Transcript

341:

How to Talk to Kids
Transcript

Originally aired 10.05.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/341

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Girl 1

I have a relative that's my aunt. She doesn't really know how to talk to kids. She's sort of--

Girl 2

My grandma. She doesn't know what to say to me. She's trying to talk to me, but usually she doesn't know what to say.

Boy 1

The people on my dad's side, they don't know how to talk to kids. They go, oh, you're so cute. They have got to say like, oh, he's so cute--

Girl 3

Oh, you're so cute.

Boy 1

--like you were born yesterday.

Girl 4

Not me only, but a lot of other kids don't like to be talked down to like they're three years old.

Girl 5

Sometimes when they speak to children, their voice changes into this kind of voice where they're talking to two year olds.

Ira Glass

It's like they're talking to you with baby talk.

Girl 5

Yeah. They still think I'm a five year old.

Ira Glass

Fellow adults, if you have ever had the experience of hanging around with a kid and not knowing what to say, and you told yourself, well, whatever, they're just a child. They're so different from us. They won't really notice. Turns out? Wrong.

Girl 5

She says, how's school? What's going on? She tries to understand--

Girl 1

So, how was school?

Girl 3

How was school is the typical adult question. So you have to answer it like 6,000 times a year. So if they say, how is school, you know they have nothing else to say, or they don't know what to say.

Girl 5

So, how is school? All adults do that, no matter what. Some adults are worse than others, but--

Girl 3

Adults should know by now, kids don't really like talking about school. It's always like, what did you do? And the kid says, nothing. Or they'll say something like, we had math today.

Boy 2

Yeah, with my parents, I just go, can you ask more specific? When it's just like that, and I just want to get out of it, I just go, oh, it's been really nice. Yeah, I like science the best. Assuming their next question, and then getting out of it.

Ira Glass

If you want to talk to kids, kids say, talk about stuff that interests you and them, like you would with anybody. Also, not so much teasing all the time. Also, don't repeat the same things to them every time you see them.

Boy 3

My parents, they're always asking, so, who do you have a crush on?

Boy 1

Mine too! Mine too.

Boy 3

Well, I have a neighbor that kind of teases me. He's pretty old. He always says like, you're a mama's boy and, who's your girlfriend? Well, it just doesn't feel right.

Boy 1

Also, sometimes they make a joke when you're seven, and you laugh so much at it. And then, when you're 10 or 11, it's not so funny anymore. And they keep saying the joke. And you just go, oh, that's not very funny anymore.

Ira Glass

Can you think of an example like that?

Boy 1

My dad, he's the kind of guy who makes those jokes all the time. And he's like-- I asked him now, can you make me a sandwich? He's like, poof! Aw, didn't work. And that really annoys me. He does that all the time in front of my friends. And it kind of annoys me sometimes.

Ira Glass

Now was that funny when you were five?

Boy 1

Yeah. It was funny like the first couple of times.

Boy 4

Honestly, when his dad goes like, poof, sandwich! Aw, didn't work, honestly, I find that really funny, sometimes.

Boy 1

You're not around him all the time. And it gets repetitive. And it's not that funny anymore.

Ira Glass

Now are you saying that people should talk to you guys like you're adults exactly? Or is there a difference?

Girl 5

Not like adults, but just like, not three year olds. Just ten year olds, which we are.

Ira Glass

Of course for the kids it's totally obvious the difference between a three year old and a ten year old, and a fifteen year old, and whatever. But for adults, that is exactly what is so delicate. You don't want to talk down, but you also don't want to be unclear. You want to relate and be fun, but you also are the adult and you have to be the voice of responsibility, and sometimes, actually, discipline. And so today we bring you stories of people who have struggled to do this well, taking very different approaches, in some very tough situations. Some real stumpers, actually. Situations where most of us would have a hard time figuring out what to say.

Our show today in three acts. Act One, So, Kids: A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Hooker Walk into a Bar. In that act, two men get a job where they have to make jokes for kids, though they actually don't have any special understanding of kids at all. Act Two, Age of Consent. You know, you tell your kids, come to me, tell me anything. So what do you do then when they take you up on it, and say things to you that you have no idea how to respond to? Act Three, Use Your Words. In that act, Dan Savage makes the case for yelling at children. No kidding. Not just yelling, but trying to scare them with your yelling. Stay with us.

Act One. So, Kids: A Priest, A Rabbi, And A Hooker Walk Into A Bar...

Ira Glass

Act One. Sean O'Connor and Nick Maritato have jobs that keep them about as far away from talking to kids as anybody could be. They're professional comedians. Young ones, just starting out. Their job is basically to say stuff that kids shouldn't hear. Until this summer. They got hired to perform at summer camps, six summer camps. Average age of the audience? 11. One of the producers of our show, Jane Feltes, tells what happened.

Jane Feltes

Sean usually gets to work around 9:00 or 10:00 at night. He often performs at a bar called Rififi, in the East Village in New York City. Everyone here is in their 20s, drinking, and talking about where they're going to drink later. You know, adult stuff.

Sean O'connor

I just got kicked out of college. And I called my friend up. And I was like, hey, Jimmy, what are you doing tonight? And he's like, oh man, I just bet Steve that I could do heroin and not get addicted to it.

Jane Feltes

Sean is 22, and he's hilarious. He has a small following. Sometimes he headlines. His audience loves him. He's kind of like a younger, blonder, cuddlier Jack Black. His material is about doing drugs, and being lazy, and getting in trouble in high school, and being mistaken for gay. So who would ask this guy to make jokes for kids at summer camp? Rachel Tipograph. And she has a lot of experience.

