My wife, Mel, approached me in the kitchen and said, “I just caught the kids looking at their butt holes. We should talk to them about that.”
Mel was in jeans, and wearing a pink and white shirt. In her right arm was our new baby, Aspen. It was Mel’s 32nd birthday, and it was a Friday evening. I’d just placed candles in Mel’s cake and was washing my hands at the sink.
It took me a moment to figure out what the hell she just said. I played a scene out in my head where Tristan (age 7) and Norah (age 4) were naked, bending over, and giggling. In my mind, it seemed innocent enough, but the more I thought about it, the stranger it became.
One of my duties as a father was to get the kids ready for bed, which really was a collection of other duties, one of them being herding the kids into the bath. Moments earlier, I’d started filling up the tub in the kids’ bathroom, and started the shower in the parents’ bathroom, and then stepped into the kitchen while Tristan and Norah got undressed. Somehow in the few moments it took me to walk down the hall to the kitchen, our children had decided to explore their butts.
Shit like this was the main reason they were bathing separately. About six months ago both kids were in the tub. Mel caught Tristan and Norah play fighting. Tristan was wielding his penis like a weapon, while Norah was holding a rubber ducky like a sword. The rest of the details are sketchy, but from what I understand the weapons collided. There were giggles. Then Mel made Tristan move into the other bathroom. When Mel broke up this ducky penis fight, Tristan and Norah acted like she was the strange one. Like she was the one who needed decency education.
It was then that Mel and I decided they were getting too old to bathe together.
I have to assume that actions like this are a natural part of childhood curiosity, but at the same time, I feel an obligation as a parent to help my kids understand social decency. It’s probably nothing to worry about. But then again, it’s down right strange, and I want it to stop. I don’t want to be the parent of that dude in Central Park showing strangers his penis. Nor do I want to get an email down the road from someone telling me that my daughter has been spotted on Girls Gone Wild showing strangers (the world) her butt hole. I’m all for unconditional love, but right now, at this moment, I like the idea of my kids growing up to be responsible adults who dress modestly. Adults with families, carriers, and a complete and well-worn wardrobe. Call me old fashioned, but the last thing I’m going to do is encourage genital to bath toy play fights, or the examination of family butts.
Mel and I were both standing in the kitchen now.
“Hold on…” I said. “Say that again.”
Mel let out a breath, like what she was saying was an everyday thing, and easy to understand, and the fact that I asked her to repeat it made me the fool.
“I was in Norah’s room getting some PJ’s for Aspen when I overheard Norah say, ‘What’s that hole in your butt?’ Then Tristan said, ‘It’s my butt hole. Want to look at it?’ I heard laughter. Once I came into the bathroom, things had obviously progressed because Tristan was now looking at Norah’s butt hole.”
She paused for a moment. Then she said, “We should have a talk with them.”
Usually when Mel says, “we should talk with them” she means, “You should talk with them.” Normally I fight this assumption, but I did consider the fact that it was Mel’s birthday. I thought about how I’d like to spend my birthday, and I knew that it wasn’t handling some strange moment like the one we were discussing.
“How exactly do you suggest I handle this?” I said.
I honestly didn’t know how to approach this subject. What were the ramifications of it all? What were my kids experimenting with? Was this something that needed to be handled? I never examined any of my siblings’ butts. I thought about asking Mel if she ever examined any of hers’, but then decided I’d rather not know.
If they weren’t brother and sister, that would be one thing. But they were, and that was just strange. I assumed that both were too young for this to be a sexual thing, but at the same time, I didn’t really know. It felt like we were moving into some strange new territory as parents, a land filled with brothers and sisters looking at each other’s butts. A community I’d rather not be a part of.
“Just go tell them that it’s not appropriate, and that they shouldn’t do it anymore.”
Her explanation sounded simple enough, but I knew that it wouldn’t be that easy. I wondered if I should speak to them together, or separately. I knew that I needed to chat with them tonight, or they would forget about the whole thing. I wondered if I should chat with them while they were bathing, if I should wait until we were all at the table eating birthday cake. I imagined it. Mel blowing out her candles after we sang the happy birthday song. Then we’d all sit around the table, and as we munched on cake, I’d bring up an awkward conversation about butt holes.
For the sake of Mel, I decided to talk to them individually as they bathed.
Tristan was in the shower. I thought for a moment before I approached him. I ran a few heart felt parenting speeches through my head. Ones that I thought would be appropriate to handle such a strange subject. All of them seemed to start with “When a young boy becomes a man…” or “When I was a boy…”, but nothing I could think of really fit the complicated subject matter that I was dealing with.
Once I got to my son, all of those long winded, Tim Taylor style, life changing dad speeches went out the window.
“Hey,” I said. “Don’t look at your sister’s butt hole.”
“Why not?” Tristan said. He was naked, in the shower. Water was running down his chest, his mouth in a half frown, hands clenched in fists at his sides. He looked offended, like he was a teenager and I’d told him not to smoke pot, or hang out with a group of troublemakers.
Then he started laughing.
Tristan is a complex little guy. When faced with a situation he doesn’t like, or doesn’t understand, he will get angry at first, and then try to make a joke to lighten the situation. I did the same thing when I was young, so I understand his logic. But what I didn’t understand as a boy was how infuriating it is to try to talk to someone about a serious subject, and have the person laugh in your face, or make jokes the whole time.
“It’s weird,” I said. “Do you ever see me or mom looking at our butt holes?”
Tristan thought about this for a moment, and then he laughed. “I don’t know, but that would be really funny if you did.”
Rather than linger on what was obviously a bad comparison, I kept talking.
“Do you have friends that do that? Please tell me that you don’t have friends that look at your butt hole.”
“No. I don’t,” he said.
Then he started laughing harder, and I got worried that I’d just given him an idea. Suddenly I imaged getting a call home from school on this subject, and realized that, right then, I was failing as a father.
We went back and forth for a while. I explained to him that what he was doing was inappropriate and strange, and I didn’t want him to do it anymore.
“Fine,” he said while rolling his eyes. “I won’t look at Norah’s butt hole anymore.”
I wasn’t sure if I could believe him, so I said, “Do you promise?”
Tristan let out a long breath, “Yes! Dad!”
I didn’t push it any further.
“Thank you,” I said.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley