some of my suggestions. Let me assure you though that after the initial shock wears off, your child will have a higher opinion of you. Many parents, including mine, skipped most of these steps. I like many ignorant young adults made many preventable mistakes in my journey toward being a sexually active adult. Providing comprehensive tools and information for your children to make the choices they will have to make is a sign of deep love. Your children deserve nothing less.