Rachel Tipograph

I went to camp. I went to day camp. And then I went seven years sleep away camp in Maine. And I was a counselor at camp last summer.

Jane Feltes

Rachel is in college, and she's a super ambitious 20 year old. She has business cards and letterhead. This summer, drawing on her eight years of camp experience, Rachel came up with an idea. Camps hire local entertainers, who Rachel thinks could be more entertaining.

Rachel Tipograph

A lot of times, you'll see a magician. And he's been there for 15 years. And he's getting very old. And he has his son helping him. Or you'll see a local DJ, you know, ex-hippie, knows all about Woodstock, he was there. So I was like, you know what? Entertainment doesn't have to be corny. It doesn't have to be crappy. These camps are in travelable distance from New York City. The New York City comedy world's great, but it's not lucrative. So why not send these young comedians, who are very flexible, out to the camps?

Jane Feltes

So she set up this business and started to recruit comedians. Which led her to Nick and Sean. But it wasn't an easy sell. Here's Nick.

Nick Maritato

When Sean asked me to do this, he asked me via text message. He was like, hey, do you want to do comedy for camps this summer? And I said, no, exclamation point. And then I was like, uh, we're getting paid for that, right?

Jane Feltes

This is Sean.

Sean O'connor

She was like, there's a ton of money involved. And I was like, awesome! Perfect! Say no more. This is great.

Jane Feltes

Did your eyes turn into dollar signs?

Sean O'connor

It did, it did. And I opened my mouth, and just went cha-ching. It was weird. My head was a cash register.

Jane Feltes

The ton of money that turns a struggling comedian's head into a cash register might not be as much as you think. Nick and Sean usually don't even get paid. In fact, they told me that a lot of the time, they have to pay to get on stage. Or do what's called a bringer-- bring their own audience. And that gets old fast for the handful of friends who are willing to go.

Rachel, on the other hand, was offering $500 a show. And they were doing six shows. A ton of money to these guys. But they were going to have to work for it.

Sean O'connor

Boom! Falling off a couch. Falling into a couch. Falling next to a couch.

Jane Feltes

To write all new, kid friendly comedy, the guys spent hours in the living room, watching Nickelodeon, looking for pointers.

Television Character

Nothing better on a peanut butter sandwich than pickled chips, a little bit of mustard.

Sean O'connor

Foods like chili, and mustard, and pickles? Hilarious.

Jane Feltes

Stand up comedy is all about relating to an audience. Talking really frankly about the things we all experience, and then adding some funny observation that we wish we thought of. That's why so many jokes start with, so you know when you're at the DMV? Or, the thing about working in an office is. But these kids are 11. Nick told me they thought about producing some tutorial videos that would give the campers the essential background information they needed, in order to understand his jokes.

Sean O'connor

We had this idea. We were like, it would be funny if we--

Nick Maritato

Like, tell a joke, and it would be about sex. And then cut to, OK, when a man loves a woman-- like have to explain life to them before.

And a long time ago, white people thought it was OK to own black people. They used a very dirty word called the n-word. And we're not going to use it right now. Do kids at this age know they're going to die yet? No?

[PHONE DIALIING AND RINGING]

Sean O'connor

Hey, Rachel.

Rachel Tipograph

How are you?

Sean O'connor

I'm good, how are you?

Jane Feltes

To top it all off, Rachel gave them a list of things they're absolutely not allowed to joke about. No sex, drugs, alcohol, getting in trouble, no ethnic jokes, no making fun of kids, no making fun of parents, no making fun of camp counselors, no hurting anyone's feelings, which really doesn't leave the guys much to work with. And they call Rachel now and then to run ideas by her.

Sean O'connor

We just were wondering about like I have this joke about how I got gay-bashed. Can I talk about that?

Rachel Tipograph

No. If you guys started doing that, I can honestly see a camp woman getting on stage, and kicking you guys off.

Sean O'connor

Whoa. I wouldn't want that. I don't want that.

Rachel Tipograph

Yeah, I don't want that either.

Sean O'connor

Can we make fat jokes, like about us?

Rachel Tipograph

Um. If you honestly think like, oh, well this joke might get me in trouble, I wouldn't do it.

Sean O'connor

OK.

Nick Maritato

OK, thanks Rachel.

Rachel Tipograph

OK. Thank you.

Sean O'connor

All right. Bye.

Rachel Tipograph

Bye.

Jane Feltes

They tried adapting some of their regular material, like a joke Sean had about having a party when your parents are out of town, and getting drunk and destroying stuff. Only without the party, or the drinking, or the destruction.

A few days before the first show, Rachel asked Nick and Sean to send over a script of their entire routine, just so she could be absolutely sure they were on schedule and being kid appropriate. And she approved almost all it. Which sounded promising. Until I asked Sean to try out some of the material on me.

Sean O'connor

Yeah. Oh, man. They're so bad. I love soup because not only is it delicious, it's also an awesome weapon.

Jane Feltes

I don't get it.

Sean O'connor

It's hot. Because soups hot. If you throw it at someone, it hurts. What if I said hot soup?

Jane Feltes

It's a three hour drive north to Camp Taconic in Massachusetts. And on the way up, the guys are singing along to music, and stopping for donuts, and doing impressions of Rachel. But the mood turns as we get closer to camp.

Sean O'connor

Oh, my Lord. It's a real camp.

Jane Feltes

The first thing we see when we pull up to Camp Taconic are rows of cute little cabins. There's a pond, and a barn, and a tether ball, and kids scattered about.

Sean O'connor

I quit. See you later.

Nick Maritato

I'm done. We're done. This is over. Interview done.

