Having Conversations with Children about Bodies
By Nikki Schulak
My first teaching gig is as a zoo educator. I follow a lesson plan I’ve been handed. I ask a group of second graders, “Does anyone know how mammals have babies?” For the record, I’m expecting an answer like, "Instead of laying eggs, mammals have live birth." I'd already discussed some of the other characteristics of mammals: the warm-bloodedness, hairiness, the presence of mammary glands.
I call on a boy in the back row who is fervently raising his hand. Out of the corner of my eye I see the classroom teacher shake her head, then put her hands over her face. “They come shootin' out of their mama's pussy!” He says clearly. I am still pretty fresh from the farm and can’t completely disagree with his explanation.
"Well," I mumble. "I wouldn't exactly say they always come shooting out.”
While we wait for our adoption referral, my husband and I spend a lot of time wondering if we are going to be matched with boy or a girl. Friends who are adopting from China know they will have a girl, but when adopting from Vietnam, the odds are about even.
At the end of our two adoptions, my husband and I do, in fact, have a boy and a girl. “A perfectly balanced family,” we say -- whatever that means. “We get to have the experience of raising both a boy and a girl,” we say. We don’t really know what that means, either.
2001 – 2013
I parent my son and my daughter.
2014 – 2016
For my first job back in the workforce, I’m a teacher in an after-school program for Chinese American kids, grades K-5. My students’ parents are mostly engineers who work in the High-Tech industry in the Portland suburbs.
In September, I assign my students to create self-portraits. Above their self-portraits, I ask them to illustrate (inside a thought bubble) their dreams. Elizabeth says her dream is to live in a house made out of candy. Laura says she wants to be able to talk to pets. Lucas and Sam both draw themselves in the middle of a soccer field. But most of the kids can’t articulate a dream to draw. Matthew writes some math equations in the place where the pictures of dreams are supposed to go. Another child says to me, “Dreams? I’m way too busy to have dreams.”
And it is true. These kids have busy schedules. They go from regular school to after-school programs like mine, or to Chinese language class, piano lessons, or Lego Physics.
Michelle does a beautiful job of mixing the brown and white acrylics to create a shade that closely approximates the color of her skin, but doesn’t want to draw a nose on her face. “Noses are ugly,” she says. Michelle has only a speck of a nose compared to my large, Jewish, Caucasian one. I’m at an age where I’ve finally come to love my nose -- the way gravity is having its way with it, the way the scar from my MOHS surgery has healed, but I remember at Michelle’s age I would squeeze my nostrils together and push the tip of my nose up while I watched the Brady Bunch so it might become narrower, and turn up on the end. “What’s the Brady Bunch?” Michelle asks. “The Brady Bunch was my after-school activity,” I explain. Michelle and I look as objectively as we can in the hand mirror, first at my nose, and then at hers. “Hmm,” she decides. “I definitely do not want to have a nose in my portrait.”
“That’s fine,” I say. “It’s your choice.”
My lesson today is about Beatrix Potter; her art and writing, her commitment to land conservation, and most importantly, how her characters are often naughty. Most of my students have completed their ESL requirements, but a few of them are still new to English. I read Peter Rabbit out loud to the class, and then, after serving fresh blackberries and pouring Chamomile tea into paper cups, I ask, “Isn’t it interesting? When characters do things that they are not supposed to do?”
This might have been what motivated Elizabeth to suddenly stand on her chair, grin broadly, and with an impish twinkle in her 5-year-old eyes, briefly lift her t-shirt up over her head and say, “I have boobies!” For a split moment, there is silence all around the table. Then Lucas, who is next to Elizabeth, says in a quiet, matter-of-fact sort of way, “I just saw Elizabeth’s boobies.”
All the kids look at me, and I say in an equally quiet, matter-of-fact sort of way, “Actually, Lucas, Elizabeth isn’t old enough to have boobies. I think what you saw -- what we all just saw – were Elizabeth’s nipples.”
The kids break out in a turbulent murmur, taking pleasure in the word.
“I have nipples,” says a boy.
“Nipples, nipples, nipples,” says another boy.
“You don’t have nipples,” a girl says.
“I do so have nipples,” the boy says. “Everybody has nipples.”
“Nipples, nipples, nipples.”
Elizabeth, appreciating all the fuss her nipple-baring has created, asks, “Wait … what are nipples?”
Before I can explain, one of the 4th graders, a girl who’s lived in Oregon since birth and has an excellent grasp of English, proclaims that nipples are the hard things on the ends of boobies, and also that girls get boobies when they are teenagers, and went on to explain that nipples are important because that’s where babies get milk.
I jump in and say something teacherly about mammals.
Then Michelle, looking thoughtful, says, “When I was younger, I used to think babies came out of belly buttons.”
“Oh, yeah?” Yeye said, “I used to think babies came out of butts!”
“Babies don’t come out of butts????” Lucas asks.
My instinct is to clarify about babies and butts, and I had the rare, full, quiet attention of the entire class, so I say, “Babies actually, usually, come out of vaginas.” Kimi, who’s a 5th grader but has been here for less than a year and often asks for clarification on vocabulary, says, “What is a vagina?” And I explain, very briefly, what a vagina is. After that, we go back to drinking tea and discussing Peter Rabbit’s troubles.
When the Chinese language teacher works with these students, he has them do worksheets and copy the same characters over and over again. They are very quiet while doing this work.
When we adopted our daughter in Vietnam, the caregiver at the orphanage told us that she was “an obedient baby.” This worried me -- until the translator explained that being “obedient” is a good thing. It was a compliment!
