When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
Har har har, I know what you’re thinking: “People with kids still have sex???” Yes, believe it or not, many parents still have sex with each other, even if the responsibilities of childcare do take a major toll on just how often they get it on. For my wife and I, as we’re the parents of a toddler, we’re past the phase of 24/7 exhaustion which got in the way of sex when our daughter was really young, but now a new problem has arisen that’s cramping our style: Our kid is like a ninja.
Sometimes she appears at the edge of the couch when we’re watching TV late at night; sometimes it’s first thing in the morning, and I’ll roll over to see her silent, smiling face; other times I’ll just turn a corner and she’ll appear out of nowhere. Anyway, with my daughter’s newfound stealth skills, my wife and I are worried that she’ll walk in on us while we’re having sex, and if that does happen, I’d like to be prepared.
Basically: What do we do when our kid catches us having sex?
The Expert Advice
Krystal Watanabe, who caught her parents having sex: When I was a little kid, I was awake at a time that was pretty late for a four-year-old, and I’d heard some noise in my parents’ bedroom. I saw that the door to their room was a little bit open, so I peeked in and saw what I thought was wrestling, but it wasn’t. They were not happy with me. They didn’t scold me or anything, but they definitely yelled at me to “get out of here!”
Following that, I remember my mom trying to explain, “That’s what mommies and daddies do,” and she told me that I can’t just walk into their room (also, that I’d have to wait until I’m older until I could do that). I didn’t fully get it, but I knew just from the tone in her voice that I’d done something wrong. It took me a while to realize what had gone on, like maybe around age 10 or so, and I finally understood why they were so upset.
The image of it is still burned into my memory, unfortunately. They say that memories that are a little haunting are the ones that stick out the most — maybe that’s why I remember it all so clearly.
Oh, and another time I found my mother’s dildo. I was maybe 11 or 12 and I was looking for Christmas presents. I checked in my mom’s drawer and found this very odd looking big orange thing with like, spikes in it where the testicles would be. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but I figured it out pretty quickly. By that time, I’d had sex education so I was able to put the pieces together. Once I did, I put it back and ran to go wash my hands. I held that one in for years, knowing that was something we shouldn’t talk about…
Jodi Erin Rabinowitz, licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist: The suggestions I offer to parents who experience their child “catching” them having sex are largely dependent on the child’s age. In general, sex is a natural part of relationships and isn’t something that needs to be apologized for, or for there to be any shame around. The way that you handle this situation may become a blueprint for how your child feels about sex and how comfortable they might be in the future to ask you important questions.
First off, have locks on your doors and use them! Locking your doors creates privacy and removes any fear of having a child walk in. If your child does end up seeing you engaging intimately, try not to freak out. Especially at a young age, having a negative reaction to your child seeing you having sex could have them associate sex with feelings of shame or embarrassment.
Younger children mostly want to know that they’re safe and that their parents are safe. If they seem upset or scared, you can say something like, “That’s a way that grownups show love to each other. I’m sorry if it was scary or surprising to see that.” If they have questions, answer them in simple and age-appropriate ways. At this age, just answer the questions that they ask. Remember that our adult associations with sex are very different than a child’s and seeing the act might inspire some curiosity.
Older children might have more specific or detailed questions, and that can be a good opportunity to begin age-appropriate conversations about sex. Remember: Stay calm, assure your child of their and your safety, and answer the questions asked with age appropriate answers.
Susanrachel “Birdie” Condon, licensed midwife and health and sex educator from Midlife Midwife: A lot of how you approach this has to do with how old the kid is and how comfortable you are talking about sex.
With little kids, like toddlers through preschool age, they pick up more on the music than the words. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it. So if you’re acting like something bad was happening because you’ve gone into fight-or-flight mode, they’re going to pick up on that. They’re going to watch the way you’re acting; they don’t really care about what you say. So don’t look all freaked out and terrified. Instead, I’d say something like, “We’re having a special cuddle, and what do you need?” If you act like it’s the most normal thing in the world, nothing will phase them, but if you act like the kid has caught you doing something wrong, you might worry them, or worse, you begin to associate sex with shame for them.
For a little bit older kids who are still pre “the talk” age, they may have questions. So if they come in and they want to know what you’re doing, you give the most basic, simple explanation, like, “Sometimes when adults care about each other, they touch each other’s bodies in ways that feel good, and in ways that make them feel closer,” that’s all you have to say. With them, you start with real simple, then you let them decide how much further they want to go with it. You don’t have to go into sperm and egg or penis and vagina, it’s much more about following the lead of the child and answering only the questions that are being asked.
That said, this could end up being the springboard for the sex talk if you feel like they’re ready, and just so you know, the sex talk age is different for different kids. If you do go into that, I’d be sure to say that this is something that adults do, because you don’t want a kid to normalize that behavior for them, especially if they ever end up in a situation where someone may try to take advantage of them.
If a kid catches you after they’ve had the talk… Okay, so, this happened to me once, my kid was in seventh grade and she got off the bus early, and usually she walks up the stairs like an elephant, but that day she was like a mouse and we didn’t hear her coming in. She came in and was horrified. She ran right to her room and slammed the door and then I went in afterwards and I told her, “This is something that people do when they care about each other, and that’s kind of a good thing, right?” She replied, “Yeah, I guess I should be glad that you guys still feel that way about each other.” In those cases, it’s more about addressing the feelings of the child of having been exposed to it, more than what happened.
I’d say that the worst thing you could do, regardless of the age, is to pretend it’s not happening, which is sometimes people’s go-to thing. It may seem counterintuitive, but kids are so smart, and if you’re trying to hide something that’s obviously happening, there’s a good chance the kid is going to think more about it than if you were just honest with them.