Sean O'connor

Oh, my God. This is so weird. And scary. I have so many different feelings right now.

Jane Feltes

Like?

Sean O'connor

Fear. Nervousness. Getting bitten by bugs, is that a feeling?

Jane Feltes

The show is being held in a little lodge. And there are long wooden benches full of fidgety kids wrapped in blankets. A few hundred of them. They look so tiny. You can tell they're really excited. I overhear one boy asking his friends, "Do you think these guys know Dane Cook?" Who is pretty much the favorite stand-up among preteens right now.

Counselors get their kids to quiet down, and Nick and Sean walk to the mic. They have been planning this moment for weeks, writing, and rewriting, and guessing about how the kids would react. And now, here they were.

Counselor

The longer it takes for you to be quiet, the longer it takes for us to start. Thank you very much.

Sean O'connor

The first thing that you could do is introduce what we are going to do first, for this friggin' awesome thing.

Jane Feltes

Friggin'. He said friggin'. Kids look at each other like, what did he almost say? It just throws everybody, Sean and Nick included.

Nick Maritato

Um. What are we going to do?

Jane Feltes

It goes steadily downhill from there. Jokes don't land. And some jokes, they're like not even jokes.

Sean O'connor

Here's another reason why I didn't want to go to sleep away camp. You have got to sleep in bunks. And that weirds me out. Because bunks are 100% made of wood, right? And you know what I am really afraid of is fire. And wood is the easiest thing to set on fire. I don't want to be set on fire when I'm sleeping. I mean, who does, right?

Jane Feltes

What? What is he even talking about?

Camper 1

We live in wood bunks, you know.

Sean O'connor

I know. Has anybody tried to set you guys on fire before?

Jane Feltes

The counselors' faces say it all. They're horrified. They're even giving me dirty looks. And then, there are hecklers. Four boys sitting on the floor in front of Sean who are talking to him through his entire act. I mean they will not shut up.

Sean O'connor

I think-- you guys know Applebee's? You love Applebee's? It's your grandparents' favorite restaurant?

Camper

Yeah, it's my grandparents' favorite restaurant.

Sean O'connor

Great. I love you. You just keep talking. It's awesome. Because that's what I wanted. I wanted to come up here and just talk to-- what's your name?

Camper 1

Daniel.

Sean O'connor

Daniel? Awesome. You guys are so good. Come up here.

Jane Feltes

Four little boys jump up, totally excited and grinning. It's clear to everyone in the room that in the battle between adults and children, the children had suddenly got the upper hand. It's Lord of the Flies up in here. Sean's losing control.

Sean O'connor

OK. Since you guys just love attention and stuff, you guys can all each tell a joke. And if they don't laugh, you have to go sit down and not talk.

Camper 1

All right. OK, I'll go first.

Camper 2

You go first!

Camper 1

So there are two Irish guys in a pub.

Sean O'connor

OK! [LAUGHTER] We're good! No, you win!

Jane Feltes

Ethnic joke? Check. Drinking joke? Check. He was right to cut him off. And this speaks to the whole problem here. Sean and Nick are telling kids jokes to kids who already know adult jokes and find them funny. After all, Dane Cook is their favorite comedian. And he's crazy dirty.

At one point, the guys just give up. The kids are talking, not laughing, not paying attention. But Sean and Nick can't end the show yet, because it's a camp. And every hour is planned. The kids have to stay in this building, sitting down, fidgeting until bedtime. So Sean and Nick stop being comedians. They just do anything they can think of to keep the crowd occupied.

Nick Maritato

I mean it's like, how bad do you guys just want to scream at the top of your lungs?

Sean O'connor

I want to scream! AHHHHHH!

Campers

[SCREAMING]

Sean O'connor

Good! Good! Good!

Jane Feltes

Finally it's over. And the kids rush back to their bunks. No signing of autographs, no high fives. I talked to a few of them about what we just saw.

Camper 3

They're definitely not comedians.

Jane Feltes

Do you have any advice for next time?

Camper 4

They could make the jokes a little more mature and things.

Camper 5

Be funnier.

Camper 6

Yeah, exactly. Get better at it. Practice at it.

Camper 7

Read some joke books.

Camper 5

Exactly.

Jane Feltes

I find a group of staff people standing outside the lodge. There are six grown people standing here in a circle. Six of them, hands in their pockets, kicking the dirt.

Jane Feltes

Do you think the kids liked it? Did you guys like it? Anyone?

Camp Staff

I thought it was a little inappropriate. Talk about death and burning bunks. Adults maybe can handle it. But these are kids. So I thought it was a little inappropriate.

Jane Feltes

On the way home, the guys talked about how it wasn't that bad, and about stuff that had nothing to do with the performance at all. I kept my thoughts to myself. A week later, we finally sat down together. You know, I think part of being a performer is living in denial about failing. You don't want to decide you're the comedian who bombs, because then how hard would it be to go on stage next time?

Jane Feltes

How do you think it went?

Nick Maritato

The shows, they went well. A lot better than I thought they were going to go. They didn't-- I don't think that it was amazing.

Jane Feltes

And you Sean?

Sean O'connor

I thought the shows were awesome. What did they think?

Jane Feltes

All right. Well, they all hated it.

Sean O'connor

Now, when you say they, do you mean all?

Jane Feltes

They all hated it.

Nick Maritato

What did they say?

Jane Feltes

were scary.

Nick Maritato

Yeah, you know what? That's pretty right on.

Jane Feltes

The counselors thought that it was totally inappropriate. They said you were unprepared. A couple of girls told me that their counselor felt so bad that they had to sit through it, that they got to stay up really late out in the field playing games, so that they could have had something fun to do that night.