“How, exactly, is a six-month-old baby obedient?” I asked.
“She doesn’t complain.”
That obedient baby girl is now 15 years old. She is in the process of becoming a boy.
2017 – 2019
I have become a preschool teacher.
The kids are delighted with the soft, grey furry nubs that are bursting out all over the willow in the schoolyard, so I spontaneously teach them the song that my mother taught me (almost 50 years ago!).
I know a little pussy.
Her name is Dapple Grey.
She lives down in the meadow.
Not very far away.
She’ll always be a pussy.
She’ll never be a cat.
For she’s a pussy willow!
Now what do you think of that?
Meow, meow, meow, meow!
We laugh together and sing the pussy song every day for weeks while the furry buds last. The kids understand that there is something slightly disobedient about that song. I hope someday they will reflect on that disobedience.
My students love to hear stories about my childhood on the farm, and about my kids (who are city kids) – both now teenagers. My younger son is a soccer player and my preschoolers meet him when he comes into our classroom to paint a mural based on what the kids request – a fire engine, a rainbow unicorn, and an erupting volcano. They also meet my older son when he comes to volunteer for a day on spring break from college. They learn that he is a premed major, and a dancer. He likes to eat cinnamon brown sugar pop tarts, and also kale sautéed in garlic. He tells them he has a ball python, and that he occasionally dresses up as Zuko the Fire Bending Prince from Avatar at anime conventions, not exactly because he wants to, but because his girlfriend wants him to, and he’s a good partner that way.
He teaches my preschoolers some groovy hip-hop moves.
The next day they want to know if he is a boy or a girl, even though I had introduced him to the class as my son. “He used to be a girl,” I say. “But now he is becoming a boy.”
“Do you have pictures of him from when he was a girl?” They want to know. “Can we see them?” The transgender conversation, like the adoption conversation, is pretty much endlessly fascinating to them, and I am glad to have it. “How did he know that he wanted to be a boy? How does a girl become a boy? What happens to … the boobies?”
Years later, around the time my son is applying to medical school, I’ll ask him to read this essay and give me feedback. “You might have said that I was assigned female at birth, but that I am now in the process of living my truth as a boy. A little cheesy, I know.” He will tell me. “And, Mom? Hip-hop moves are not ever groovy.”
Now I’m a Pandemic teacher, 1st-5th grade. I check my emails all day long.
Hey there, Nikki. This is Laura – Jay’s mom. Jay has been telling me a bunch of stuff you have been talking about your son. I just wanted to let you know my feelings around that. I'm not ready for Jay to have all that kind of information on those kinds of subjects.
I hope that makes sense. Thank you.
Thank you for reaching out. I assume you are referring to the discussions I’ve had with the kids about my son who is trans male (assigned female at birth but identifies as male). Are there specific things that you are concerned about? Our conversations have always been prompted by questions that the kids ask. Sometimes the questions are not simple, and sometimes the answers are not simple, but I do aim to answer, to the best of my ability, with honesty and accuracy, questions that kids ask me about all kinds of subjects. I am always available to talk to you about your concerns.
All my best, Nikki
She does not reach out again, yet there is more that I want to say to her. You’re not ready for Jay to have this information – but it’s out there, in the world. I know we want to shelter our kids from things that make us uncomfortable. I get that, but if we don’t provide accurate information to our kids, they are going to get misinformation other places. Jay is curious. He’s smart. He’s paying attention. He is part of the future. He does not need your fears or your baggage to hold him back.
We are lucky to have animals at our school, and whenever we spend time with the animals, great questions about bodies naturally come up. Like, today, when two of the chickens’ eggs crack on the pavement outside the coop (where we had just collected them) one child says, “I don’t get it. Why do some eggs have chicks inside and some don't?”
After a little questioning, it becomes clear that the child was expecting the broken eggs to contain chicks because they had been laid by real, live chickens, and hadn’t come from a store. I talk about fertilization, and the fact that we don't have a rooster, and mentioned sperm --at which point another child says “Sperm is in a man's balls!” And I say, “And sometimes we call balls ‘testicles’”
It is a great learning moment.
When I show my students a picture of my sons, they want to know, “Which of them used to be a girl? Did he look like a girl when he was little? How did he learn how to look like a boy?”
Then Jay asks, “Is there a pill that girls take to become boys?” I explain that it is not a pill, but an injection, a shot, and that it is called Testosterone. I explain that Testosterone is what made my son’s voice deepen, and helped his body start to look like a male body when he was ready for that to happen.
I do know a lot more about nipples now than I used to -- how they are taken off during top surgery, and then put back on in a more masculine arrangement, that sometimes as a result of surgery, nipples lose sensation, and also, that my son is very proud of his scars. I don’t share this information with the kids.
Then another question comes up – is my son “really” still a girl?
“What do you mean?” I ask for clarification.
“He looks like a boy, but does he have boy parts or girl parts?”
“That’s an interesting question,” I say. “Well, he no longer has breasts because he had them removed, but he does still have a vagina. Is that what you mean?”
“That’s a girl part,” a child says.
“Yes,” I said. “He has a girl part, but he thinks of himself – and identifies -- as a boy. He gets to choose that.”
There is nodding all around.
Nikki Schulak is a 1st grade teacher in Portland, OR. Her students sometimes call her "the real Ms Frizzle" because her bearded dragon, Stripey, is her constant companion. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction Magazine and on-line at Full Grown People. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She has an M.S. in Museum Education from the Bank Street College of Education. She often writes about bodies.