Teaching What it Means to Be a Man. Or Woman.

IMG_8715We were recently invited to have a conversation with a bunch of 6th and 7th graders about what it means to be a man or a woman, including answering any questions they had about sex. After balking at the idea, and bringing up all the reasons we weren’t qualified to guide such a talk, only to have them all shot down, we eventually agreed to it.

Fortunately, another parent had already spent some time with the giggling hormone-riddled youths to explain the ins and outs of sex from a medical perspective. They got whatever myths they grew up with busted by a real doctor.

Waldorf education is all about encouraging kids to develop their sense of wonder, relying heavily on stories, especially fairy tales, to help expand their imagination. But at some point, even Waldorf kids are expected to move from imaginary worlds to logic, structure, and, well, reality. Farewell storks, cabbages, and baby-delivering dwarves (that’s a thing, right? It has to be a thing) and HELLO SEX! and penises, vaginas, fallopian tubes, eggs and sperm, and all the other giggly words.

So we were asked to come have a conversation with these awkward adolescents about the relational side of sex, and to include a few thoughts on what it means to become a man or a woman.

As we were relaying our experience to a couple of parents the other morning, I laughed and said that I’m not qualified to teach what it means to be a man. I feel that way because I reject most of how our culture defines what a real man is like. To the point where Jessica and I don’t teach our kids much about what it means to be a man and a woman (beyond the obvious physical changes) and teach instead what it means to be a mature human being. A grown-up. An adult.

We have found that once we define what it’s like to be a mature human being, there is, in essence, no difference between being a mature male adult and being a mature female adult. At the same time, we have to teach them about our culture’s stereotypes so that our children understand what they are up against as they stand tall as human beings and attempt to transcend these very stereotypes. Our girls need to understand the cultural views that other boys and girls learn so that they can discern and protect themselves when their value is questioned and their boundaries are threatened.

The conversation that we had with these sweet and truly remarkable schoolchildren was wonderful. Yes, there were giggles (so many giggles), and awkwardness, and elbowing while failing at suppressing more giggles, but these young people engaged in the conversation and were right there with us when we talked about gender equality (makes sense!), chivalry (no thanks), and mutual respect. When it came to sex, we talked about consent and Jessica gave them some great advice: “Don’t do anything you’re not ready to pay for.” And we were also able to answer some very specific questions about periods and what testicles are for (some may never look at a plate of spaghetti the same way again. Ever. Sorry about that.)

Sure, there were a few rabbit trails, but all in all Jessica and I felt like it was a very positive conversation, and my insecurity about not being able to explain what it means to be a man (beyond the requisite boy reaching physical maturity) didn’t even have a place among these kids who generally don’t care a stitch about stereotypes.

How refreshing. And how full of hope those interactions were for me. And here I thought the awkward conversation would be for the sole benefit of the kids. I’m so glad I was wrong about that. Here’s to hope for humanity!

~ Jeremy

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