Nick Maritato

I agree. I felt it. I went out there. I looked at them. They were just confused. They didn't like it.

Jane Feltes

Of course, this is just the opposite of what he said when I first asked him just a minute before, which he cops to right away.

Nick Maritato

Why would I really think that was good? I was literally going through the motions. But if outright you have clips of people saying that it's terrible and things like-- OK, I'm not going to hide it. I'm not a moron. That was bad. I didn't have a fun time. I was so happy when it was over.

Sean O'connor

Honestly, when I got home on Monday, it felt so weird, because it felt like a part of me was missing. I'm not even kidding when I say this. So don't roll your eyes. I got so stressed out, I just felt like it was like my whole world came crashing down.

I went home to my parents' house, because I had my dad's car from that trip. And when I dropped it off, I just went upstairs to my room and laid in my bed. And I woke up at 1:00 AM. And I felt so disoriented. What happened was my heart started racing.

Jane Feltes

Sean said he started to breathe faster. And he was sweating. And then suddenly, he felt a pain when he tried to swallow. And it just wouldn't go away. After a few minutes, he had convinced himself that he had throat cancer and was about to die.

Sean O'connor

And I Googled throat cancer. And of course, when you Google something you have all the symptoms, because you could have all those symptoms and have anything. But they're the same symptoms as a cold. So I Googled that. And I was like, oh, I do have throat cancer. So I actually woke my parents up. I was like, take me to the hospital.

Jane Feltes

That was the first of four trips to the ER. He had blood work done, and CAT scans, and a barium swallow, and various other tests. All of which came back negative. No cancer. No nothing. Turned out he was having panic attacks and was told to start seeing someone about his anxiety.

Sean O'connor

Well my whole thing was I didn't want to bomb. Not having people like me. That's pretty much-- that was where all the stress was coming. When I do comedy, when everyone does comedy, if you don't find the jokes funny, it's really hard to say them with conviction. There's no way to sell jokes that you don't find funny.

Jane Feltes

You guys forgot that you were funny.

Sean O'connor

Yeah, that's really what it was. Everyone was just going like, just be funny, be funny. And then you're like, I have got to be funny. But if you just are funny, it's better than trying. Trying to be funny is the worst. You could smell that from a mile away, the desperation of needing laughter.

Jane Feltes

In a way, they were doomed from the start. Like I said, Sean is 22, Nick is 20. And this is the worst possible age to connect with an 11 year old. When you're 22, you don't want to remember what it was like to be 11. You're frantically running away from that. No wonder they couldn't be funny for kids.

The guys did five other camp shows. And they swear-- for real, for real this time-- that they got better. For one thing, they weren't as nervous. Believe it or not, they're going out again next summer.

Ira Glass

Jane Feltes.

[MUSIC - "KIDS DON'T FOLLOW" BY THE REPLACEMENTS]

Coming up, kids talk about sex. Dan Savage doesn't. Incredible. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Age Of Consent.

Ira Glass

Chelsea is 18. And because she sees some problems with the way that many adults talk to kids about sex, she became one of the editors of a magazine where teenagers write about sex for a teenage audience. It's called Sex, Etc. And of course they have a website, though be careful how you type in the address.

Karen

Sexetc.com actually is porn. But sexetc.org, that's our site.

Ira Glass

That's Karen, another teen editor. I talked to seven of them. There is also [? Sharonia ?], Natasha, Michael, Erica, and Ethan. All but two of them are seniors in high school, 17 years old. In the magazine they write very chatty and very frank articles about say, boys saying no to sex, about the availability of abortion for teenagers, about misperceptions about HIV, and condoms, and how you get pregnant.

I visited them because they seemed like the perfect people to discuss how adults talk about sex with kids. For one thing, they had done a survey of their readers on this very subject.

Karen

Actually the first time sex ever came up between me and my parents--

Ira Glass

A warning to listeners, we don't get very explicit in this discussion, but we do acknowledge that people, and teenagers, have sex.

Karen

--what happened was, it was when Friends, that TV sitcom, was like really big. So my parents used to watch it all the time. And they used to have a lot of sex jokes on that show. So one day, during a commercial break, I turned to my dad-- which I picked the wrong parent, by the way. I should have really just asked my mother. I asked my dad, what is sex? And he had no idea what to tell me for a second.

So he turned off the TV, he looked at me, and he said, "It's when grown adults want to, like, hold each other and hug each other." I mean, that was such a terrible explanation. I was so unsatisfied with what he told me.

Ira Glass

In their survey, lots of kids complained about vagueness and lack of useful information. One kid wrote, "My first conversation with my mom about sex was really weird. It was almost like she was preaching to me how if I have sex, I will have a baby, and then die. It was the night before my sixth grade dance." Another wrote, "My dad started the conversation. He took me out in the backyard when the orange tree was pollinating, and explained how it worked." One student wrote that her mom ambushed her in the car. "The first time you have sex is not going to be fun," was her first warning. "It's awkward, it's embarrassing-- and trust me on this-- it's going to hurt." Well thanks, Mom.

And the survey done by Sex, Etc. showed that sex ed classes in schools are all over the place right now. Here's Natasha, who wrote the survey questions.

Natasha

Some people didn't even have sex ed. They were like, I don't have sex ed. Some people were like, I wish I had sex ed, but I don't. Some people talked about how their teacher just talked about abstinence only. They didn't really answer any of their questions. Some people said they had really good teachers. But most of the people that really replied said that they really weren't satisfied with their sex ed.

Karen

I was actually the one. I raised my hand in class and I said, but how does the sperm get to the vagina? And I guess it wasn't in the material. They're not supposed to talk about it. So they were just like-- they just didn't talk to us about it.

Chelsea

It's confusing. You don't know what that means. When I was younger, I thought sex was just sort of like people rubbing up against each other. Because you can see on TV shows or movies, you see that, but you don't actually see. So you're like, OK, they rub against each other, but then how does that little fish get inside her body? And I would think of it as like a little fish, because you see it on the movie. And so how does it get inside her body? It's so confusing and vague.

Man

Most of the stuff, honestly, most of the things I learned about sex are probably from watching pornography, because there's a lot there. You might as well be taking notes, because it's very up close and personal. And they're not trying to censor themselves. So they can show anything they want. And you learn. Because they're wearing condoms most of the time.

Natasha

Porn kind of shows you exactly what happens. Like you'll see it on TV, and they're just kind of rubbing together under the covers. But porn is like there. Like it zooms in, and all kinds of stuff. So it really shows you what actually happens.

Ira Glass

The most confusing thing about talking to these kids is to find out that there are so many ways for parents to mess this up. Kids complain when parents don't approach them to talk about sex. They also complain that parents bring it up out of the blue, when they're unprepared, and trap them. They complain that parents are usually vague, though of course when they want details, they emphatically do not want to hear first person accounts of their parents' sex lives. One kid in the survey wrote, "I was in fifth grade at the time when my parents started the sex talk with, 'The first time your father and I had intercourse--' I didn't need the details."

Natasha

I don't want to know nothing. I don't want to know about the backseat. I don't want to know about when they had drive-in movie theaters. I don't want to know about nothing. I just don't want to know. Like my father-- no, my father-- says stuff to me like that. "Yeah, me and your mother went to the hotel, and we--" I don't want to know.

Ira Glass

But there's a surprising lack of consensus among these seven teenagers, seven kids who write about this, and have thought about this a lot, about how parents should go about talking sex with their own kids. Two of the editors said that their parents are so uncomfortable with the subject, they preferred not to talk to them about it. The two editors who had the easiest time talking about sex with their own parents have the kind of incredibly close relationships with their parents where they can talk about anything. So it's hard to draw any kind of lesson from their experience, other than the not very helpful, have a great relationship with your kid.

For parents who are not spectacularly close with their own teenagers-- which is to say, most parents-- there was agreement about two things. One, parents need to understand that teenagers do not have the facts. They're not getting the facts in school, probably. And they need some basic information from books, or websites, or teachers, or wherever. And number two, no matter how hard it is, parents should at least try to talk to them. Again here's Natasha.

Natasha

I know you're getting older. Sex may become an issue, or sex is a part of growing up. It's natural. If you have questions--

Ira Glass

Even as you're saying this, it's so awkward. I feel so awkward hearing you say this. This sounds terrible.

Natasha

[LAUGHTER] Basically--

Ira Glass

You're terrible at this.

Natasha

I did a good job on my brother. I did a really good job on him. But I actually locked my little brother in my room with me, because I wasn't sure if my mom was going to do it or not. So I was like, somebody has to do it.

Ira Glass

How old was he?

Natasha

He was 13. I just showed him diagrams. I showed him the picture. So I gave him condoms and everything. I was like, here, take these. If you're going to do it, use these. I said, this is what happens when you do this. This is what happens when you do that. If you want to do this, you should do this. But if I had my own child, and I watched them grow up from a baby into this adult, then yeah, it would definitely be difficult, just because of the age difference, because of--

Ira Glass

No, I understand that. I understand. It's just interesting that you have in your head, oh someday I'm going to be older. And then I'm not going to be able to talk to my kid either.

Natasha

Yeah, it's just kind of the norm. You kind of assume that when you get older, you're not going to be able to talk to your kids about sex. I'm comfortable with my brother. I can talk to him about it. But if it's my child, it would just be awkward.

Ira Glass

Were there certain things that you said to your brother, and the way you said them, that it's impossible to imagine your mother or father saying to you?

Natasha

Definitely. Like I told my brother, wrap it before you tap it. That kind of thing. I wouln't expect for my mother to say that to me. It's really hard for your parents to be that blunt with you, because it's a really, really awkward situation. It's just really awkward. That's really what it is. Awkward. I think it's really hard for parents. But they've just got to suck it up. They've done a lot of hard things in their life. Talking about sex shouldn't be one of the hardest things they've ever done, so.

Ira Glass

It can be very hard for parents, especially when their kids don't just come to them to talk about sex, but let them know that they're doing things that the parents don't necessarily approve of. This woman sent in an essay to us that she had written about what is happening in her family, between her and one of her daughters. It's so frank about what's happening, as you'll hear, that we have changed everybody's names and, in fact, had somebody else read it on the air. Here it is.

Julie Snyder

I sit alone at my kitchen table, nibbling on a stale oatmeal cookie. It's midnight, and I'm hoping that the dose of tryptophan I had washed down with a glass of cold milk will kick in soon, so I can sleep. I'm a bundle of nerves because my 16 year old daughter just told me she lost her virginity the night before.

When Didi delivered the news tonight, I had nothing to say, which surprised me, because I'd always thought this is what I wanted with my three daughters, an open relationship. I hadn't thought through what that means. Which is that they talk, and then I talk. In this case, Didi talked. And I could only come up with a bland admonition. Don't sleep around, I said dryly.

I am not the mother I had hoped to be. My three girls are not the daughters I thought they'd be. I didn't think any of the girls would be valedictorians. But I expected my oldest daughter to graduate with something higher than a 1.8 GPA. My middle daughter didn't even do that well. She dropped out of high school. I never dreamed I would raise a smoker. And yet, my baby, Didi, carries a pack of Camels in her purse.

I squint at a magazine in the dim kitchen light, but can't concentrate. I take a couple of valerian capsules-- tryptophan is not enough tonight-- and go back to bed. Tomorrow, I'll make a doctor's appointment for Didi to get birth control.

When I call the clinic to make an appointment for Didi, the receptionist's tone turns icy when I explain what I want. She says, neither the doctor nor the nurse practitioner has any openings until May. It's March. I can feel her disapproval through the phone. She seems to be implying that I am encouraging my daughter to have sex by arranging birth control for her, that I should encourage-- no, demand-- abstinence from Didi.

I picture a good mother saying to her daughter, you're too young to have sex. Don't do it again until you're mature enough for a committed relationship, or better yet, until you're married. And the good daughter nods dutifully in agreement, and says, OK, Mom. It was fun, but you're right. We won't have sex anymore.

Didi and I occupy an alternate universe. In the afternoon, she returns home from school with a single red rose. It's from Jack, she says. You know, because. Yeah, I know, I say. Then she pulls from her purse something else that Jack brought her. A morning after pill. I thought you said he pulled out, I scream. Not that I think this is a reliable method, but it had provided me with a shred of hope that Didi's first time wouldn't result in a pregnancy. No, I, I just said that so you wouldn't worry, she said.

Don't lie, I say. I can't stand it when you lie. Nothing ever good comes from a lie. He was really concerned. That's why he did that, she continues as she returns the pill to her purse. I'm concerned too, I say. I would have helped you. I realize May is too long to wait. I phone the doctor's office again. I plead, can't they speed this up somehow? A much more accommodating receptionist says they can. Less than a week after losing her virginity, Didi is on the pill.

Two weeks later, we're in Chicago. It's spring break, and Didi has persuaded me to take the train down for some shopping. Jack and a group of their friends are here. And Didi plans to meet up with them to go to a concert out in the suburbs later tonight. Is it OK, she asks, if it's really late tonight after the concert-- I mean, it shouldn't be. And Jack could stay with his friends in the suburbs. But then I might have to come back by myself, because I don't know if Lisa and Rachel are going. And they're staying at another hotel anyway. And I was wondering because of that, because I don't really want to come back by myself, and Jack doesn't really know his way back, if he just drops me off, I was wondering if it might be OK if he stays in our room?

We're having lunch in an Indian restaurant. And between Didi's tortured syntax and my rice pudding, it takes me a few seconds to fully understand what my teenage daughter is asking me. Um, I don't know, I say. I prefer you come back. And I don't want you to travel by yourself at night. But, um, I don't know.

Sometime after midnight, I hear the hotel key card in the door. Groggy from a sleeping pill, I'm aware of whispers and movement in the double bed next to mine in the moments before I drift off. When I awake the next morning, they are tangled in the blankets, their heads nearly touching. Didi's mouth is parted a bit, as it often is in sleep, and Jack's stockinged feet protrude over the edge of the mattress.

Two weeks earlier, I was on the verge of a panic attack because Didi and her boyfriend had had sex for the first time. And now we're all sleeping in the same room together? What am I doing? I'm the first to admit I don't have a clue. What I do know is that I can't recall ever looking as happy as my daughter looks right now. I feel a disquieting sense of envy for Didi.

My husband and I don't even share our queen size bed, and I prefer it that way. At 53, Rob is retired, and spends his days consuming vast quantities of beer and napping. He doesn't bother to shower, shave, get his hair cut. We go months without riding in the same vehicle. We do not exchange gifts, or cards even. Maybe it's best we don't do cards. It's hard to find one that says, even though I don't love you anymore, happy birthday anyway.

A few weeks later, after we return from Chicago, I'm reading in bed on a summer night when I hear strange noises from Didi's room below. When I open her bedroom door, she's cutting the screen out of her side window. "What are you doing?" I ask. "My mom, I have got to go." She slams her cellphone shut. "Uh, um, well, Jack called. And he's with his friends. And um, they wanted to drive around and get drunk. But he doesn't want to. And his parents are mad at him. But they think he's spending the night with those guys. So he can't really go home. So I told him he could come here. But I didn't want to wake anybody up. So I figured he could come in the window?"

"You ruined the screen." I wave my arms in exasperation. "Why didn't you just say something to me?" "But, um, can he come over? He could be here any minute." I sigh. He'd spent the night at the hotel. I know they're having sex somewhere. And Didi is on the pill, so I know she won't get pregnant. What's the harm? Making my daughter happy seems closer to right than protecting her virginity or reputation.

I know that I was raised to be chaste, to put off sex until marriage. And how did that turn out for me? I had sex atop dorm room bunks and secondhand sofas. Worried whether I'd be invited to stay the night, felt ashamed the next morning. I fawned over the bad boys. Now I'm tired and unhappy. Maybe there is another way.

OK, I say, listening for sounds of Rob fumbling around upstairs. But let him in the front door. Jack becomes a late night regular at our house. Even though they barely speak, the tension between Didi and her dad comes to a boil in the week since Jack first began spending the night. She says to me one day, "I can't stand it. Can't you leave him now?"

Didi wants me to leave Rob, and buy a house near downtown so the three of us-- herself, Mandy, and I-- can get on with our lives. I can't tell her that I don't have the money, that I don't have the energy, that I am afraid of what will become of me, and her, and her sisters. A good mother wouldn't continue to live with a bad father. A good mother would never have married someone like Rob in the first place.

"I can't stand it here," Didi says, the tears still flowing. "I think I need to go back on anti-depressants." All of us, except Rob, the one who needs the most, has been on, or is on, anti-depressants. "Take a few of mine." I want to shout, "Snap out of it." "Oh Mom, I just have to get out of this house. Would you please, please let me stay at a hotel tonight with Jack? Please? I just need to get away."

"A hotel costs a lot of money," I point out. "I mean, I'd like to go away too, but, I can't do that every time I want." "Just for tonight?" she asks. "Please. I just have to get out of here, away from him." She looks in the direction of the living room, where Rob lays on the couch, mouth agape. Of course, I want to help her. Indulge her. I understand her pain. But at the cost of $100 or more?

"You've spent more than that on hotels for Mandy," she says. "It's like, well, like therapy." It's true. I've spent a lot sending Mandy to anime conventions around the country, but they were for a purpose. Not just because she didn't want to sleep at home. And I know responsible mothers would not pay for a night at a hotel for their minor child, with a boyfriend no less. It's unseemly.

But somehow none of those reasons seem to matter. And I agree it could be therapeutic for Didi. I'm a believer in retreats and getaways to revitalize the spirit. And I know that Didi will be unrelenting until I finally say yes. I give in. "See if you can find a deal on hotwire.com," I say. She throws her arms around me. The tears have left damp tracks on her cheeks. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." And she rushes off to wheel and deal her way into a room at the Holiday Inn.

Because she is 16, I have to check her in. When we leave the house, I call to Rob, who's still on the sofa, "Didi is staying with a friend tonight. I'm going to drop her off now." He doesn't have to know the details about this. Didi snags a room overlooking the indoor pool and courtyard. I stand on its balcony and watch the people dining in the tropical-themed restaurant. Families playing in the pool, adults soaking in the hot tub, everyone looks happy. I turn back to the room. Jack is at work and he'll be along later. Didi has invited one of her girlfriends over to go swimming. While we wait on her, both of us sprawl across the king sized bed.

"Comfortable?" I ask and close my eyes. "Yeah, I'll say," she says. "Thanks for letting me do this, Mom." I understand why she wanted to come here. The windowless room is soothing and anonymous. The sliding glass doors face the courtyard, and artificial light spills into the room. From the pool below, there is the faint aroma of chlorine. I don't want to leave. I want to crawl under the covers for a long nap.

Ira Glass

Julie Snyder. Reading an essay sent in to us by a woman who lives in the Midwest.

[MUSIC - "TRUST YOUR CHILD" BY PATRIZIA & JIMMY]

Act Three. Use Your Words.

Ira Glass

ACT 3, Use Your Words. Well we close today's show with this story from Dan Savage about how to talk to kids, and how his views on the subject have changed pretty radically, how he believes stuff now that he would have found repellent years ago. Here's Dan.

Dan Savage

In the fall of 1989, I was living in West Berlin and needed a job. The only one I could find was working as a substitute German teacher at a grade school on the US Army base. One day, this kid-- this little black haired, black eyed, black hearted boy-- started winding up my worst class, Berlin's fightin' fourth graders, taunting weaker kids, firing paper clips around the room with a rubber band, all the while shooting me looks that said, what are you going to do about it, you pathetic excuse for a German teacher?

I glared. I issued idle threats. I raised my voice. Nothing worked. I was on the verge of losing complete control of the classroom. So I got up, walked over to this kid's desk, and snatched the rubber band out of his hand. Then I leaned in close so only he could hear me and said, "Knock it the [BEEP] off, you little [BEEP]."

I said it with the most threateningly murderous tone I could affect. I wanted this kid to think me capable of anything. Anything. It worked, or seemed to. The kid was quiet for the rest of class. And I hoped that we had come to an understanding. Then I got summoned to the principal's office ten minutes into my next class. When I walked in, the black haired kid was standing by his desk. The principal asked me if I had used the f-word in front of this precious child, that I had told this child that he was a piece of s-word.

Mr. Savage, the principal said, interrupting me before I could answer, "I'm afraid this would be a firing offense, if it were true." I took in the look on the principal's face as I paused to consider my response. It wasn't an angry look. It was a do we understand each other look. I understood. He didn't want to fire me any more than I wanted to be fired. If the position of substitute German teacher was easier to fill, he wouldn't have hired me in the first place. I barely spoke the language.

"No," I said. "It's not true." "He said it," the kid choked out. "He did!" The principal leaned back in his chair. "Or perhaps," the principal said, "it was all a misunderstanding." The principal had us shake hands and then dismissed us together. I wasn't fired. And, revealingly, the kid wasn't in any trouble. The boy shot me a look when we got into the hall. I knew I lied. He knew I lied. I knew he knew. And we both knew the principal knew.

I felt terrible, honestly. For years later-- long after I forgot what little German I knew-- my mind would occasionally flash to the look on that boy's face. That kid was bad. But I proved to him that adults are worse. We swear, we lie, we abuse our authority. And for years, I had the decency to feel bad about the indecent thing I had done that day.

But now I don't feel bad about it. Yes, the lying was wrong, I guess. But telling him to knock it the [BEEP] off? He had it coming. And why do I feel this way? Because I have my own nine year old now. And I have gone Alec Baldwin on his ass many times.

Alec Baldwin

I want to tell you something, OK? And I want to leave a message for you right now. You have insulted me for the last time.

Dan Savage

In fact, when the phone message the actor left for his daughter was made public, I thought, what's the big deal? Apparently his daughter missed some scheduled phone calls with him.

Alec Baldwin

You have insulted me. You don't have the brains, or the decency as a human being. I don't give a damn that you're 12 years old, or 11 years old, or that you're a child, or that your mother is a thoughtless pain in the ass who doesn't care about what you do, as far as I'm concerned. You have humiliated me for the last time with this phone. And when I come out there next week, I'm going to fly out there for the day just to straighten you out on this issue. I'm going to let you know just how disappointed in you I am.

Dan Savage

Everyone seemed to think that Baldwin losing his temper like that-- and he did lose his temper-- was grounds for denying him visitation rights. Baldwin hit the public contrition circuit. People were talking about whether or not his career would survive. But I wasn't the only one out there that couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. A lot of people listened to the Baldwin tape and came to the same conclusion I had. No. Big. Deal. Who were these people? Parents. Parents like me.

We didn't speak up then because we were afraid. We were cowards, thoughtless cowards, without the brains or the decency of human beings. Only after the Baldwin scandal blew over, did we parents slowly and carefully begin to check in with each other and confide in each other. That wasn't so bad, right? I've said worse things, haven't you? I'm sorry we weren't there for you, Alec.

Alec Baldwin

So you better be ready Friday, the 20th, to meet with me. So I'm going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are. You are a rude, thoughtless little pig.

Dan Savage

Have you talked to your kids like that?

John

Oh yes, I have. Yeah. I yell all the time at my kids.

Dan Savage

John is a stay at home dad with three boys and a girl. My son, DJ, plays with John's kids. I caught John on the phone while his younger children were napping.

Dan Savage

What was your reaction when you heard the Alec Baldwin tape?

John

Just what he actually said, out of context, seems incredibly benign. It seems like a typical tirade by a typical parent.

Dan Savage

I talked to other parents, but they all said the same thing. They've said worse. They've lost it. Someone told me recently about one father-- a loving father, a good father-- who told his son, "I could kill you, and make another one, just like you."

Alissa is the mother of two kids. A son, and a daughter the same age as Alec Baldwin's daughter. And please note my technique here. I draw the interview subject out by refusing to let her get a word in edgewise.

Dan Savage

Because when I heard that, I thought of all the times I've-- you know, we live in a two-story house. I thought of all the times I have barked up the stairs, "Don't make me come up there." Which sounds like, if I come up there, I'm going to throw you through a wall. And I want it to sound like that, a little bit. Like I, as a father, try to affect that tone, because it's kind of all I got. You can't hit him.

Alissa

Well, absolutely.

Dan Savage

You really can't hit him.

Alissa

No. No, you can't hit them. It's not fair. It's not a fair fight.

Dan Savage

And so sometimes I feel trapped, like the only way I can communicate my intense displeasure, and also, to my kid, how far he's pushed it, and that he might not want to push it that far with me, or other adults, or strangers on the street, is by sounding like I'm going to kill him. Physically, like I'm going to take his little neck in my hands and choke the life out of him. And so I feel like, oh my God, if somebody was walking down the street, and they heard the tone of my voice, and what I just said, they'd call the police.

Alissa

Of course. Absolutely. Well you know, I have had my children, when they were smaller, behave so badly at the playground. I was so angry at them. They were walking ahead of me, going home down the sidewalk. And I was walking behind them, giving them the finger behind their heads. And I'm sure people looked at me and thought, oh my God, take that woman's children away.

And I do feel like really yelling can be really cathartic. And you know what? It scares the crap out of them. When I yell at my kids-- which I don't do that much-- their eyes get enormous. They can tell how furious you are. My children have said to me, you have no idea how terrifying you are when you're angry. You're so much scarier than Daddy. And I thought well, you know what? Good, good. I've cultivated that.

Dan Savage

But I feel-- you know, listening to the tape, listening to Alec Baldwin, thinking about the times I've blown up in a similar way at my kid, I feel like, please don't take this away from me. Because he has to understand that there are limits, that you can push someone too far. And he has to learn that. And if I can teach him that just through volume, maybe he won't get beat up by a cop one day.

Alissa

I believe that. I feel that way all the time, especially with my son.

Dan Savage

My impression of kids-- having been a parent, lo, these ten years now-- is that kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them. Metaphorically, beat it out of them. All children start out as sociopaths. They all have to be civilized, as you said. And the only tool we have to do that with is language.

Alissa

Yeah. Or taking things away from them. Without that, without really giving them real limits, you can't expect them to behave. How are they supposed to know what to do? They're like little aliens dropped here, naked, no money, nothing.

Dan Savage

If anything, with the removal of violence from the parenting arsenal, we've had to ramp up the screaming, and yelling, and profanity. It soaks up the energy and anger that might otherwise have gone into a clean, quick, smack. My son, DJ, turned nine last March. He just started the fourth grade. He can be a handful. And every once in a while his teacher has to reign him in.

I don't expect that DJ's fourth grade teacher would ever swear at him the way I swore at that kid in Berlin. I was an inexperienced, untrained substitute. She's a pro. But knowing what I know now about kids, if DJ's teacher ever reaches the breaking point, if she ever leans in close and whispers, "Knock it the [BEEP] off," just loud enough for DJ to hear, I'd back her up. Because however bad he can be, DJ needs to understand that she, that all adults, can be much, much worse.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage is the author of several books and host of the fantastically enjoyable Savage Love podcasts, which you can find on the internet with a Google search, Savage Love podcast. Or go to the iTunes store.

Credits.

Chelsea

OK, they rub up against each other, but then how does that little fish get inside her body? And I would think of it as a little fish, because you see it on the movie. And so how does it get inside her body? You know, it's just so confusing and vague.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.